North Korea’s second intercontinental ballistics missile launch July 29 is a challenge to the five countries trying to keep the Peninsular stable. Neither China, Japan, South Korea, the U.S. nor Russia would welcome a reunited,strong and independent Korea. South Korea’s growth as the world’s eleventh largest economy, fourth in Asia, achieved in a generation, suggests what might happen with the addition of the North’s extensive minerals.
The U.S. stood by and watched for more than a hour before the earlier launching of an ICBM July 4th with Pyongyang’s 33-year-old dictator, Kim Young-un conspicuously present. Both offered easy targets but Washington policymakers apparently feared destroying the missile and killing Kim would set off uncontrollable chaos. That could include a resumption of the Korean War which cost more than U.S 60,000 dead and missing before a truce in 1953.
Pres. Donald Trump, after his earlier praise following the visit of Chinese Dictator Xi Ping-ping, has now turned bitterly critical of China. Trump has a point in that Pyongyang relies on China for 90 percent of its external trade including food. Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear technology originated with Chinese loans.
China did announce a clampdown on coal imports, the largest item in their trade. Given his own earlier optimism, Trump’s comments were a sharp change. “Our foolish past leaders have allowed them][the Chinese] to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet … they do nothing for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem!”
Trump is simplifying the China-North Korean relationship, however. Beijing has more than 2.6 million ethnic Korean citizens, plus a quarter of a million recent refugees, a large part concentrated along their 800-mile border. Their other connections include: a close military alliance formed in the Korean War when Chinese intervention halted Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s advance toward the Yalu River border and what appeared a de facto reunification of the Peninsular divided by the post-World War II settlement.
Nor would Beijing like to risk a collapse of the North Korean regime [such as in 1990 overtook East Germany, considered the strongest satellite in the Soviet Bloc.]. It anticipates handling a flood of refugees no matter how Communist China is noted for its excesses against its own population. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is already increasing his own internal crackdown with growing comparisons to the Mao Tse-tung Era with its personality cult.
Despite its limited measures to squeeze Pyongyang economically in response to UN and US sanctions against the missile and nuclear developments, China–North Korea trade has steadily increased — up 37.4 percent in the first quarter of 2017 from 2016.
Yet Beijing has announced measures against Pyongyang. In February 2017, China temporarily suspended coal imports and China may be supportive of measures banning oil exports to North Korea should Pyongyang conduct further nuclear tests, echoing calls from some Chinese experts. Regional experts say such actions may suggest that the Chinese regime is “losing patience” with Pyongyang, while others say that these shifts are merely tactical.
Pyongyang’s diversion of resources to the world’s largest military establishment – with 5,889,000 paramilitary personnel, 25 percent of the North Korean population. – has produced famine which in the 1990s killed between eight hundred thousand and 2.4 million people. In June 2015 Pyongyang reported its worst drought in decades and flooding in September 2016.
Washington may now have to move in on Chinese firms pushing North Korean exports. much in the way they successfully undertook currency counterfeit operations in the early 2000s. With the Chinese economy now experiencing new lower growth and attempting to move to domestic consumption, Beijing is vulnerable to such a campaign although it is likely to produce addition friction in U.S.-China relations.