Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Pondering Pyongyang: Beijing's problem child

By Kristie Lu Stout, CNN
June 19, 2013 -- Updated 0854 GMT (1654 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pyongyang reacted angrily to tougher sanctions after its third nuclear test
  • Chinese trade with North Korea has been a lifeline for the isolated regime
  • But Beijing has struggled to control the angry rhetoric from its neighbor
  • Expert: China fears a North Korean collapse would spark a refugee crisis

Editor's note: Episode 9 of On China with Kristie Lu Stout focuses on China-North Korea relations -- Wednesday, June 19: 0530 ET, 1230 ET. Watch in Hong Kong at 1730 HKT, 0030 HKT.

Hong Kong (CNN) -- The naughty step is not working.

After the United Nations slapped tougher sanctions on North Korea after its third nuclear test in February this year, Pyongyang screamed in defiance. It canceled its hotline with South Korea, withdrew its workers from the Kaesong industrial complex it jointly operates with Seoul, and carried on with its over-the-top threats.

China may have backed those sanctions but the economic lifeline is still there. Trade goes on between North Korea and China. In 2011, before some of these trade embargoes began, China accounted for an estimated 67.2% of North Korea's exports and 61.6% of imports, according to the CIA World Factbook.

READ: Is North Korea really China's problem?

"If you talk to officials at the border, there's no change," says Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the North Asian head of the International Crisis Group.

On China: China's influence on N. Korea
On China: Preventing a nuclear N. Korea
China changing tone on North Korea?
China's influence in the N. Korea crisis

"And a lot of that trade is conducted by government trading companies especially on the North Korean side," adds the Los Angeles Times' Beijing Bureau Chief Barbara Demick. "There's a lot more China could do that it has chosen not to."

READ: North Korea proposes high-level U.S. talks

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.

"Their end goal might be similar in terms of denuclearization, but China is looking at preventing war on the peninsula, which would allow a pro-Western government right on its border," says Kleine-Ahlbrandt.

READ: Analysts: N. Korean talks follow well-worn path

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."

It's just really hard psychologically to dump North Korea.
Barbara Demick

"They treat North Korea a bit like a wayward child," adds Kleine-Ahlbrandt. " 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."

Beijing has mastered the art of "scream-free parenting" with Pyongyang. It has learned to lower its voice and control its emotional reaction with every new threat or missile test.

But public opinion is shifting and China's new leadership is recognizing the need to re-evaluate how it manages its troublesome neighbor.

In a sign of Beijing's evolving approach toward North Korea, Chinese President Xi Jinping recently offered this veiled criticism: "No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains."

The pressure is on for China to spell out -- and carry out -- the consequences for North Korea's bad behavior.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0153 GMT (0953 HKT)
China is building an island in the South China Sea that could accommodate an airstrip, according to IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1057 GMT (1857 HKT)
North Korean refugees face a daunting journey to reach asylum in South Korea, with gangs of smugglers the only option.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 2319 GMT (0719 HKT)
China and "probably one or two other" countries have the capacity to shut down the nation's power grid and other critical infrastructure.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1039 GMT (1839 HKT)
It'd be hard to find another country that has spent as much, and as furiously, as China on giving its next generation a head start.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0532 GMT (1332 HKT)
In 1985, Meng Weina set up China's first private special needs school in the southern city of Guangzhou.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 2014 GMT (0414 HKT)
Despite China's inexorable economic rise, the U.S. is still an indispensable ally, especially in Asia. No one knows this more than the Asian giant's leaders, writes Kerry Brown.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 0338 GMT (1138 HKT)
For the United States and China to announce a plan reducing carbon emissions by almost a third by the year 2030 is a watershed moment for climate politics on so many fronts.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 2026 GMT (0426 HKT)
China shows off its new stealth fighter jet, but did it steal the design from an American company? Brian Todd reports.
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 0101 GMT (0901 HKT)
Airshow China in Zhuhai provides a rare glimpse of China's military and commercial aviation hardware.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1314 GMT (2114 HKT)
A new exchange initiative aims to bridge relations between the two countries .
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 0551 GMT (1351 HKT)
Xi and Abe's brief summit featured all the enthusiasm of two unhappy schoolboys forced to make up after a schoolyard dust-up.
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
Maybe you've decided to show your partner love with a new iPhone. But how about 99 of them?
November 3, 2014 -- Updated 0219 GMT (1019 HKT)
Can China's Muslim minority fit in? One school is at the heart of an ambitious experiment to assimilate China's Uyghurs.
November 4, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is one of thousands of Americans learning Chinese.
November 4, 2014 -- Updated 0500 GMT (1300 HKT)
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou says he needs to maintain good economic ties with China while trying to keep Beijing's push for reunification at bay.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 0528 GMT (1328 HKT)
Chinese drone-maker DJI wants to make aerial photography drones mainstream despite concerns about privacy.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 0518 GMT (1318 HKT)
A top retired general confesses to taking bribes, becoming the highest-profile figure in China's military to be caught up in war on corruption.
ADVERTISEMENT