‘China the enabler’ accused amid Korea crisis

Over-reliant: Assistance to North Korea accounts for almost half of China’s overseas aid.

Is China the real villain of the North Korea crisis? Amidst the condemnation of Sunday’s nuclear bomb test, the only country that can really do anything about it seemed to sit on its hands.

Nobody has yet been killed, no city bombed, and yet the mixture of action and rhetoric coming out of the Korean peninsula crisis suggests conflict could be close.

Threatened by one of the most sinister, unreliable regimes in modern history, South Korea has carried out live-fire exercises in response to North Korea’s bomb test, simulating their response should their wayward brother and enemy strike.

Now the South says it has seen indications that the North is preparing more missile launches, perhaps even an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

The United Nations is holding a meeting to discuss imposing more sanctions on North Korea, while the Americans have promised that any threat to its allies would result in a “massive military response”.

But amid all the chest-beating, one country is remaining rather quiet. It is the country that matters more to the everyday lives of North Koreans than any other: China.

Donald Trump has floated the idea of stopping any US trade with any country doing business in North Korea. And North Korea relies on China for 83% of its foreign trade.

More astonishing are the goods that China buys from North Korea. They include coal, suits and t-shirts, all things that China could easily buy from elsewhere - or, more likely, produce itself.

“Surely China could just cut these ties?” many wonder. “It would hardly affect China’s enormous economy. Why can’t Xi Jinping, China’s leader, end this global panic by giving North Korea a firm bonk on the head?”

President Xi has tried to position himself as the world’s new leader, bringing peace and renewing prosperity and free trade.

But writing in The Observer, Steven Tsang believes that a political system in China “that places the perpetuation of Communist Party power above all else” is the answer to China’s relative lack of action.

Tsang says that if China cut off the Kim dynasty’s life support, it would ”raise questions among Chinese dissidents about whether the party still had the political will and capacity to do whatever it takes to stay in power at home.”

Life support

“China is the problem here,” say some. While other countries are motivated by a desire to tame North Korea for the good of the world, China’s elite is motivated by that most base appeal: power. If China wanted to, it could put an end to this, and the world should be scrutinising its actions a lot more.

Others respond that China has good reason not to pine for regime change in North Korea. Can we really be sure that halting trade will end the threat? After all, if there is one regime more committed to clinging onto power than China’s, it is North Korea’s. China is playing a delicate situation more calmly than most.

You Decide

  1. Should China be doing more to reduce the threat of North Korea?
  2. Do you expect war to break out with North Korea?


  1. Imagine that you are Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state. Write down, in bullet point form, five things you believe China should do to help end this crisis.
  2. On a map of the world, illustrate China’s relationships with some of the world’s most important countries.

Some People Say...

“Sanctions never changed anything.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
North Korea’s benighted economy is almost completely dependent on China, its neighbour to the north. Almost all its exports go there, and the government in Beijing is one of the few regimes around the world that is prepared to be friendly with the Kims. We know that many people, including President Trump, believe China ought to be doing more to help solve the crisis in North Korea.
What do we not know?
Whether China’s cautious, self-centred approach is the correct course of action. It could be that by helping North Korea financially they are averting even greater potential turmoil. We simply do not know what the North Korean regime’s response would be if China cut off its support: they could buckle, and perhaps even be overthrown, or they could respond by lashing out.

Word Watch

Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)
ICBMs are missiles with a minimum range of 3,400 miles. They are designed to carry nuclear weapons. They are much faster than other types of missiles, but have limited precision, meaning they could only be used on large targets, such as cities.
Donald Trump
In July Trump tweeted: “I am very disappointed in China. Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem!”
According to the 2017 Statistical Review of World Energy, China produces 45% of the world’s coal.
Suits and t-shirts
According to The Economist, China produced 43% of the world’s clothes in 2013.
Hardly affect
A 2009 estimate ranks North Korea 82nd on the list of China's trade partners.
World’s new leader
In a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, Xi positioned himself against Donald Trump’s protectionist economic policies, likening them to “locking oneself in a dark room”.


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