Rob Farley Gets China-North Korea Right

Unlike the foolhardy China alienation strategy of Dan Blumenthal and Robert Kagan, Robert Farley actually connects the right dots and sees how harnessing a relationship with Beijing will in fact be the only way to influence Pyongyang. In addition to the very real interests that China has in North Korea (preventing a refugee influx, avoiding a nuclear power across its border), Farley adds this key point:

China’s relatively close relationship with North Korea means that Beijing likely has a clearer understanding of the internal situation of the Pyongyang regime than the United States. China probably has a better notion than the US of the balance of power between factions in the succession crisis, and a better idea of which levers to pull in order to strengthen one faction over another. [emphasis mine]

North Korea’s missile tests, it should be emphasized, were almost surely the result of this internal political maneuvering (and most probably to appease the North Korean military apparatus). This storyline is decidedly in contrast to that reflexively assumed by many advocates of a “tougher” North Korea policy (or even the less hawkish): that North Korea’s actions were a bit of intentional muscle-flexing designed to provoke or “test” President Obama. Not that this factor might not have influenced the North Korean military’s calculation, but it reverses the lens with which this should be analyzed; the missile testing was likely directed inward at least as much as outward.

Back to Farley, who smoothly rebuts the critique that China’s callous regional interests prevent it from working with countries like the U.S. to enact more punitive measures on North Korea.

China and the United States do not have identical interests. It’s unlikely that the Chinese have much appreciation at all for North Korean human rights. China also still has some residual concern about the prospect of a unified, democratic Korea, but China has relatively good relations with Seoul, and China-South Korea trade and investment dwarf China’s economic interest in North Korea.

China cannot “solve” the North Korean problem on its own. Beijing does not wish to risk a North Korean collapse, and has limited tools with which to affect North Korea policy short of a complete embargo…Although the US and China don’t have identical interests, they share enough of the same fears to make some cooperation possible. Put bluntly, there is no way to manage North Korea without Beijing’s assistance, and Beijing has a strong incentive to facilitate a manageable situation. [emphasis mine]

So, skeptics can mock the UN Security Council’s response on North Korea all they’d like, but the fact remains that it is in this body, as well as in the six-party talks, that China will need to work with its international partners.

(For what it’s worth, I also agree with this analysis of what the United States should do about the supposedly increased threat from North Korea)