Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Pondering Pyongyang: Beijing's problem child

By Kristie Lu Stout, CNN
updated 4:54 AM EDT, Wed June 19, 2013
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.

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
updated 1:13 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Chinese are turning to overseas personal shoppers to get their hands on luxury goods at lower prices.
updated 5:08 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Experts say rapidly rising numbers of Christians are making it harder for authorities to control the religion's spread.
updated 12:52 AM EDT, Mon August 11, 2014
"I'm proud of their moral standing," says Harvey Humphrey. His parents are accused of corporate crimes in China.
updated 3:42 PM EDT, Wed August 6, 2014
A TV confession detailing a life of illegal gambling and paid-for sex has capped the dramatic fall of one of China's most high-profile social media celebrities.
updated 12:10 AM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
President Xi Jinping's campaign to punish corrupt Chinese officials has snared its biggest target -- where can the campaign go from here?
updated 3:12 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
All you need to know about the tainted meat produce that affects fast food restaurants across China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
updated 10:30 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
updated 5:11 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Is the Chinese president a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
updated 11:44 PM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
updated 2:31 AM EDT, Fri July 4, 2014
26-year-old Ji Cheng is the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.
updated 7:24 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, may not yet be a household name outside of China, but that could be about to change.
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
updated 2:56 AM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
The push for democratic reform in Hong Kong is testing China's "one country, two systems" model.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
Along a winding Chinese mountain road dotted with inns and restaurants is Jinan Orphanage, a place of refuge and site for troubled parents to dump unwanted children.
updated 4:36 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
CNN's Kristie Lu Stout invites Isaac Mao, Han Dongfang, and James Miles to discuss the rise of civil society in China and social media's crucial role.
updated 11:34 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
Chen Guangbiao wants rich people to give more to charity and he'll do anything to get their attention, including buying lunch for poor New Yorkers.
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
Architects are planning to build the future world's tallest towers in China. They're going to come in pretty colors.
ADVERTISEMENT