The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Top Chinese Communist Tells China to Abandon North Korea

When NBA legend Dennis Rodman returned from his recent visit to North Korea, he suggested that basketball could heal the rift between that country and the US. According to the WSJ, Rodman said that Pres. Obama and new Nork leader Kim Jong Un both like basketball, so “let’s start there.”

The success of this diplomacy-by-basketball might be uncertain, but it looks now like something else could reshape North Korea’s foreign policy: a new Chinese hesitancy about its alliance with Pyongyang. In a recent FT piece entitled “China Should Abandon North Korea,” Deng Yuwen, deputy editor of China’s official Communist Party journal, argued that China should reconsider its alliance with the country. The article says that North Korea has lost its value as a geopolitical ally, that the Kim regime is poised for collapse, and that the country might turn its nuclear weapons on China. Deng recommends that China throw its weight behind a unified Korea:

Bringing about the peninsula’s unification would help undermine the strategic alliance between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul; ease the geopolitical pressure on China from northeast Asia; and be helpful to the resolution of the Taiwan question.

Deng is not the only person in China to call for abandoning North Korea. China was saturated with anti-North Korean sentiment after the third Nork nuclear test last month, with Chinese citizens protesting across the country. Now the new president Xi Jinping is even saying that has government will explore new policies towards the country. Either a very deep game is being played, or Pyongyang has cause to worry about Chinese support.

What has to be making Pyongyang nervous is that there is some very solid geopolitical logic behind a Chinese switch from Pyongyang to Seoul as its principal partner on the Korean peninsula. Offering to help broker gradual Korean unification (after Germany’s experience South Koreans want a go-slow process that would limit the cost of reunion) in exchange for substantial reductions in the US troop presence in South Korea, for instance, would be a substantial diplomatic and security advance for China and it’s a move that the US would find hard to counter.

This switch is easier to imagine than it would be to carry out, but given the nature of Chinese politics it looks as if Beijing’s thinking on the subject is already advanced. Senior Chinese policymakers and commentators are not in the habit of making random speculation in public. One thought: the whole exercise could be directed at Japan, a country that would be taken aback by the prospect of a united Korea with close ties to Beijing. China might just be suggesting to Japan’s feisty Prime Minister Abe that if he keeps poking the dragon, bad things could be headed his way.

Chinese foreign policy in recent years has been extraordinarily shortsighted, and as a result the task of American policymakers in the Pacific has been relatively easy. If the Chinese ever figure out how to play the game of thrones cleverly, life in the Pacific Rim will become much more interesting.  If China is upping its game, America is going to have to get smarter as well.

[Image of North Korea courtesy of Shutterstock.com.]

Published on March 3, 2013 10:34 am