In an article by Catherine Wong updated on 19 April 2017 for the South China Morning Post, Shi Yinhong, Director of the Centre for American Studies at Renmin University, Beijing, said that the Chinese were caught between Pyongyang and Washington with "limited options":
"China is willing to build on the good relations with the U.S. and may impose harsher sanctions on North Korea. But China will have to pay the price – (North Korean leader) Kim Jong-un will not stop That last little quip about the Supreme Leader hating China "even more", may come as a bit of a surprise to many as the impression of China and North Korea being very close, which therefore would imply that the larger country has the ability to apply pressure if it really wanted to, is widespread if not universal.
After several verbal statements and tweets by President Trump, it appears that he believes this to be the case. To emphasize the point that the President's patience is wearing thin, he has warned China that if they don't do something to sort North Korea out, particularly with its ballistic missile/nuclear bomb making project, then America will do something – with no options excluded.
How worried should we really be that events this time will lead to major conflagration? David Josef Volodzko in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post (SCMP) on 15 April, wrote that "Sabre-rattling is a way of life on the Korean Peninsula" but reported that just in case measures taken up to mid-April included China sending 120,000 troops (by 20 April reports put this as high as 150,000) and medical supplies to its border area with North Korea, and that a quarter of Pyongyang's population has been moved out for safety.
Today, 20 April, there are several accounts of Russia moving troops and military equipment including tanks, to its 11-mile border with North Korea. Like China, such action is being taken for the moment as a precaution against the possibility of large numbers of refugees trying to cross the frontier should some major conflagration break out or the Pyongyang regime (bloodily) collapse.
Either scenario could see people from South Korea as well as the North trying to escape as the U.S., nor anybody else, can protect the likes of Seoul with its 22 million+ population living so near the 38th Parallel frontier that divides North from South.
Using its conventional long range artillery and mortars against this urban area, it is estimated that North Korea would kill 130,000 within the first couple of hours of bombardment – only a little consolation that the kill rate should decrease substantially after this.
Yet many media outlets note the relative calm of the South Korean population though for all that the SCMP's Phar Kim Beng warned on 19 April: "DON'T MESS WITH N KOREA'S KIM, HE THINKS HE'S HIS GRANDFATHER". In this piece he cautions his readers that Kim Jong-un is a dictator, insecure and delusional, who has moulded himself to look and act like his grandfather Kim Il-sung - further to enhance his mystique - he suggests.
Like his grandfather who ruthlessly eliminated all opposition, real or perceived, Kim Jong-un has not hesitated to kill even family members who could pose a threat. Widely believed to have ordered the death of his half-brother Kim Jong-nam a couple of months back, he definitely ordered the execution of uncle Jang Sung-taek (December 2013) and South Korean Intelligence asserts, several members of Jang's family for good measure.
That brings us back to China, with the American President telling its leader Xi Jinping to pull his finger out. No one else is giving China such an earful – certainly not South Korea or Japan. Maybe this is because they know and appreciate that China's influence is mainly economic and that the sanctions that it already imposes or could further apply, really don't hurt the regime and the (privileged) 25 or so per cent of the country that are the backbone of its establishment and continuance.
All hardship will fall upon the remaining 75 per cent who live in relative poverty and particularly the bottom 25 per cent underclass – generally people opposed to the regime or whose parents and grandparents were – and include a high proportion of slave labour.
China does not want the possibility of North Korea's starving masses to be seen pressed up against its border fences or escapees who make it across to China but are caught only to be returned to North Korea and probable execution.
Aside from the uncomfortable fact that it has the Sino- North Korea Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty remaining valid until 2021 (by which both countries are obliged to come to each other's aid if attacked from outside), China and North Korea have never been particularly close, not even when Mao Zedong was still alive.
To China, and to a lesser extent now, Russia, North Korea was and remains a buffer zone against possible encroachment by the United States, Japan and South Korea. China has no love and may even have contempt for Kim's regime but it doesn't know how or with whom to replace it, at least without a great loss of life in the North Pacific region.
The Russian naval port of Vladivostock lies less than a hundred miles from North Korea and reports suggest that should North Korea's nuclear facilities be destroyed by a pre-emptive strike, any radioactive cloud will reach the city within two hours.
There's the rub, it's not just China that is failing to square this circle.
Surely, many would argue, China can lean on Pyongyang from a moral high ground, after all it fought America to a standstill in the Korean War, losing 183,000 dead and several hundred thousand injured before an armistice was signed in 1953 – technically North and South are still at war.
Apparently, this has never counted for much with the Kim family. North Korea owes its survival to China but not its creation. That was Russia's doing. Likewise, the Kim dynasty (Mao probably never knew Kim Il-sung before 1945) and "land reforms" and "socialist" policies that were put into place early in the regime's life. All was the work of Stalin with the detail being done by his political commissar, Colonel General Terentii Shtykov – not Kim Il-sung. China entered the conflict only after American troops pressed towards the Yalu River frontier, four months after the Korean War started.
With no immediate obvious or easy solution, the one minimum there ought to be is dialogue and with a bit of effort some harmony between the only two nations in the ball park that may be able to eventually effect one, China and the USA. Maybe America could give China a guarantee that none of their forces will proceed beyond the 38th Parallel and its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system can be replaced with one not so threatening to China??
China and the USA are not enemies but not as good friends as they ought to have been for decades past. This is only a comfort to Kim Jong-un.