After the UN released its report on human rights in North Korea, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, argues in Foreign Policy that China needs to do more on North Korea:
No country has more influence over North Korea than China, which has long provided a lifeline of economic aid and political cover to the Kim dynasty of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and, since Dec. 2011, Kim Jong Un, while refusing to do anything about the horrendous cruelty being committed next door. If it wanted to, Beijing could use its considerable influence to press Pyongyang to curb its atrocities.
Now, experts have different views on just how much influence China has over North Korea. But regardless of whether Beijing could really get Pyongyang to stop its human rights abuses, the reality is that Beijing won’t. At least not as part of the UN Security Council. CNN has a good roundup of why North Korea won’t change as a result of the UN report. And Roth, who argues passionately that Chinese authorities have a moral obligation to do something, acknowledges that there are challenges to appealing to China:
[China] fears a precedent of international attention to peacetime repression, lest China’s own conduct — whether in the restive regions of Xinjiang and Tibet or among its dissident community — be the next subject of interest. And despite the brutality of the Kim government, China worries that North Korea may collapse, sending a flood of refugees into northeastern China. A collapse would also mean that South Korea, a Western ally that hosts some 28,500 U.S. troops, would border China as part of a unified Korea.
Roth goes on to say that the problems are “resolvable” but he only addresses the latter issues, that of potential North Korean refugees in China and of a new border with Korea. But it is unequivocally the first issue that is the dealbreaker: Chinese leaders do not want a precedent set that the UN, or other foreign powers, could scrutinize a repressive regime for their human rights abuses and then do something about it. Period. This is the dreaded “interference in [country’s] internal affairs” that Chinese officials are always harping on. And that’s not going to change anytime soon.
North Korea is an easy target when it comes to human rights abuses. It’s already considered a pariah state, and there is little risk for other countries in condemning its actions. While the reports of the conditions in North Korean prison camps are appalling, it’s unlikely that they will “shake the consciences” of the Chinese leadership, as Roth hopes. And that’s because Chinese authorities have used the same torture methods on their own people. But it’s a touchier issue when it comes to China, both for other countries and for human rights groups.
In China, domestic politics trumps international politics every time. And when it comes to human rights abuses, every Chinese leader has a skeleton or several in their closets. And they are going to keep them there. So, yes, Beijing will have to lose some face in the international community for not acting on North Korea. But the leadership would rather deal with that than risk being called out themselves, even if that’s unlikely with China’s current economic and political place in the world.