Ambassador Fu Ying, Beijing’s veteran diplomat, said last month that her country had “no leverage” over North Korea unless China addressed Pyongyang’s security concerns.
Whether China addresses those concerns or not, its leverage over Pyongyang is, in a word, overwhelming.
The trend of thinking these days, both inside and outside China, is that Chinese influence over the Kim regime is limited. A White House official reported that Chinese ruler Xi Jinping told his Mar-a-Lago host, President Trump, that China did not possess the sway that the U.S. believed Beijing had. Trump later implied, in comments to the Wall Street Journal, that he accepted the position of his Chinese guest on this issue.
The China-has-limited-influence view has also found favor in the U.S. intelligence community. For instance, former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell, in an interview posted on this site May 3, questioned the assumption “embedded” in statements of senior Bush and Obama policymakers “that if only China squeezed the North hard, Pyongyang would change its behavior.” Morell said he had “real doubts about that assumption.”
There are, however, reasons to doubt the doubters. As an initial matter, the Chinese have a stranglehold over the North Korean economy. China accounts for more than 90 percent of the North’s external trade. It provides more than 90 percent of North Korea’s oil, much of it on concessionary terms. Some years, China is the source of 100 percent of the North’s aviation fuel.
China supplies at least a third of the North’s foodstuffs.
Investment from China, from both government and private sources, accounts for at least half of total foreign investment in the North.
Chinese leaders “could stop North Korea’s economy in a week,” Senator John McCain told MSNBC’s Greta Van Susteren last March. “China is the one, the only one, that can control Kim Jong-un, this crazy fat kid that’s running North Korea.”
Insults aside, McCain is right. By shutting off the oil, closing the border, and prohibiting all investment, China could bring the North to its knees in months, maybe weeks.
And there is something else Beijing can do. Over time, the renminbi, or yuan as the Chinese currency is informally known, has become the currency of choice in unofficial markets throughout the North and in the areas bordering China.
This “yuanization” creates a vulnerability for the Kim regime. Beijing could collapse the North’s economy if it took its existing notes out of circulation and replaced them with new ones, exchangeable only in China. By doing so—demonetizing—Beijing would instantly destroy much of the wealth in North Korea’s most productive sector.
China’s power over North Korea is not limited to economics, of course. Beijing is Pyongyang’s primary backer in diplomatic councils, particularly the U.N.
Moreover, the Chinese supply equipment to the Korean People’s Army and components for its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. North Korea’s solid-fuel missiles—the ones tested on August 24, February 12, and May 21—appear to be based on China’s designs. Chinese enterprises supply the mobile launchers that make Kim’s missiles a real threat.
Yes, China provides many things, but the most important is the confidence in the minds of the senior regime figures that they are safe from the U.S., safe from South Korea, safe from the rest of the world.
Beijing may not have the power to change Kim Jong-un’s mind—it’s possible no one can do so—but the Chinese could convince regime elements that it was no longer in their interests to stick with either their weapons programs or Kim himself, who, by the way, is not especially popular, after his unprecedented demotions, purges, and executions.
This would be a particularly consequential time for Beijing to act because the North Korean regime looks especially unstable.
Most analysts think that young Kim consolidated power quickly after the death of his father in December 2011. There are, to the contrary, signs of regime turbulence. For instance, in late January the minister of state security, General Kim Wong-hong, was demoted and detained. In the following weeks, five of his senior subordinates were executed.
And, at about the same time, someone ordered the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the elder half-brother of the North Korean despot. If Kim ordered the assassination, it betrays a sense of insecurity not evident in a Kim ruler in decades. If someone else issued the order, Kim may have lost practical control of the situation.
“There is a mass of evidence to show intra-elite divisions on a scale that has not been seen since the 1950s, and there is, equally, not much evidence to suggest that Kim Jong-un has direct control over important levers of state power,” writes Hazel Smith of SOAS University of London.
Even if the infighting is not as ferocious as Smith suggests, China has an opportunity to exploit the divisions in Pyongyang and gain dominance by offering regime elements not only money and power but also personal security.
Many analysts—especially Chinese ones—argue that Kim Jong-un’s defiance of China’s wishes proves that Beijing does not have significant influence. Those arguments ignore the fact that Chinese officials don’t expect obedience all the time. Beijing supports the North Koreans, whether or not they are compliant at any particular moment, because the Chinese believe in the longer run that their friends in Pyongyang know their place. The Chinese know they have influence but prefer not to exercise it all the time, Chung Jae-ho, a Beijing watcher at Seoul National University, told me.
When China really wants something, it lowers the boom. Beijing, anxious to start nuclear negotiations after a North Korean missile launch, cut off oil for three days in February 2003 as a warning. Pyongyang agreed to sit down for multilateral talks shortly thereafter.
When China pulls the string, the Kims show their respect by acceding to Chinese demands.