Following North Korea’s latest test of a nuclear device on Feb. 12, protestors gathered in a public park in the southern Chinese province of Guangzhou. While most were there to voice frustration over the North’s intransigence, many also denounced Beijing’s inability to control its recalcitrant ally.
According to reports, similar scenes played out across the country, a growing public chorus that echoes international frustration over North Korea.
“We strongly urge North Korea to desist from further nuclear tests,” wrote one blogger going by the name Wu Bin, who was among the protestors in Guangzhou. “We came to show our opposition to the North’s actions,” commented another, noting that protestors in Guangzhou were quickly rounded up by authorities soon after the gathering.
Public anger quickly grew following the North’s latest test, its third and likely strongest to date, registering a magnitude 4.7 quake centered just 60 miles from the Chinese border. While its location led to concerns over possible fallout, many took offense to the test’s timing, coming at the height of the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday.
“It’s like raising a tiger, only to have it grow up and devour you,” read one comment on the portal site Weibo, describing Beijing’s continued support for North Korea.
The comments came in response to a publicized interview with noted sociologist Ma Yong, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. In the interview, Ma took issue with a series of reports by China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency attempting to justify Beijing’s stance.
“These [reports],” Ma said flatly, “were simply looking to provide excuses for Beijing’s failed policies on North Korea.”
Drugs and the Black Market
With crippling sanctions long in place, the black market has become a key source of revenue for North Korea’s elite, funding lavish lifestyles and fueling a burgeoning cross-border drug trade.
On both sides, notes a report in The Economist, local residents have come to rely on this illicit and profitable source of cash.
“Trade [with North Korea] is a large part of [our] economy,” said Wu Yang, owner of an ornament company in the city of Dandong, just across the border from North Korea, where most of the semi-precious stones she uses for her business come from. “I’m worried it will be affected,” she told the paper.
Indeed, as Chinese concerns mounted over the potential health impact of the nuclear test, residents along the border appeared more concerned over the impact the test would have on their pocketbooks.
According to The Economist, illegal products moving from China to North Korea include rice, fuel and other daily items. From North Korea, products include raw metals, coal, recycled iron and steel, and seafood.
Methamphetamines in particular, it notes, have had a growing impact.
Two smugglers were killed by North Korean border guards in 2010. A report by the Brookings Institution from 2011 noted that the number of reported addicts in the border city of Yanji spiked from 44 in the 1990s to over 2,000 at the time of the study. The authors, who noted then that the true number was likely far higher, located the source of most of the drugs to North Korea.
And while Beijing struggles to come up with an appropriate response to Pyongyang’s latest provocations, those living closest to the North warn that any attempt to shut down bilateral trade – which stood at $5.63 billion in 2011 – will only add fuel to this illicit economy.
“If China’s government clamps down on official trade with the North to express its displeasure at the nuclear test, the result will only be more smuggling,” said one merchant.
Neither Friend nor Enemy
A Feb. 17 editorial in the Chinese-language Global Times noted that while managing relations with North Korea remains a challenge, at the same time China “cannot be seen to cow to the demands of Washington and its allies in Seoul and Tokyo.”
“We would not call North Korea an ally of China,” the statement read, “but at the same time the two countries should not be enemies.”
What that means as far as an official response to the North’s test, however, is unclear. China described the North’s first test in 2006 as “brazen,” and in December of 2012 leaders in Beijing agreed to a new round of sanctions on the impoverished nation after it conducted a test of its long-range Unha-3 rocket.
Analysts say this time the response will likely involve further economic measures, though China will stop short at security-related initiatives for fear of possible instability on its border.
Speaking anonymously, a Chinese official who has worked closely on the North Korean issue was quoted as saying that suspected improvements in North Korea’s economy and its agricultural output has meant the country is less dependent on its larger neighbor.
“North Korea is not worried about possible punishments from the international community,” he said, adding the country is likely considering further tests of its nuclear capability as well as a rocket launch “before the end of this year.”
Others stressed that in dealing with the international community’s demands to punish North Korea, China must maintain its position as the “middleman,” a reference to its historical title as the “Middle Kingdom.”
“North Korea is a sovereign state,” said one researcher who specializes in North-South relations. “China can only suggest, but cannot forcibly compel Pyongyang.”
And while China must respond to the latest test, he added, it cannot do so in a way that “strangles” North Korea. “If the government in Pyongyang suddenly collapses,” he warned, “it would benefit no one in the region.”
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