In 2011, China accounted for an estimated 67.2% of North Korea’s exports and 61.6% of imports, according to the CIA World Factbook. So LA Times’ Beijing Bureau Chief Barbara Demick suggests, “There’s a lot more China could do that it has chosen not to.”
So why is China not using its economic leverage to rein in the nuclear threat and proliferator next door? In a word — fear.
There’s fear of a North Korean collapse that would lead to instability and a refugee crisis along its 1,400 kilometer (880 mile) border with North Korea. And then there’s the far greater fear of an all-out conflict that would redraw the geopolitical map.
And there’s something else holding Beijing back — the historic and symbolic relationship with Pyongyang that is hard to give up.
“The Chinese Communist Party thinks of North Korea as this small state that is in its own image,” says Demick. “The structure of the North Korean government is very similar to the Chinese government and, in a way, it’s the pure Communist state. It’s just really hard psychologically to dump North Korea.”
“They treat North Korea a bit like a wayward child,” adds Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the North Asian head of the International Crisis Group. ” You want to be the one to punish your child, but you’re not going to turn them over to police.”
But for many people in China, enough is enough.
“Their rhetoric is increasing the number of Chinese who feel very, very disgusted by their behavior, their psyche and their regime,” says Zhu Feng, professor of International Relations at Peking University. “China’s government is seriously under fire because I think the majority of Chinese really, really feel that North Korea’s bad behavior will inevitably endanger China.”