Skip to main content

Will China finally 'bite' North Korea?

By Jennifer Lind, Special to CNN
March 14, 2013 -- Updated 1909 GMT (0309 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • North Korean officials said the Korean Armistice Agreement is to be scrapped
  • Jennifer Lind: Even Beijing signed on to sanctions against its longtime ally
  • Has China finally had enough? But she says China may still prefer the status quo
  • Lind: If North Korea collapses, it could potentially destabilize the region, which China fears

Editor's note: Jennifer Lind, associate professor of government at Dartmouth College, is the author of "Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics," (Cornell University Press). She is a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project. Follow on Twitter @profLind.

(CNN) -- North Korea, China's longtime ally, has vexed Beijing for years with its rocket launches, nuclear tests, kidnapping of Chinese fishermen and other erratic behavior. Yet, Beijing has run interference at the United Nations to temper punishments against Pyongyang, and has even helped Pyongyang circumvent sanctions.

In the wake of North Korea's third nuclear test in February, its reckless threats to strike the United States, and now -- its decision to scrap the armistice that ended the Korean War -- has China finally had enough?

Beijing signed on to sanctions that, in the words of Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will "bite and bite hard." China's ambassador to the U.N. declared Beijing's commitment to "safeguarding peace and stability on the Korean peninsula."

Jennifer Lind
Jennifer Lind

One shouldn't exaggerate the significance of these recent developments. After all, in the U.N. negotiations over sanctions -- this time as before -- the Chinese have consistently played the role of watering down the degree of punishment imposed against Pyongyang. And in the past Chinese firms have helped North Koreans evade sanctions. It remains to be seen whether Beijing intends to enforce the new measures.

As rhetoric heats up, North Koreans ready to 'rain bullets on the enemy'

Beijing also has good reasons that continue to make it reluctant to crack down on its unruly ally. The Chinese perceive that they have a powerful interest in maintaining the status quo. As hard as it is to live with North Korea, Beijing fears it may be harder to live without it.

Fear of new Korean war
North Korea's newest threat to the South

The Chinese worry that coming down hard on Pyongyang, by cutting off their vital oil or food exports, could trigger a collapse of the North Korean government or other political instability on the peninsula. Beijing's nightmares include a loose nukes problem and a humanitarian disaster.

Beijing also has fears about the effects of a North Korean collapse on the strategic balance in East Asia. If North Korea collapsed and the two Koreas unified, China might find astride its border a unified, U.S.-aligned Korea hosting American troops.

Chinese analysts also commonly argue that North Korea serves as an important distraction for the U.S. military, which might otherwise train its focus on defending Taiwan.

Thus, despite the nuisance that North Korea regularly makes of itself, for all these reasons, it would be sorely missed by Beijing.

North Korea declares 1953 armistice invalid

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



But the days of "lips and teeth" (Mao Zedong's's famous statement about the closeness of Sino-North Korean relations) are clearly over. Chinese scholars and analysts increasingly express open frustration with Pyongyang's behavior. In the wake of North Korean piracy against Chinese fishermen, Chinese microblogs overflowed with outrage.

Most recently, in a meeting of an advisory group to the Chinese government -- the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference -- participants openly debated the question: whether to "keep or dump" North Korea?

The two countries have evolved from vitriolic BFFs to East Asia's odd couple. When China and North Korea formed their alliance, the countries were both poor, weak, resentful, isolated, and the target of cold-war containment by the United States and its allies.

While North Korea is still that country, China is emphatically not. China's remarkable four decades of economic reform and growth have catapulted it to wealth and power -- China is a global power, with global interests. China has a deep stake in maintaining stability in order to sustain its pathway to prosperity.

China's relationship with the United States can be tense. But quite unlike in the days of Mao, the two countries are vital trade partners that share a vast array of ties and often overlapping interests.

A look at North Korea's escalating rhetoric

Beijing also values its relationship with South Korea, which Pyongyang's provocations seriously jeopardize. Booming trade flows, warm political relations, and deeply intertwined ties have created a relationship that makes it increasingly awkward for Beijing to look away when North Korea murders South Koreans as it did in 2010 (with the sinking of the South Korean vessel Cheonan that killed 46 sailors, and when it shelled Yonpyeong Island).

China is a great power that is increasingly concerned with its standing in the world, and with cultivating "soft power." Beijing's support for North Korea's ruthless, bloody regime -- that attacks its neighbors, and brutalizes its people at home -- only draws attention to China's own human rights failings, and undermines China's soft power.

Because the specter of North Korea's collapse could potentially destabilize the Korea peninsula, Beijing may continue to shield Pyongyang. But the two countries' increasingly divergent interests suggest that China's dissatisfaction with North Korea is only likely to grow.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jennifer Lind.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT