North Korea beggars and destabilizes Manchuria

A map showing northeast China, North Korea and Russia
Panic starts in China’s northeastern provinces whenever North Korea threatens to conduct another nuclear test (source: macpixxel for GIS)

On April 14, 2017, the Dalian City Environmental Protection Bureau sent out an emergency notice to all departments of the government to warn of the risk of an accident involving North Korean nuclear and chemical weapons. It was the first time ever that a Chinese government unit issued such a stark warning with regard to North Korean stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and their possible threat to China’s territory.

Dalian is a harbor city of 7 million in Liaoning Province and is considered the richest in China’s northeast. Some 315 kilometers from Dalian is the city of Dandong, which sits right across a river from the North Korean city of Sinuiju. It is not difficult to imagine what kind of panic starts in the Chinese province when North Korea threatens to conduct another nuclear test.

Divine dictators

April 15 is the birthday of the founder of North Korea and grandfather of today’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un. In 1997, his father Kim Jong-Il decided to mark the date as the Sun Festival. The people of North Korea are indoctrinated to believe that their first leader is the real sun which rises from the earth. On his birthday, festivities are staged with a big military show as a centerpiece, to display North Korean military might to the world. This year, Kim Jong-un was expected to celebrate by carrying out a new nuclear test on the 15th. He ordered a missile test on the following day instead – supposedly because of threats of retaliation from the United States. The missile failed after two minutes in flight.

Beijing wanted to send its top officials to Pyongyang for talks even after the latest series of missile tests

China did not send a delegation to Pyongyang to participate in Mr. Kim’s festival. Some of those in attendance have noted, however, that several missiles on display were carried on trailers made in China and that tires on many of the military vehicles were also of Chinese origin. Of course, apart from the Chinese government, no one knows whether China supplied these to North Korea before the United Nations Security Council ban on exports of strategic goods to Pyongyang, or had the Chinese flouted UNSC resolution.

Exchange of threats

China is the only country that has supported the North Korean regime over six decades. Reportedly, Beijing wanted to send its top officials to Pyongyang for talks even after the latest series of missile tests, but the regime refused the offer. The North Korean Central News Agency described China as a U.S. stooge and warned that “that big country” will face “disastrous consequences”, if it dared “to cooperate with America.” Chinese newspaper Global Times fired right back by warning that if North Korea dared to test a nuclear device again, China will harden its economic sanctions, including the imposition of severe restrictions on petroleum exports to that country. The fact of the matter is that the Kim regime would not last three months without oil from China.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama’s policies on North Korea, of speaking hard and carrying no stick, have failed. Kim Jong-un concluded that Mr. Obama had no guts to act and even China didn’t bother to cooperate with the U.S., which has given North Korea a chance to develop its nuclear military technology. This time around, however, the supreme leader saw something else – the new U.S. president’s apparent determination to solve the problem on the Korean Peninsula in a decisive manner. Mr. Kim was also surprised that on April 20 China supported the UN Security Council’s strong condemnation of his recent ballistic-missile launch. China’s envoys used to abstain from such votes. For the first time ever, it looked like the top leaders of China and the US were joining forces to get rid of Kim Jong-un.

Manchuria’s plight

What has made China change its mind? Has Beijing finally realized that the biggest victim of the region’s nuclear crisis could be the more than one hundred million Chinese living in the northeast of the country? Each time North Korea has carried out a nuclear test, it has taken place in a location right next to its border with China – never close to South Korea.

The northeastern provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang are known to English speakers as Manchuria, the birthplace of Qing dynasty rulers. Since the 18th century, Manchuria has attracted tens of millions of people from China’s central plains who sought a better life on the prosperous, fertile land. In time, the area became a center of heavy industry as well, which tempted the Japanese to take over Manchuria in 1939. Changchun, the capital city of Jilin province, featured Asia’s biggest radio station in 1934 and was the first city in the Far East with flush toilets and gas pipelines installed in private houses. In 1945, after Japan lost World War II and left China, Manchuria’s industrial output accounted for 85 percent of China’s entire production. The region’s industry was Asia’s leader.

However, over the past 30 years of China’s spectacular economic growth, the former powerhouse has sharply deteriorated. In 2016, the gross domestic product of the three provinces ranked among the lowest in China. Liaoning Province even recorded a contraction – for the first time in history. There are reasons for this sorry state of affairs, of course. The region’s two immediate neighbors, Russia and North Korea, do not bring in many economic benefits while posing plenty of problems. The central government in Beijing has been trying to develop the area’s economy, but few are willing to invest in a place that constantly faces potential nuclear disaster.

Sword of Damocles

As a result, 4 million residents, failing to see a future there, have left the region during the past decade. It is extremely difficult for young people to find employment there, frustration and poverty threaten to destabilize the local society. This concerns the Chinese leaders in Beijing, who do not want to see turmoil in those provinces.

Unfortunately for the Chinese, Kim Jong-un is not going to give up his nuclear weapons to appease the U.S. From the era of Kim Jong-ll, the regime believes that it needs weapons of mass destruction to be treated seriously by the world. It is used to extracting what it needs in supplies and political support by threatening its neighbors – including China. These days, Mr. Kim is taking his measure of U.S. President Donald Trump and trying to find out how far he is ready to go to make good on his threat to “resolve the problem” of North Korea, what his bottom line is.

For the people of Manchuria, the bottom line is quite obvious: as long as Kim Jong-un remains in power and keeps his nuclear warheads, the Sword of Damocles will hang over northeast China and it will not return to prosperity.

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