Unsealed In Blood: Why China Is Finally Fed Up With North Korea

North Korean soldier near the border with China
North Korean soldier near the border with China
Chen Qin


BEIJING â€" China has always been clear about its "firm opposition" to North Korea"s development of a nuclear weapons program. But as the international community’s negotiation over the issue has stalled, Pyongyang continues to develop its nuclear technology. It is a provocation that leaves China little room for diplomatic maneuver.

China has carried out a notable strategic readjustment on this matter in recent days, led by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi citing three non-negotiables vis-à-vis North Korea, and working with the Americans to push through a new United Nations Security Council resolution on sanctions.

The unanimous approval by the UN Security Council on March 2 included unprecedented sanctions in the fields of finance, trade and technology to punish North Korea for its recent nuclear testing. The UN resolution also stresses that if Pyongyang conducts any more atomic tests or ballistic missile launches, it will "take further significant measures."

This Sino-American approach came after years of Beijing and Washington failing to agree on how North Korea should be sanctioned. The result reflects how the interests the two countries share on this issue are critical to both. As U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy R. Sherman told this newspaper in January 2015, if China makes it clear that North Korea’s abandoning its nuclear program is its top priority, this will be of great help in solving the problem.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently specified China’s three key points in how it will handle its policy on the Korean Peninsula: First comes the denuclearization of the peninsula, whether in the south or the north, and whether self-made or introduced deployment; second, there is no solving the problem by force, because this will lead to war and chaos, which China cannot allow; third, China's own legitimate national security interests must be effectively maintained and protected. 

In a Feb. 25 speech given to an American think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Wang Yi acknowledged that the UN resolution is bound to affect the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang, but is necessary in order to achieve the denuclearization of the peninsula. This is sending a strong message to North Korea: Denuclearization cannot be challenged.

As North Korea’s biggest neighbor, one with historical ties, and as the world's second largest economy and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China indeed should assume its responsibility on the North Korean nuclear issue.

Blood brothers

Another key difference with past Pyongyang provocations is that this time, with more online communication, North Korean actions have aroused a lot more discussion among the Chinese public. The seismic effects triggered by the nuclear test, the cracking of a school playground, as well as the pollution the test may have caused along the Chinese border, are all causing an unprecedented questioning of the Sino-North Korean relationship among Chinese.

China used to call its relation with North Korea a "friendship sealed in blood." But this bilateral relationship had already undergone a major shift in 1992, when China established diplomatic relations with South Korea. Meanwhile as Beijing normalizes relations with countries with different ideologies and political systems, and moves towards the center of the international stage, it has inevitably drifted further away from its historical alliance with North Korea.

Over the past two decades, every time North Korea conducted a nuclear test or a ballistic launch, the two countries’ relations deteriorated. In the era of Kim Jong-il, such new lows didn’t have much impact, and both sides’ leaders regularly visited each other. However since his son, Kim Jong-un, has come to power, the high-level exchanges between the two have been reduced significantly.

The cooling of relations between Beijing and Pyongyang is also linked to a huge gap in social development in the two countries. China continues to move forward, assuming an expanding international role in correspondence with its strength, while North Korea stands still and adheres to "military first" Songun politics regardless of its people's livelihood. If some from the older generation of Chinese still feel sentimentally attached to the ties between the two states during the Korean War, the young generation of Chinese are much more pragmatic, and find it difficult to identify with a North Korea they see as both foolish and offensive.

Sino-North Korean relations have come to a point where they must adapt to the realities of both the international system and public opinion. Though China's support for the UN sanctions resolution was a good start, it must now show Pyongyang that it is determined to follow through. After all, the first victim of North Korean instability is China.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!