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China and North Korea
Posted by: McQ on Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A strange relationship if ever there was one. Ideologically similar, but not. Ethnically similar, but not. Both ruled by authoritarians, but one begins to prosper while the other gets poorer.

As many experts have made the point to mention, North Korea is not in China's back pocket, regardless of the fact that China is the country which keeps North Korea afloat by providing food and fuel.

And, of course, China has a very basic and pragmatic reason for wanting North Korea not to collapse, regardless of conditions there or who is in charge. It doesn't want the flood of millions of refugees that would entail. But there are strong indications that relationship might be changing fairly dramatically.

For one thing, there's now open debate within China's leadership about regime change in North Korea, a previously out-of-bounds topic.

But there are others signs as well. For example, while we loudly argue the efficacy of a fence along our southern border, China is quietly building one along its border with North Korea. Some experts see that as an overt act of distancing themselves from North Korea and perhaps preparation for a different approach to the regime in power:
China is increasingly distancing itself from its long-time ally North Korea. Beijing officials confirm they are continuing construction of a concrete and barbed-wire fence along their border with the North. Confirmation of the construction project came as Chinese banks began to exert tighter controls on money transfers and other financial transactions with North Korea.

Analysts see intensified work on the border fence as a sign of a growing rift between the two communist neighbors, after Pyongyang defied warnings from Beijing - among many other nations - and carried out its first nuclear test last week.
So what would be the effect of such a fence? Well the obvious effect would be to deny defectors the ability to defect, but just as importantly, it would also deny refugees the ability to flood China. China's new "Great Wall" so to speak.

But the not so obvious effect, coupled with the tighter controls on money transfers noted above, has to do with crippling the underground economy which thrives along the border and many claim helps keep North Korea afloat:
The border is a major crossing point for two-way trade that is said to be worth several billion dollars a year. Tens of thousands of North Koreans have snuck across the border into China, fleeing oppression and widespread hunger at home.
"Several billions" is a huge chunk to a country who's whole GDP is 40 billion in a nation of about 23 million. As 10% of the USSR's private farming plots fed a good portion of the country under communism, one would have little difficulty in believing that of all the sanctions, stopping this bit of trade by erecting a fence could end up being the most devastating.

So while we hear the official pronouncements from China about its reluctance to implement more stringent sanctions, keep this little nugget in the back of your mind. China's fence may say more about its changing attitude toward North Korea than anything its UN ambassador will ever say.
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Previous Comments to this Post 

This is a great find as an article, and a fence absolutely could change the economic dynamics in N. Korea. I’m willing to believe that China genuinely wants N.K. to keep a lower profile, and are probably using these plans as hardball. However, The effectiveness of the fence varies based on how many gates it has and the guards’ orders. (for an example - no one’s very impressed with the Egypt-Gaza fence.)

So I think this provides China with more leverage to put the screws to N.K, but it doesn’t fool me into thinking they’re ready for regime change. China likes having a state with an uglier record than itself around to do dirty work and soak up criticism. Sort of like Putin/Uzbekistan.
Written By: glasnost
URL: http://
I wouldn’t be so sure right now about regime change. Something I added after you’d commented:
For one thing, there’s now open debate within China’s leadership about regime change in North Korea, a previously out-of-bounds topic.
China likes having a state with an uglier record than itself around to do dirty work and soak up criticism. Sort of like Putin/Uzbekistan.
Heh ... well nothing says the "new" North Korea wouldn’t still have such a record. It just wouldn’t have a paranoid mini-Stalin w/nukes (chem and bio) running it. But then, you never know who might emerge. Although I can’t imagine anyone being worse than Kim Jong-Il, it could happen.
Written By: McQ
Heh - besides glaszy, to hear it told internationally and locally, we’re as bad as Stalin’s gulags ourselves. China always has us to point to for human rights violations, right?

I don’t think China needs NoKo as an example of "worse than us". Your presumption implies Bejing cares what you and the world think.
When the rubber meets the road, they don’t.
They have their own plans, and if NoKo is rocking the boat I don’t see Bejing having a long term problem pitching them over the side.
Written By: looker
URL: http://
don’t be fooled, China absolutely controls N Korea. If they wanted to end that regime with a minimum fuss they could do it with a few phone calls. It is useful to them to keep that little troll in power. It is a bargaining chip against us.
NORK has as much autonomy as the Chinese let them have. It would be like if the
Haitians suddenly started funding international terrorism. How long do you think we would let that happen?
Written By: kyle N

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