Beijing's North Korea Problem
Image Credit: Flickr (Pricey)

Beijing's North Korea Problem


A few months ago, the eminent Chinese scholar Wang Jisi noted that China had achieved “first class power status” and “should be treated as such.” The current situation with North Korea suggests two responses: There is scarcely a more opportune moment for Beijing to step up to the plate; and be careful what you wish for.

Here is what we know about China and the current crisis with North Korea: Beijing doesn’t know what to do. Before North Korea’s nuclear test, the state-supported newspaper Global Times asserted that China should “seize initiative in NK issues” and argued, “…if North Korea insists on a third nuclear test despite attempts to dissuade it, it must pay a heavy price. The assistance it will be able to receive from China should be reduced.” After the test, the official news agency Xinhua argued that the “DPRK’s defiance was deeply rooted in its strong sense of insecurity after years of confrontation with South Korea, Japan and a militarily more superior United States.”  In other words, Beijing was back to blaming everyone else for the DPRK’s actions.

Chinese foreign policy analysts are also divided over how to approach North Korea. As early as December 2010, Chinese scholar Zhu Feng referred to China’s continued support of North Korea as an example of Beijing’s “obsolete ideology” and noted that Chinese thinking on North Korea is “no longer monolithic” and, in fact, “no foreign-policy issue is more divisive.” The BBC’s roundup of Chinese scholars’ views suggests Zhu is right. Ruan Zongze, deputy director of the China Institute of International Studies, stated that China had already “made huge efforts” and “developments on the Korean Peninsula do not just depend on China.” And Fudan University scholar Shen Dingli argued that the United States “will eventually accept North Korea’s nuclear weapons.” Major-General Xu Guangyu, however, said that North Korea’s “military first politics is wrong” and UN sanctions will be unavoidable.

Another thing we know about China and North Korea is that the potential of Beijing’s leverage — the life-sustaining economic, food, and energy assistance it provides to the DPRK—is not in any way influencing North Korean decision-making. In addition to Pyongyang ignoring Beijing’s warnings over the third nuclear test, let’s not forget that late last year a $40 million investment in North Korea by one of China’s largest mining companies went belly-up when the North Koreans reportedly mastered the mining processes themselves and evicted the Chinese workers. The Chinese company is still trying to recoup some of its investment. Moreover, efforts by the Chinese to persuade Kim Jong-un to undertake more significant economic reform have apparently fallen on deaf ears. North Korea appears to be the tail that is wagging the China dog.

While we wait for Beijing’s foreign policy to coalesce, we might look to Beijing’s north for some help. Mongolian officials have regularly hosted their North Korean counterparts for national security and economic discussions. They have even acted as a third party host for delicate negotiations involving the DPRK; most recently in November 2012, Mongolia brought Japanese and North Korean negotiators together in Ulaanbaatar to discuss the long-standing problem of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens. Like China, Mongolia has a long-standing relationship with the DPRK; it was the second country to grant diplomatic recognition to North Korea after the Soviet Union. It is unlikely that a simple talk with Mongolia’s personable President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj will have an immediate impact, but at the very least backchannel lines of communication can be exploited. More insight into Kim Jong-un’s thinking and the broader political situation within North Korea is clearly needed.

Beijing has options—chief among them is adopting tougher sanctions both through the United Nations and bilaterally (such as turning off the spigot of the Daqing pipeline that supplies the DPRK with much of its oil, as Beijing did nearly a decade ago in March 2003). Whatever Beijing decides to do, however, it has likely already realized that in the world of “first-class power,” high-stakes foreign policy, you don’t get points for trying, only for succeeding.

Elizabeth C. Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is an expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy and U.S.-China relations and author of the award-winning book, 'The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future.'  She blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.

April 8, 2013 at 11:26

powdering the NOKOR will gain peace in the region

April 6, 2013 at 12:45

China would never consider the reestablishment of manchukuo or dividing china at the Yangtze River, which occurred earlier in its history.  Yet it denies a united motherland to Koreans.  China is full of hypocrisy.

April 6, 2013 at 06:36

Bottom line is. China doesn’t seem to get through to north koreas new leader. They give north korea money while north korea continues to threaten Chinas main trading partners. Eventually I believe that china will make north korea understand that they cannot continue to act like that in the modern world. Nor will the many nations of the worldl tolerate it.Bottom line, china would no longer have trading partners to sell their goods too. Can you imagine what a war started by north korea would do to the worlds stock markets and the different countries of the worlds economies.

[...] backdrop, there is an underutilized diplomatic asset that could potentially help these quarrels. As Elizabeth Economy pointed out last month on The Diplomat, and others have alluded to elsewhere, Mongolia could take on an [...]

[...] To cooperate with China more closely on North Korea—that’s been an item on the U.S. wish list for twenty years…but the chances are better than [...]

March 1, 2013 at 14:00

Sir I ask you, who are you a lackey or slave too with your opinions? Stop casting your own fear and hate at others when you cannot get over your own. In America they can say, or tell their government whatever they want, as so long as no one persons life is in danger. Can they do that in China, North Korea, Iran and a list that goes on and on. You must live in a some-what-free society or do you hide behind a computer faking your freedom of speech? You need to get off your moral high horse (this is a Western/medieval fraise so you know). So you also grasp global nuclear warfare that you seem to think is what every country plans to do. If one super power or its ally launches a device, at another super power we are talking near extinction of every living thing on this planet. Do you not understand mutually assured destruction? It is not just countries it is everything on the planet. The super powers are more content to fight the new global war, geopolitical and economic wars. Everyone lives while your enemy suffers and you become rich, sounds like capitalism to me. You may praise yourself on how well versed you are on arrogant American policies. You type like many confused, uninformed Americans, regurgitating from their own misperceived ideas. Solve the problem, do not become part of it, your speech is doing nothing that benefits your fellow man. So what would you do, that would bring harmony to this planet. So help me you say, "bomb the western pigs", you are saying the exact opposite of ignorant westerners. Become the solution to the problem, what would help the world, and this matter peacefully?

March 1, 2013 at 13:25

It is no doubt that you have any care for the United States of America. What you probably have been exposed to over your life is of watching and listening to what others have influenced you to be, their idea of right. Do not perceive others truths to be fact, you must decide what is true by reason. You posting some article that The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea has issue, it is propaganda. I may agree that the US should back off the Korean Peninsula, it would do nothing to their strategic capabilities thanks to technology. This also would stop the propaganda of American invasion, or will it. Everyone needs an enemy, imagined or real. Because the US is viewed as an outsider in the region it is the target, DPRK will always find an enemy, I am sure you claim many. This helps you with your life, it gives you some one to blame when it is not going the way you want. I would ask you to look deep inside, find your enemy within and fight it, blame it. It will make you a better person, calming your own anger and fear you blatantly press as US fault. But to your comment about NKs military is made to fight the US, it would be a short fight. It would not be The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea if it was not for Soviet, and continued Chinese involvement. So I agree that China and Russia need to do something about their troublesome ward.

February 22, 2013 at 18:12

@ Bankotsu

Do not believe 我的朋友 in that article of Han Ho Suk.  Its a NK paper, has no correct analysis that show a real understanding of the US and NK military capability.


February 22, 2013 at 17:39

My country China continues to fear the possibility of a unified Korea being led by a government in Seoul.  PLA will continue bankrolling North Korea, even as their once-close political relationship continues to unravel.

waheed niazi
February 21, 2013 at 14:25


Free Thinker
February 19, 2013 at 23:55

America doesn't want China's "help". They just want China to stop funding and defending (in the UN) a hideous totalitarian hellhole that's destabilising the region with nuclear confrontation.

Hostile for no reason? NK regularly threatens to obliterate their nations, sets off rockets and nukes, and commits military/terrorist attacks like shelling the South Koreans and sinking their ships.

Even China is pretty sick of North Korea, propaganda notwithstanding. They only support NK because they're terrified of a strong unified Korea on their border, which would naturally align with the riches and freedom of Western free market democracy, as opposed to the crushing totalitarian poverty of Communisn. 

papa john
February 19, 2013 at 07:29

@little John,

After years of propping the NKorea, what the Chinese got in return? a middle finger to the face from North Korean and what could the Chinese do in response? Nothing. In fact, a horrible picture in their mind is that next time, NKorea won't test in its soil, the test will be on Beijing.

Kim's Uncle
February 19, 2013 at 06:29

North Korea is very green conscious though! They are doing their part to limit carbon emmissions by not industrializing. Kinda reminds me of how Cambodia resorted to year zero! How do I know ? Just take a look at the satellite images of S. Korea versus N. Korea at night! North Korea is pitched black while S. Korea is lit up! Those damn S. Koreans , how dare they contribute to global warming!

The total darkness at night in N. Korea would lead some posters on here to conclude that is a sign of North Korea powerful military capabilities! I think such posters might have a point, the DPRK would be the most powerful military in the 13th Century!

John Chan
February 18, 2013 at 14:06


Are you saying the USA can claim credit for simply trying without succeeding? How thick skin the American can be.

Every nation has the right to do whatever it takes to defend its sovereignty, if Japan and South Korea believe building nukes themselves is necessary for their defense need, they can go right ahead like India, Pakistan, Russia and USA.

In fact Japan has been doing it under the American’s nose for decades, that’s why their politicians bragged Japan can build hundreds nuclear bombs within 30 days. The Fukushima nuclear disaster is due to unsafe storage of those illegal war grade nuclear material under the power plant.

Japanese never forget the nukes they got from the USA at the end of WWII; they will pay back USA’s due plus interests.

John Chan
February 17, 2013 at 13:29

@South Korean,

Alienating South Korea and Japan? Please don’t make people laugh; both SK and Japan are American lackeys and are under the American military occupation; and both militaries refuse to take orders from their governments without blessing by the USA’s military occupying force first, please keep your tough talk after you have gained your independence.

John cChan
February 17, 2013 at 13:07

Why should NK’s nuclear weapon and ICBM development be a China’s problem? Around China there are many nuclear armed nations, such as India, Pakistan, Russia, Japan, SK and USA, while NK is the less harmful one. China has been co-existing with those nuclear armed neighbours for decades, China should have no problem to co-exist peacefully with a nuclear armed NK. On the hand USA and Japan are very hostile to NK for no reasons, they make NK’s nuclear missiles a new added security threat to both of them by themselves, therefore NK’s nuclear missiles is Washington and Tokyo’s problem not Beijing’s problem.

USA and Japan desperately need China’s help to resolve their new threat, yet the author makes it appear that China should volunteer the effort in order to earn an empty title that China does not seek and a pat on the shoulder by the USA. The hubris and hypocrisy displayed by the author is astounding, perhaps she is just showing off American Exceptionalism that it is an honour the USA let you to lick its boots; the author should know only American lackeys like Japan, the Philippines, etc. enjoy such honour, but if USA wants China to help, USA should get off its high horse, be honest and be cooperative.

February 16, 2013 at 22:58

I like the quote "credit for succeeding, not for simply trying". It looks like aiming to China rather than the rest of the world. North Korea doesn't give a damn what the world want to do with its nukes. China has some limitted leverage, and it wants to use that leverage to benefit in pushing the US-SK-Japan axis to negatiate. But at the same time, China knows that it doesn't have a final say at all with the current situation in NK. I believe keeping this status quo is more damaging for China than other countries. The next worst thing would be SK and Japan building nukes themselves to defense against the rogue state.  They both have more than enough resources as well as technical expertises to deploy nuke weapons. Then not far from now, I would imagine China begging the US to pursuade Japan and SK to hold off woking on nukes. It would be interesting then.

February 16, 2013 at 08:08


"Who can last longer in war against the U.S? Israel or North Korea?"

Israel of course.

"…The most up-to-date estimates reckon that North Korea has the weapons, ammo, and fuel to wage total war for one hundred days. By contrast, nations like the USA and China and confederations like the EU (and some of its member states) are reckoned to be able to wage total war for up to a decade. Even South Korea can go a long way, especially with outside support, which it can pretty much count on…"

Meaning that without the help of the CCP the Kim Dynasty will lose in less of 4 months.

The US Is Stockpiling A Huge Cache Of Weapons In Israel

The U.S. military has stockpiled $800 million worth of weapons in Israel and the amount is growing, according to a U.S. Congressional report and reported by Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu of the Israeli media network Arutz Sheva.
The War Reserves Stock Allies-Israel (WRSA-I) program is run by the United States European Command (EUCOM) and includes missiles, armored vehicles and artillery ammunition.
The equipment was transferred to Israel "for use by the United States and, with U.S. permission, for use by Israel in emergency situations."
The U.S. gave such approval to the Israel Defense Force during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, according to the report.

Israel has promoted "strategic cooperation" since the 1980s by inviting the placement of U.S. arms and equipment at Israeli bases for use in wartime.

Notice that South Korea have a similar agreement with the US.

February 16, 2013 at 04:50

Bankotsu is an anime character, so no surprise this little fenqing is cartoonish and silly.

February 16, 2013 at 04:47

China ain't even a second class power. More of a bottom feeder.

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