Global Ethics Corner: Will China Finally Turn on North Korea?

Mar 18, 2013

A recent nuclear test and renewed threats from North Korea has led to new sanctions from the UN Security Council. Does this mean that China's patience with North Korea has finally run out? Or will humanitarian and geopolitical concerns keep the two allied?

The military dictatorship of North Korea is once again threatening to attack South Korea and the United States, who have been pushing for renewed sanctions against Pyongyang for its nuclear ambitions. The impoverished North Korean regime has long relied on its close alliance with the People’s Republic of China to minimize the impact of such sanctions.

This alliance was cemented during the Korean War, in which North Koreans and Chinese fought side by side. Since the conflict ended in 1953, China has at times used its seat on the UN Security Council to interfere with proposed sanctions and actively helped North Korea circumvent punishment. However, Beijing may finally have had enough of Pyongyang’s antics.

A recent North Korean nuclear test triggered a unanimous vote in the Security Council to impose new sanctions and tighten current measures.This vote could indicate that Beijing’s political calculus has changed.

As Dartmouth professor Elizabeth Lind has noted, while North Korea is essentially the same country it was in 1953, China has moved on. In 1953, the newly established People’s Republic was a fragile and inward-looking state. But now China is much more open, and its fast-growing economy is the second largest in the world.

So why have the Chinese stuck with North Korea for so long?

Many fear a humanitarian crisis on China’s doorstep if the Kim regime collapses or is overthrown. Geopolitically, many believe that China benefits from the distraction created by North Korea. Moreover, recent media reports indicate that popular support of the North Korean regime remains high among ordinary Chinese citizens.

As relations between North Korea and the rest of the world once again deteriorate, pressure may mount on China to deal definitively with its troublesome ally.

What do you think? Has China finally had enough of Pyongyang’s posturing? Or will Beijing once again ride to North Korea’s rescue?

For more information see

Choe Sang-Hun "South Korea Disputes North’s Dismissal of Armistice," The New York Times, March 12, 2013

Jennifer Lind, "Will China finally 'bite' North Korea?," CNN, March 14, 2013

Ju-min Park "North Korea cuts off hotline with South Korea," Reuters, March 11, 2013

"China media: Tension over North Korea," BBC News, March 12, 2013

Photo Credits in Order of Appearance: Matt Paish IAEA Feed My Starving Children U.S. Army Korea [also for pictures 10 & 11] Norwegian Mission to the UN Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization United Nations Photo myheimu Steve Jurvetson John Pavelka Surian Soosay

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