In 2002, as I recall, the magazine Strategy and Management (and isn’t that a great title for a publication dealing with internal Chinese politics) had its publishing license revoked for reprinting some unflattering thoughts by senior Chinese figures on their relationship with North Korea. There’s also an apocryphal story from the eighties about Deng Xiaoping giving Kim Il Sung a bollocking after Chinese aid money – and China wasn’t rich at the time – meant to go towards industrial and agricultural support somehow being diverted into the production of gigantic bronze statues of Kim Il Sung.
So we’ve known for a long time that there’s a certain level of tension between Beijing and Pyongyang, and also maybe what the MFA actually meant when he called on Washington to deal appropriately with Wikileaks. Even so, some of yesterday’s revelations on the subject need to be treated with caution. The proposal that China is ready to abandon the North to reunification comes originally from a South Korean politician talking to US diplomats. What we actually know here is what the South Koreans want the Americans to think about what China thinks about North Korea; or did at the time the cable was written.
It may represent a section of opinion in China, but that hasn’t been reflected in policy over the past year or so. Beijing’s been very closely involved at all levels in underwriting the latest Kim succession, pushing the North Eastern provinces to invest, building infrastructure and piling food into the country. The obvious implication of this is that it’s making a big effort to put Pyongyang under closer supervision in the hope of levering it open economically: fewer bronze statues and less brazenness all round. As I’ve said before, the obvious international parallel is the US and Israel. Both senior partners proceed on the grounds that if we hug them closer we can get them to do what we want.
The results appear to be similar as well. Perhaps today’s confirmation that Beijing is itself looking at reunification as an end state can be taken as a warning to the North that it has options too. It’s certainly the first time I’ve seen any Chinese officials come forward and state that they envision a Kim free future for Korea. But the same officials are also signalled something else.
"We do not have an effective way to influence them. Sometimes when we try it only makes things worse," a senior Chinese diplomat said.
Reunification is going to be a slow process. The entire North is going to have to be rebuilt from the ground up and, in practical terms, the only country with the available capital to divert to that is China. Or at any rate, it's the only country that has demonstrated a real willingness to divert it.
Thus far the China-North Korea question has always been posed in terms of how China can be got to use it’s supposed leverage to meet Western objectives. Maybe the real question is how the West and regional actors can help Beijing assert greater control over the regime. Always assuming, that is, that you give credibility to China’s promises on eventual reunification.