The Chinese government has adopted a twin-track approach to its relationship with North Korea in the years since Kim Il Sung’s death, featuring an idealistic scenario first and a more realistic plan to try and ensure that catastrophe can be indefinitely avoided second.
From Beijing’s point of view, a complete overhaul of the way North Korea organizes and regulates its economy represents the ideal scenario, and in recent years the Chinese leadership has continually encouraged and cajoled Pyongyang to open the door and reform its economic sphere. Beijing believes that if North Korea were to succeed in the way China has then it would be possible to realize political and military stability on the Korean Peninsula and a much greater degree of economic cooperation with all parties.
However, from the North Korean regime perspective, staying in power is more important than economic reform. Therefore, the regime is exceedingly reluctant to act on the Chinese suggestion, which would almost certainly affect its ability to stay in power. Thus, the Kim Jong Il regime has been prepared to reform itself only to the extent that it has felt it must in order to earn the money it needs to survive. Every reformist policy the North Korean regime has adopted thus far, notably limited economic cooperation with South Korean and Chinese enterprises, has been purely on the basis of expediency and for the purposes of earning foreign currency.
Nevertheless, although the level of North Korean opening and reform has not reached Chinese government expectations, Beijing has never overtly pressured the North to change its economic system. This is because Beijing has not lost sight of the fact that excessive pressure by any foreign power could threaten the North Korean regime and its entire foundations, which China is keen to avoid.
The North Korean regime knows this, and has never done anything which it perceives as being a threat to its regime no matter how strongly the Chinese government has appeared to be urging it to change.
Therefore, China has always had a second, less spectacular Plan B: aid the Kim Jong Il regime politically and economically, but only enough to keep the system in order and maintain the status quo.
The guiding logic of Plan B is to prevent chaos on the Korean Peninsula due to the collapse of the North Korean regime and to keep or strengthen Beijing’s influence on the Korean Peninsula by maintaining somewhat cordial bilateral relations with the Kim Jong Il government. Accordingly, as the quantity of funds and materials flowing into North Korea is reduced as a result of sanctions, China tends to quietly dig them out of the hole.
This second Chinese policy has proven to be so effective that the regime, which could have collapsed in the late 1990s, was prolonged and, in appearance at least, the Korean Peninsula has remained stable.
This was the minimum aim of the Chinese government and it’s Plan B. However, since 2000, the weak points of the Chinese policy have started emerging.