Disappointing Western hopes that he would put North Korea on a more rational and humane path, Kim Jong-un relishes showing his regime as one of the most odious and dangerous on the planet. Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, the young new leader is acting the part of a real-life Dr. Evil, recklessly threatening atomic attacks on South Korea, Japan, and the United States. His conventional weapons alone could wreak nuclear-like mass destruction on Seoul.
Three generations of the Kim family have perpetrated one international outrage after another: invading South Korea, shooting down a civilian airliner and its two hundred passengers, kidnapping Japanese civilians and Asian film stars; seizing a U.S. Navy ship and imprisoning its crew; sinking a South Korean frigate, sending scores of sailors to their deaths; shelling a South Korean island and killing innocent civilians.
The Kims’ treatment of their own people has been just as monstrous—condemning millions to privation and death while diverting the nation’s wealth to build the world’s fourth-largest army and spending billions on nuclear and missile programs in violation of multiple Security Council resolutions. With the entire country effectively a prison, the government operates scores of special gulags where hundreds of thousands routinely face forced labor, torture, rape, forced abortion, starvation, and death without charge or trial.
Throughout the six decades of this grotesquely despotic rule, the People’s Republic of China has stood steadfastly behind the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, proudly proclaiming their “lips and teeth” relationship and protecting it from meaningful international sanctions. It was one thing for Mao Zedong’s revolutionary China to join Pyongyang in its invasion of South Korea. But how can modern China, an aspiring superpower that demands the world’s respect, associate itself so intimately with a universally despised thugocracy?
The answer is that China’s Communist leaders are not easily shocked by North Korean behavior that mirrors their own governance not so long ago. Even today, despite decades of Western engagement, Beijing’s authoritarian rule and external aggressiveness reflect a value system and worldview that is in many ways closer to Pyongyang’s than to the West’s.
Every few years another prominent Chinese general threatens nuclear destruction of American cities should the U.S. dare to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack. The “sea of fire” imagery North Korea regularly conjures is also part of China’s vocabulary. Another repressive regime favoring the phrase is Iran, which has benefitted from Chinese and North Korean nuclear and missile technology.
Wherever there is a state oppressing its people, proliferating dangerous missile and nuclear technology, or threatening its neighbors, China takes its side against the international community. Given Beijing’s philosophical kinship with such rulers, its enduring support for North Korea should not surprise Western officials and scholars.
Shared strategy toward the West also helps to explain the China-North Korea alliance: both see the United States as their past and future enemy. Washington’s decades-long preoccupation with Pyongyang has served Beijing’s interests by distracting U.S. attention from the growing potential China threat while enabling it to posture as the responsible Asian Communist power.
Beijing candidly declares its worst fear: the end of the Pyongyang regime and its replacement by a normal, and unified, democratic Korea. To avoid that result, China is perfectly happy to have the West live with a nuclear North Korea nightmare. It facilitated that scenario when it funneled start-up nuclear technology to North Korea through Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan network in the early 1990s and enabled the flow of materials and technology through China ever since. Last year, former Defense Secretary Panetta informed Congress of Beijing’s complicit in Pyongyang’s ballistic missile program.
The accepted rationale for Chinese behavior is that it needs Communist North Korea as a buffer against a pro-Western South or unified Korea. But only extreme paranoia, or duplicitous intentions, could envision an unprovoked attack from either the U.S. or a democratic Korea in the absence of North Korean or Chinese aggression. Either way, China’s attitude toward North Korea says much about China’s attitude toward the West. Washington is beginning to recognize that, beyond the North Korea problem, we have an even greater China problem.