‘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 noises coming out of the Korean peninsula crisis suggest conflict could be close.

South Korea has carried out live-fire exercises in response to North Korea’s bomb test, simulating their response should the North strike.

Now the South says it has reason to believe that the North is preparing more missile launches.

But amid all the chest-beating, one country is remaining rather quiet. It is the country that matters more to the 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.

The goods China buys from North Korea 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?”

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.

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, they could put an end to this.

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.

You Decide

  1. Should China be doing more to reduce the threat of 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.
What do we not know?
Whether China’s cautious, self-centred approach is the best way of avoiding conflict.

Word Watch

Donald Trump
In July Trump tweeted about China: “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.

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