border review | 3 May 2012

Missiles, Defectors, and Cheap Labour

Since North Korea’s failed missile test earlier this month and China’s decision to stop sending North Korean defectors back, many observers have tried to make sense of these current developments.

Channel NewsAsia sees a direct link between the two stories:

China has stopped sending fleeing North Koreans back across the border, in retaliation for Pyongyang failing to consult its ally over last week’s rocket launch, a Japanese report said Wednesday.

The Yomiuri Shimbun quoted two Chinese officials as saying the long-standing policy of swiftly returning any North Korean who made it across the border and into China – despite the punishment they face – had been put on hold.

Beijing based The Economic Observer published a report by Chen Yong that highlight economic aspects:

The textile industry in Pyongyang and other cities grew substantially after South and North Korea held a joint summit in June 2000 and trade restrictions were loosened, said an executive from a Dandong trading company.

However that commerce dried up after the sinking a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in March 2010 and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November that year.

Since then many North Korean workers have been made redundant, and the textile firms that employed them have been trying to export workers to China, with the tacit consent of their government.

Finally, Victor Cha (Huffington Post) searches for the deeper reasons for China’s North Korea policy:

In terms of strategy, the policymakers in Beijing do not see a tough line, which could lead ultimately to a North Korean collapse, as being in China’s strategic interests. This is because the decision makers on North Korea are not in the foreign ministry in China, they are in the party and in the military. And for both groups, a collapse of North Korea would leave a united Korea, that is a military ally of the United States, directly on its border. Such an outcome would only reinforce in Chinese minds an important lesson of history - instability on the Korean peninsula has never redounded to Chinese interests.