The extent of the contempt with which North Korea is viewed in China might surprise some Westerners. Ordinary Chinese workers, students and taxi drivers I have spoken with over the years chuckle and sneer at North Korea for not “awakening from delusions” and reforming.
An uproariously funny 18-minute video clip of comedians Jia Xuming and Zhang Kang satirizing world news, including unsavoury Chinese items, was recently banned in China but still manages to circulate surreptitiously there on the Internet. Its shellacking of North Korea (some of it quite obscene) got some of the biggest laughs from the audience, especially the deadpan (and not entirely inaccurate) comparison of its security policies with those of other major countries:
America: We attack whomever we want.
Britain: We attack whomever the Americans attack.
Japan: If anyone attacks us, we’ll allow the Americans to attack them.
South Korea: If anyone attacks us, we’ll hold joint military exercises with the Americans.
North Korea: If anyone provokes us, we’ll attack South Korea.
Although North Korea is a laughingstock, even in China, it is creating decidedly unfunny problems for the world. North Korea deliberately portrays itself as desperate, hungry – a mad dog backed into a corner by the West, Japan and the United Nations, ready to strike out violently if it feels too threatened. For Pyongyang, the summum bonum is the survival of the Kim dynasty, the viability of the Workers’ Party of Korea that runs it and North Korea’s independence. Anything seriously threatening these three things will enrage North Korea and make it an extremely dangerous state.
Is North Korea crazy? Yes – like a fox. Beijing has long understood this, but Beijing knows that foxy craziness could one day, under the right (er, wrong) conditions, become real madness in Pyongyang. Ever since the early 1990s and the death of North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung, Beijing has faced a tough balancing act: validating North Korea’s existential angst while telling a leery international community not to worry too much about it.
North Korea’s isolation only grows with the passage of time – and with it its anxiety about survival. Its clunky and faltering socialist economy has made it unable to feed its people, so its government has developed missiles and nuclear weapons in order to intimidate the outside world into supporting it. “Feed me or I just might be crazy enough to kill you” has essentially been North Korea’s message to South Korea, in particular, and the world, in general, over the past 20 years.
Chinese leaders perceive a divided Korea as serving China’s national interests, but they would vastly prefer a saner, more stable and more pragmatic government in North Korea. China is acutely aware that North Korea’s outré antics could very well lead to a massive arms buildup by the United States, Japan and South Korea – a scenario that would greatly destabilize Northeast Asia and present a security nightmare to China.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement in China this weekend that Chinese leaders are “very serious” about reducing tensions in the Korean peninsula and seeing an end to North Korea’s nuclear program is credible and encouraging. Beijing is exasperated with Pyongyang for being so bellicose. But China must move cautiously because North Korea is now possibly unstable and factionalized, and Beijing does not know for certain which strings to pull nor what the consequences of pulling them will be.
Beijing cannot resort to grasping at straws, and its cautions about everyone involved remaining cool and collected are wise and appropriate. Still, it is Beijing alone that must figure out how to manage the delicate and artful task of lowering the boom on North Korea while not quite driving its tyrants completely mad – mad for real this time, not like wily foxes but rabid dogs.
David Curtis Wright is associate professor of history at the University of Calgary and a fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.