The Chinese government may not be in love with Kim Jong Un's regime in North Korea, but for decades it has been the enabler of the Kim dynasty. China is far and away North Korea's largest trading partner and the closest thing it has to an ally. North Korea is otherwise so hermetically sealed that its second largest trading partner, South Korea, is a country it is still at war with. China, in contrast, has leverage with Pyongyang. Its biggest point of leverage may be one it has consistently shied away from: making it easier for North Koreans to escape to the relative freedom of China.
This week, the Chinese State Security Bureau detained two Canadians in Dandong, on the sensitive North Korean border, alleging that they somehow stole Chinese state secrets. The accusation appears to be highly dubious. The whole affair may be in retaliation for allegations that a Chinese state-sponsored agency has hacked the National Research Council of Canada. The couple, Kevin and Julia Dawn Garratt, have lived and worked in China for three decades. They don't deserve to be pawns in a diplomatic spat.
But the case, and the place where they lived and were arrested, is a reminder of China's fraught relationship with North Korea. Beijing is not happy that the neo-Stalinist regime of Kim Jong Un has nuclear weapons, nor can it cheer an economic strategy modelled on Stalinism, which China abandoned two generations ago. And yet China still acts like an ally to Pyongyang – and helps it to imprison its people.
Only a few refugees manage to cross the North Korean border into China. But imagine what could happen if China welcomed refugees the way West Germany once welcomed East Germans, pre-1989. The North Korean regime would face the possibility of dissolution. If its captive subjects had a greater chance of voting with their feet, the regime would risk withering away. North Korea would surely try to keep its people in, as East Germany once did, but the task would be far more difficult if the Chinese weren't helping. China, the world's most populous country, can afford to welcome arrivals from the small hermit state next door.
The rulers of China, fearful of even a small influx of refugees, have never wanted to deal with the problem. The thing is, no one else can.