China and North Korea: New Thinking, Old Policies
Image Credit: REUTERS/Jason Lee

China and North Korea: New Thinking, Old Policies


With the current provocation pause on the Korean peninsular, the extent to which China’s policies towards North Korea have changed due to the leadership turnovers in Beijing and Pyongyang and the DPRK’s provocative behavior is now clearer. In essence, PRC policymakers now employ sharper rhetoric and tactics with Pyongyang, even though China’s goal and strategy for resolving its North Korean problem remains largely unchanged. Beijing still prefers to see a divided Korean Peninsula and seeks a change in the DPRK’s behavior rather than a change in the regime itself. Moreover, it is hard to see what near-term developments could occur that might fundamentally change Beijing’s approach.

Chinese policymakers find themselves in an undesirable position. Since late 2008, Beijing has sought to revive the Six-Party Talks on Korean denuclearization, but the DPRK has refused to meet the conditions set by the United States and South Korea for their resumption. Many Chinese now realize that North Korea is a strategic liability for Beijing’s goals in Asia and perhaps beyond. Not only can Pyongyang’s provocations precipitate a ruinous war on the Korean Peninsula, but they are driving the United States and its allies to increase their military capabilities in the region, which China sees as threatening. Yet, Beijing refuses to wage a major campaign of pressure to coerce Pyongyang into making concessions for fear of ending up with a worse outcome than the present stalemate.

The dilemma was most evident in my conversations during a recent trip to Shenyang, which included an excursion to the DPRK-PRC border. There was deep frustration regarding North Korean ingratitude for decades of Chinese support and the failure of DPRK leaders to take advantage of the bilateral economic opportunities Chinese entrepreneurs were offering them. There was also a strong desire to move Pyongyang along China’s post-Mao path toward more moderate foreign and domestic policies. PRC intellectuals regret that China is allied with the unruly, erratic, and dangerous North rather than the more dynamic South Korea. But above all else, Shenyang intellectuals, like many Chinese policymakers, worry that their DPRK neighbor would self-implode and dump a horrible mess on their lap – and that the U.S. was trying to maneuver Beijing into contributing to a regime change that would harm Chinese security.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Furthermore, while U.S. policymakers are understandably preoccupied with China’s policies towards North Korea, my Chinese interlocutors were fixated on Japan. In almost every conversation I had in China, including in the university classes I taught this spring in Beijing and Shanghai, the Chinese academics and students faulted Tokyo for stirring up its territorial dispute with China by nationalizing the disputed islands between Tokyo and Beijing and castigated Washington for contributing to Japan’s re-militarism through a combination of naïve indifference and a purposeful effort to rely on Japan to reinforce U.S. power in the Pacific in response to China’s rise. PRC analysts stress that their government leaders had to take into account the strong popular sentiments on this issue.

The constrained nature of the change in China’s North Korea policy is evident in how Beijing still adheres to its “three no’s”—no war, no nuclear weapons, no interruption of dialogue—though now no nuclear weapons is most often mentioned first. For example, on June 21, 2013, State Councilor Yang Jiechi told Kim Kye Gwan, the DPRK First Vice Foreign Minister, “China always adheres to denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, adheres to safeguarding peace and stability on the Peninsula and adheres to resolving relevant issues through dialogue and consultations.” The general continuation of the old thinking with some tactical shifting is also manifest in how Chinese analysts still hold the U.S. and South Korea partly – and sometimes mostly – responsible, along with the DPRK, for the persistently bad situation on the Korean Peninsula.

Relations between China and North Korea have deteriorated sharply since Kim Jong-il died suddenly in late December 2011 and was replaced by his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. For months afterwards, the vulnerable DPRK regime cut off contacts with China and other foreign governments, rejected Beijing’s advice not to test North Korea’s nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, eschewed new bilateral cultural and economic initiatives with China, and engaged in provocative rhetoric and actions that severely harmed Chinese interests.

The limits of Beijing’s influence with the new DPRK leadership became evident following the DPRK’s March 16, 2012, announcement that North Korea would launch an observation satellite on a long-range rocket. Most foreign observers saw the planned launch also, if not primarily, as an effort to further develop the DPRK’s long-range ballistic missile capacity. The UN Security Council had prohibited the DPRK from developing its long-range missiles, which had particularly alarmed Japanese and U.S. officials since the DPRK seeks to arm them with nuclear warheads. The PRC Foreign Ministry claimed not to have received advanced notice of the DPRK announcement. Despite a vigorous diplomatic campaign and intense lobbying in Pyongyang, Beijing proved unable to dissuade North Korea from launching its “space rocket.” The episode derailed a DPRK-U.S. nonproliferation-and-food aid agreement that, with China’s support, had been negotiated at the end of February 2012.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief