China raises its stake in North
Korea By Andrei Lankov
SEOUL - North Korea is living through a
foreign language boom. Learning languages has
always been a good way to secure lucrative and
prestigious jobs in the country, but in past one
had to specialize in Russian, French or English.
These days, Chinese is becoming the most
popular choice, more or less equal to English. And
it would appear young and ambitious North Koreans
are making the right decision.
presence in North Korea is growing fast. In 2004,
Chinese investment in the economy reached US$50
million. This year, the figure will be $85-90
million. This is remarkable growth:
merely two years ago, in
2003, Chinese investment was just $1.1 million.
This year, the trade volume between China
and North Korea is expected to reach $1.5 billion.
Not a great amount of money by the international
standards, perhaps, but it still makes China the
largest trade partner of the North. The share of
trade with China is likely to reach 48% of all
North Korean foreign trade. With the investment,
China's share is even higher - some 85%.
Chinese traders are highly present in
Pyongyang, and make up a large part of the crowds
in Pyongyang's major casino, open only to
foreigners. And in a much-publicized deal, a
Chinese company has entered a joint venture to run
First Department Store, the major shopping mall of
the North Korean capital and its prominent
This growth in the Chinese
presence is seen by Seoul with certain unease. The
scale of activity is unprecedented, and it is well
known that trade with or investment in North Korea
has seldom been profitable. Throughout the 60-year
history of this peculiar place, most trade with
Pyongyang has been politically motivated.
Foreign powers traded with North Korea
because this was seen as a way to increase
influence there. And it seems the same motivation
is behind the present-day Chinese trade boom. So
it comes as no surprise that South Korean
officials, journalists and academics in the last
two years have begun to talk about China's
"neo-colonial push" toward North Korea.
There are reasons for this suspicion.
China has both serious incentives to keep North
Korea afloat, and the ability to do so. The
strategic goals of China are influenced by its
rivalry with the United States. This rivalry lacks
the intensity of the Cold War once waged by the
Russians and Americans, but it is real
Since a unified Korea (should
it ever happen) is likely to remain under a strong
American influence, and perhaps even have a
continuing US military presence, its unification
would mean a deterioration of China's strategic
position. In 1950, China chose to fight a major
war to prevent exactly this - the unification of
the Korean peninsula under a pro-US government.
The continuing survival of North Korea is
also important for Chinese domestic policy. In
spite of all its economic successes, the communist
government still has concerns over internal
stability, and the collapse of another communist
regime might have consequences for Chinese
Importantly, China has
the means to support the North Korean regime.
After all, one or two billion dollars a year are
sufficient to keep Pyongyang afloat. This is a
large sum, but quite affordable for China. If
North Korea receives such a regular subsidy, in
all probability it will try to re-start the former
system of complete state control and rationing of
consumer goods. Even though this is incompatible
with economic growth, it will help keep the
populace both alive and obedient.
more sinister scenarios are being discussed in
Seoul these days. There are growing worries that
Chinese involvement will not be limited to just
shipping trainloads of grain and fertilizer to
prevent the North Korean government from
collapsing. More direct involvement in the event
of a crisis is possible, up to the point of
installing a pro-Chinese government in Pyongyang,
according to some observers. These fears are not
necessarily paranoid: if anything, South Korean
public opinion is rather pro-Chinese these days.
The "Chinese solution" might be welcomed
by the North Korean elite, which is cornered, and
aware of its own embattled situation. Unlike the
rulers of the former Soviet Union, China or most
East European countries, the North Korean
apparatchiks cannot reinvent themselves as
successful capitalist entrepreneurs.
existence of prosperous and democratic South Korea
means that a complete collapse of the North Korean
system will probably lead to a German-style
unification. If this were to happen, the people
who run the North now will have no chance of
keeping their privileges, and perhaps have reasons
to worry about their lives.
relaxations, their rule is brutal, and their past
deeds, when exposed, are likely to produce cries
for revenge. It is physically impossible to
persecute all North Koreans officials, but it is
clear that they will not be able to keep their
privileged position in a post-Kim Jong-il era.
For the North Korean elite, China might
appear to be the lesser evil than their
"compatriots" in the South. China is not famous
for its concern for human rights or democracy, and
if Beijing establishes in North Korea a sort of
friendly dependent government, one can be sure
that no questions would be asked about the past of
North Korean bureaucrats employed in the new
Even if such dramatic events do
not take place, the Chinese presence is already
useful now, as it can be used as diplomatic
leverage against the South.
It is clear
that in Beijing the temptation to keep North Korea
under control is high. But will the benefits of
some open or semi-open intervention outweigh the
associated problems and losses? After all, China's
competition with the US is very unlikely to
develop into a military confrontation.
Certainly, active intervention in North
Korea will undermine the remarkable goodwill
toward China, which can be seen among many
neighbors as the rising giant.
So, it is
more likely that the Chinese will avoid political
adventurism and limit themselves to gaining
economic advantages in the northern part of the
Korean peninsula. At any rate, it seems that the
youngsters flowing to the Chinese language
departments in North Korean schools and colleges
are making a reasonable choice.
Andrei Lankov is a lecturer in the faculty of
Asian Studies, China and Korea Center, Australian
National University. He graduated from Leningrad
State University with a PhD in Far Eastern history
and China, with emphasis on Korea, and his thesis
focused on factionalism in the Yi Dynasty. He has
published books and articles on Korea and North
Asia. He is currently on leave, teaching at
Kookmin University, Seoul.