Features | Security | East Asia

China Prefers Devil It Knows

Chinese policymakers are looking for a change of behavior in North Korea, not in its regime, argues Richard Weitz.

Following his return from a May 3-7 visit to the People’s Republic of China, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il affirmed his government’s willingness to respect his hosts’ desires and resume participation in the Six-Party Talks on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula at an appropriate time. The talks have remained suspended following an upsurge in tensions last April, when the UN Security Council imposed additional sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea after North Korea launched a ballistic missile under the guise of testing space rockets. Pyongyang responded defiantly by withdrawing from the talks and then testing another nuclear weapon, the second following its initial test in October 2006, in contravention of previous UN resolutions.

According to the state-controlled Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Kim ‘expressed the DPRK’s willingness to provide favourable conditions for the resumption of the Six-party talks.’  He also said that his government ‘remains unchanged in its basic stand to preserve the aim of denuclearising the Korean peninsula, implement the joint statement adopted at the Six-party talks and pursue a peaceful solution through dialogue.’ The KCNA report, issued on May 8, resembles statements that appeared the previous day in the Chinese government media, which only confirmed Kim’s visit after he had left. ‘The North Korea side stated that its stance in favour of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has not changed,’ the government-run Xinhua news agency related on May 7. ‘The North Korean side is willing, together with all parties, to discuss creating favourable conditions for restarting the Six-party talks.’

Although welcome, the wording is sufficiently vague as to cast doubt on whether a genuine breakthrough has occurred. Kim has often promised de-nuclearization; the problem has always been getting him to implement these pledges. The statements don’t, for example, mention any timetable and the reference to ‘favourable conditions’ could mean a restatement of North Korean demands that it would only rejoin the talks if the United Nations lifted its sanctions and the United States agreed to sign a treaty formally ending the Korean War.

The KCNA report gives the impression that one way Chinese officials tried to induce Kim to make even this vague commitment was to endorse Kim’s efforts to have his third son, Jong-Un, succeed him as leader. Kim, who looked partly paralyzed and emaciated even in the Chinese TV broadcasts of his recent visit, reportedly suffered a major stroke in August 2008. KCNA related a statement by Kim that ties between the two nations will remain unchanged ‘despite the passage of time and the replacement of one generation by a new one,’ which also alludes to Kim’s becoming North Korea’s leader following the death of his father Kim Il-Sung, who founded North Korea after World War II. According to Xinhua, Chinese President Hu Jintao also said at a state dinner in Kim’s honour that ‘the traditional friendship between China and the DPRK is the common treasures of the two governments, parties and peoples, and it is the historical responsibility of the two sides to push forward their friendship with the progress of the times and from generation to generation.’

The Chinese hosts strived to demonstrate respect for Kim on his fifth visit to China, and his first trip to Beijing since 2006. The Chinese press noted that Chinese leaders ‘offered its highest diplomatic courtesy to Kim, as all nine members of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China met him during his stay, a rare occasion in the country’s diplomatic history.’ The Chinese government arranged for Kim to tour several high-technology companies in Beijing, Dalian, Shenyang and Tianjin. Kim’s Chinese guests also suggested they’d provide additional economic assistance, though less in return for nuclear concessions than for introducing his own economic reform program, which China experts believe would help promote the country’s internal stability.

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao reportedly told Kim that the two nations enjoyed ‘big potential for developing economic and trade co-operation’ and offered to promote cross-border transportation infrastructure by constructing a new bridge across the Yalu River, which flows between the China and North Korea. The Chinese media quoted Kim as praising China’s economic reforms while visiting the country’s special economic zones and observing China’s sophisticated industries. They also reported Kim as inviting additional Chinese investment in his country, and then cited Chinese experts as stressing the magnitude of the North Korean economic crisis and its need for foreign trade, investment and assistance.

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To avert state failure in North Korea, China continues to provide North Korea with essential supplies of food, weapons and other economic and political support. According to one estimate, North Korea receives about half its food and almost all its oil imports from China. In 2008, trade between the 2 reached $2.79 billion, up 41 percent since 2007, making China North Korea’s most important trading partner. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans reside and often work in China and Chinese enterprises also own substantial investments in North Korea. Although China provides much economic and technological aid to the DPRK, presumably some occurs due to commercial considerations that provide some benefits to the Chinese partner. These growing economic ties, as well as China’s security and other interests in North Korea, give many Chinese a major stake in averting additional economic sanctions, not antagonizing the North Korean leadership to such an extent that Pyongyang might retaliate against Chinese economic interests and above all avoiding regime change.

A major impediment to a rapid resumption of the Six-Party Talks are the widespread suspicions that North Korea played some part in the powerful explosion that sunk a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, near the border with the North in late March. The governments of both South Korea and the United States have indicated that any re-launching of the Six-Party Talks—which also include China, Japan, Russia and North Korea—should await the outcome of their joint investigation into the tragedy, in which almost half the crew, 46 South Korean sailors, died.

South Korean officials expressed some displeasure that Beijing had decided to host Kim despite the unresolved sinking of the warship. Likewise, when asked about Kim’s comments, US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley replied that, ‘if Kim Jong-il wants to create favourable conditions for Six-Party Talks, he can do exactly what we have outlined for months and years – meet its international obligations, pursue the commitments that it made in the joint communiqué in 2005, cease provocative actions that destabilize the region.’ US policy toward the region, Crowley explained, would ‘be guided by North Korea’s actions. There are things that North Korea has to do, not say. And they have to meet their international obligations, cease provocative actions. That is what we’ll be looking for from North Korea.’

After Kim’s return home, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu offered several defences of his ‘unofficial visit.’ She argued that Kim’s trip had been planned well before the Cheonan’s sinking, that North Korea’s involvement in the incident remained unproven, that the two issues were separate events, and that maintaining regional peace and security should be the most important considerations even when determining how to respond to the explosion that destroyed the ship. The Chinese officials who briefed the South Korean Ambassador to China, Yu woo-ik, about the visit reported that the North Korean delegation had denied any involvement in the sinking.

Jiang’s comments underscore China’s  priorities when it comes to North Korea. They should also prompt a sense of caution over the future of the talks even if the parties overcome their current impasse. It’s understandable that the international community has looked to China to influence Pyongyang’s policies and help end the protracted dispute over North Korea’s nuclear program and other threatening behavior—China is North Korea’s most important foreign diplomatic, economic and security partner. Through the Six-Party Talks and other mechanisms, Chinese policymakers have felt the optimal outcome would be for the North Korean regime to relinquish its nuclear weapons and moderate its other foreign and defence policies in return for security assurances, economic assistance and diplomatic acceptance by the rest of the international community. Such a benign outcome would avoid the feared consequences of precipitous regime change—humanitarian emergencies, economic reconstruction, arms races and military conflicts.

Yet, Beijing’s willingness to pressure Pyongyang to modify its policies is constrained by a fundamental consideration. Unlike most policymakers in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington, Chinese policymakers want to change Pyongyang’s behavior, not its regime. Chinese officials remain more concerned about the potential collapse of North Korea than about its government’s intransigence on the nuclear issue or other questions. Chinese policymakers fear that North Korea’s disintegration could induce widespread economic disruptions in East Asia; generate large refugee flows across their borders; weaken China’s influence in the Koreas by ending their unique status as interlocutors with Pyongyang; allow the US military to concentrate its military potential in other theatres (e.g., Taiwan); and potentially remove a buffer separating their borders from US ground forces (i.e., should the US Army redeploy into northern Korea). At worst, North Korea’s collapse could precipitate military conflict and civil strife on the peninsula—which could spill across into Chinese territory.

Chinese policymakers have therefore consistently resisted military action, severe economic sanctions and other developments that could threaten stability on the Korean peninsula. Whatever their personal feelings about Kim’s provocative foreign policies and his dynastic ambitions, they prefer to deal with the devil they know rather than the phantom of their nightmares.

Richard Weitz writes a weekly column for The Diplomat on Asian defence and security. He is a senior fellow and director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Political-Military Analysis.