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Could China help resolve North Korea crisis?

Ed Jones / AFP | A North Korean Taepodong-class missile is displayed during a military parade past Kim Il-Sung square marking the 60th anniversary of the Korean war armistice in Pyongyang on July 27, 2013.
3 min

After North Korea said it successfully tested a hydrogen bomb on Sunday, tensions on the Korean peninsula have intensified. Could a reluctant China be persuaded to defuse the crisis?


The bomb test follows a series of North Korean missile launches, and has prompted the US to threaten a “massive” response if Pyongyang attacks it.

US President Donald Trump has repeatedly called on China, North Korea’s only big ally, to restrain the Kim regime and its nuclear programme, and has threatened new sanctions against Chinese companies doing business with Pyongyang.

>> Timeline: North Korea's quest to become a nuclear power

However, in an interview with FRANCE 24, John Nilsson-Wright, East Asia expert at Cambridge University and the Royal Institute of International Affairs, suggests that China remains reluctant to bring North Korea into line.

FRANCE 24: Are historical ties between China and North Korea still important?

The Korean War serves as the most important point of common interest, given that thousands of Chinese (including Mao’s son) died in the Korean War.

However, for the younger generation in China this is increasingly less relevant and popular China opinion is increasingly critical of Kim Jong-un’s provocations.

For those Chinese living close to the border with North Korea, there are acute fears of the risk of radiation contamination from current and future tests by the North, and there are related worries regarding the reliability and safety of the North’s civilian nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.

FRANCE 24: What leverage does China have over North Korea? Is it prepared to use it?

China potentially has, in theory, substantial leverage over North Korea given the North’s dependence on China for 90% of its energy and food needs.

However, China remains reluctant to use this leverage for fear of destabilising the North, risking an implosion of the regime and prompting in turn a mass exodus of North Koreans across the 800 mile border between the two countries.

China also worries that if a security vacuum emerged in a post-collapse North Korea it would be rapidly filled by South Korea and the United States, posing a major strategic challenge for China.

Reports from Chinese media, including the Global Times, confirm that Beijing is opposed to blanket and comprehensive sanctions against the North (even in the wake of the latest nuclear test) and still supports direct talks between the US and North Korea.

FRANCE 24: In light of those Chinese fears of a “security vacuum”, some experts such as Michael Swaine at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have proposed agreeing with Beijing that any future united Korea would be ‘Finlandised’ – not predominantly allied to either the US or China.

Is that a workable idea to assuage China’s fears of the Kim regime collapsing?

Potentially, although China jealously guards its economic sphere of interest in North Korea, whether as a trading opportunity or a source of natural resources mined via China’s extractive industries.

It is unlikely that China which, historically (in the pre-Communist era), has exercised suzerainty over parts of the Korean peninsula, especially in the north in the region bordering Manchuria, would want to relinquish all control.

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