Opinion: The fear of collapse | Opinion | DW | 12.02.2016
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Opinion: The fear of collapse

Each time North Korea conducts a nuclear or missile test, there is growing expectation that China will mount pressure on its ally. But while Beijing can certainly do more, it doesn't want to, writes DW's Philipp Bilsky.

Last December, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent a musical band, Moranbong, to neighboring China. Its aim was to help improve the deteriorating relations between Pyongyang and Beijing.

But the singers suddenly packed their bags and left the country. No one knows for sure why the gig was called off. The rumors range from disagreements over anti-American lyrics to North Korean threats over a hydrogen bomb test. But the sudden departure of the North Korean musicians was certainly a diplomatic setback for Beijing.

It was a small thing, but it shows just how bad relations are between the two neighbors these days. In recent years, the Chinese government has openly and repeatedly expressed its opposition against the North Korean nuclear program.

Following the recent launch of a long-range missile, Beijing warned Pyongyang that such actions would only spike tensions on the Korean peninsula. In January, the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement it was "firmly opposed" to the alleged hydrogen bomb test conducted by its secretive communist ally, and summoned the North Korean ambassador.

Philipp Bilsky

DW's Philipp Bilsky

The ties between the two countries have been at a low point for quite some time now. It seems obvious that the two countries no longer see one another as "brotherly states."

China could step up the pressure

But does that mean Beijing has no way of increasing the pressure on Pyongyang? No. The reason for this is that North Korea is economically dependent on neighboring China. According to China Customs figures, the Chinese exported some 176,000 tons of oil and more than 23 million tons of grain to North Korea between January and November 2015.

If China were to suspend trade with North Korea, it could bring the secretive regime to the brink of collapse, or even lead to its downfall.

And that's precisely the problem. Only few scenarios worry the Chinese government more than a North Korean collapse. There are two main reasons for this: First, such an event would prompt millions of people to seek refuge in northeastern China - with unforeseeable economic and social ramifications. Second, a reunification of the Korean peninsula would mean having South Korean and US soldiers stationed directly at China's borders - a geopolitical nightmare for Beijing.

A different scenario

But while Beijing has no interest in seeing an arms race unfold right on its doorstep, it is probably also of the view that Pyongyang is unlikely to completely surrender its nuclear weapons arsenal, even if China were to step up economic pressure.

Moreover, North Korea's military build-up is not aimed at China, but at the United States, South Korea and Japan, thus giving politicians in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo sleepless nights.

Nonetheless, it is China which would face the geostrategic nightmare - from a Chinese perspective - of a Korean reunification and the influx of millions of refugees. As long as the latter remains the most disastrous of scenarios for Beijing, it is unlikely that the Chinese leadership will change its stance on North Korea.

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