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Why China might turn on North Korea

As Beijing strives to become a responsible great power, the costs of staying allied with North Korea may come to surpass the costs of abandoning it.

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North Korea's provocations are testing more than weapons and diplomacy. Recent actions by the United Nations, South Korea, Japan, and United States, while well developed and coordinated, are insufficient. An effective international response hinges on how national identity changes in China reshape Beijing's strategic interests toward Pyongyang.

Owing to North Korea's historical relations with and economic dependence on China, analysts argue that Chinese leaders hold the key to solving the "North Korea problem." But the Obama administration understands, as did the Bush administration, that maximizing pressure on Beijing would be counterproductive.

China has long seen its national interests served by the status quo on the Korean Peninsula. According to a cold-war perspective about strategic balance and a post-cold-war emphasis on internal development, Beijing prioritized maintaining a buffer state and preventing North Korea's problems from spilling over China's border. While Beijing retains these priorities, the chances of it getting tough with Pyongyang are low.

However, the China of today is not the China that came to Pyongyang's aid during the Korean War – its national identity has evolved over decades of rapid development and international integration. The ideas of communist solidarity and laying low to focus on modernization are becoming obsolete.

Instead, China covets its traditional role at the center of Asia, entailing not only power, but also respect and responsibility. Such ambition is possible thanks to the success of an economic model that has brought China closer to the US, Japan, and South Korea.


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