North Korean Refugees Now – Part 4: Outsized Influence

Examining the news for ongoing political actions that affect North Korean refugees in China, Crossing Borders has seen a number life-altering events unfold over time. We have come to realize that history doesn’t always occur under lights and in front of cameras. It often happens in meeting rooms with hours and hours of negotiation. One example of this kind of event unfolded last week when the United States and China met for a summit to discuss a variety of issues between the two countries. There are, to our understanding, a number of issues the two countries need to discuss: hacking, Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, economic disputes and Chinese banking expansion into the US.

There is another, quiet point of discussion that the two countries have debated again and again and have not come to a conclusion: North Korea. Within the long grasp of these two countries lies the fate of this small, poor country and its people.

It’s remarkable that a government in such economic disarray that it cannot feed its own people continues to command the attention of the most powerful countries of the world. North Korea, seemingly, is at the center of conflicts between the US and China, and has positioned itself to thrive under this umbrella of contention.

In this post, we will examine the world’s two largest economies: those of United States and China, and how North Korea has capitalized on a mutual mistrust between the two countries.

On February 29, 2012, Pyongyang agreed with the United States to a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches and all nuclear activity. But 16 days later, North Korea defied this agreement by launching a satellite into orbit. On December 12 of the same year, the country launched what appeared to be another satellite, sparking condemnation from 60 countries around the world and the UN Security Council, which unanimously adopted UNSCR 2087.

This seemingly erratic behavior by the North Korean government has left the world confused on what to do next.

“North Korea probably was never serious about ending its nuclear and missile programs,” wrote, Evans J.R. Revere of the Bookings Institute in 2013. “Pyongyang has enshrined its nuclear status in its constitution and declared that it will not give up its nuclear weapons under any circumstances.”

But the main focus of all political maneuvering by the US toward North Korea has been contingent upon denuclearization. Under the Obama administration, the US has made it clear to North Korea that any high-level talks or aid given to North Korea will be regarding meaningful steps toward dismantling their nuclear program.

China has also shown a wariness toward North Korea’s nuclear program but despite intricate ties with the North Korean government, it does not have the power to change its ally.

North Korea is China’s greatest foreign policy challenge, according to experts. This relationship has key strategic implications, as we discussed in earlier posts.

“Like a variety of foreign policy issues in recent years, North Korea threatens to besmirch China’s prestige,” wrote Andrew Scobell and Mark Cozad. “China craves the reputation of a responsible global citizen and a force for good in the world.”

China’s relationship with North Korea appears to be multi-faceted and focuses on three key areas: diplomacy, economics and military.

This means that China has purposely and strategically chosen not to criticize its neighbor on multiple occasions. UNSCR 2087 was an exception to the rule. It has taken measures in the past to prop up the North Korean economy, seemingly at any cost. And it has a long standing agreement to protect its neighbor, should war break out in the region.

For China, there is too much to lose if North Korea fails. The biggest fear is that North Korea will crumble, South Korea will assume control and US troops will be at its doorstep.

Under President Obama the US has strengthened its alliances with China and other key countries in East Asia, known as Obama’s “pivot” to Asia. But this move has been the topic of heated debate in China.

“This debate provides a backdrop to consider prospects for Sino-US cooperation on policy toward North Korea, and highlights Chinese wariness and strategic mistrust of US policy intentions,” wrote, Scott A. Snyder for the Council on Foreign Relations.

This key relationship between the US and China and all the mistrust that comes with it is at the heart of why the North Korean regime as we know it still exists.

North Korea has used this mistrust to its advantage. It feeds off the two countries and their differing agendas. It can only survive as long as the two largest economies will continue on this path.

Whether the US and China will continue on this path is yet to be seen. The US and China have recently reached major milestones in a key climate agreement. China has also grown weary of North Korea’s nuclear tests and was disappointed in the execution of Jang Sung-tek, North Korea’s main point of contact with China.

Despite these challenges, China has been unrelenting in their support of the North Korean government. They continue to be North Korea’s largest trading partner and even supply food aid to the country.

The result for the millions of North Koreans, still hungry from lack of food and the North Korean refugees in China, is devastating.

Will North Korea change? Can it change? Will it implode? For almost 13 years we have stood at the border of this country and wondered, prayed and cried. We are just as uncertain today as we were in 2003. But we have not lost hope and will continue to pray in hope for a better tomorrow for North Korean refugees.