Author: Dr Andrew Scobell
At first, it might not seem surprising to have a formal military alliance that has endured more than 4 decades between two communist neighbors, China and North Korea. After all, their armed forces fought shoulder-to-shoulder in the Korean War 50 years ago. However, Beijing’s ties to Pyongyang have weakened considerably over time, and China now has much better and stronger relations with the free market democracy of South Korea than it does with the totalitarian, centrally planned economy of North Korea. In many ways Pyongyang has become a Cold War relic, strategic liability, and monumental headache for Beijing. Nevertheless, the China-North Korea alliance remains formally in effect, and Beijing continues to provide vital supplies of food and fuel to the brutal and repressive Pyongyang regime. Since the ongoing nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, which emerged in October 2002, the United States and other countries have pinned high hopes on Chinese efforts to moderate and reason with North Korea. Beijing’s initiative to bring Pyongyang to the table in the so-called Six-Party Talks and host them seems to substantiate these hopes. Yet, as the author points out, it would be unrealistic to raise one’s expectations over what China might accomplish vis-à-vis North Korea. Beijing plays a useful and important role on the Korean Peninsula, but in the final analysis, the author argues that there are significant limitations on China’s influence both in terms of what actions Beijing would be prepared to take and what impact this pressure can have. If this analysis is correct, then North Korea is unlikely to mend its ways anytime soon.