“We’re really stuck.”

Though this quote comes from an Australian, it captures the sentiment of Chinese attitudes towards North Korea as expressed in a recent story on NPR. The alleged hijacking of Chinese fishing vessels by North Koreans wearing naval uniforms (first discussed on NextWar here) exposes the growing rift between these long-time partners. According to the NPR story, transparency between North Korea and China on important issues like the death of Kim Jong Il and North Korean nuclear tests has all but disappeared. Now, it appears that North Korean affronts to China on the high seas threaten popular support for the former by the latter.

Though the United States has long opposed the close relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang, it has also sought to use China both as a means to communicate intentions to North Korea and as a lever to turn the latter’s repressive regime towards gradual reforms. The growing rift between China and the DPRK threatens the tense but relatively stable security dynamic on the Korean peninsula.

Without the support of a great power like China, North Korea may feel increasingly forced into a diplomatic corner, making conflict more likely.

More broadly, however, this series of events demonstrates the increasing importance that events on the sea have upon the fate of governments on the land. In the days of sail, an untold number of acts of theft and violence occurred on the high seas without a word reaching the shores. Even if accounts did reach the land, it would take months to do so. Now, technology enables word of maritime rows to reach the public with great speed and that same technology allows word-of-mouth accounts to shape public opinion as much as government press releases – even in China.

Relations between China and North Korea merit close attention in the coming weeks and months, but the political fallout in China should be taken as a clear sign that the smallest of flare-ups in maritime hot spots could spread quickly and gain a life of its own.

LT Kurt Albaugh is a Surface Warfare Officer and Instructor in the Naval Academy’s English Department. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

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