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China: Changing its Tune on North Korea?

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China Power

China: Changing its Tune on North Korea?

China’s approval of stronger sanctions on the DPRK is a positive step — if Beijing itself complies with them.

On Tuesday, China voted in favor of a new sanctions resolution in the U.N. Security Council that condemned North Korea’s December 12 ballistic missile test and strengthened existing sanctions on the "Hermit Kingdom." The vote is an important sign that the new People Republic of China(PRC) leadership is willing to use sticks to prod Pyongyang towards compliance with international non-proliferation norms. However, the U.S. should take steps to confirm that China itself complies with the measures and intent of the resolution.

China’s approval of the resolution, which not only condemns the missile launch, but also imposes sanctions on several Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) citizens and firms, represents Beijing’s strongest response to a North Korea ballistic missile test to date. After similar tests in 2006, China agreed to a warning by the Council, while in 2009, it only acquiesced to a less authoritative Presidential Statement, while suggesting that that year’s launch was merely a “satellite test” even if it had ramifications for ballistic missile technology.

The vote also represents a shift in tone from 2010, in which China refused to countenance a Security Council response to North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan and its shelling of the ROK-held Yeonpyeong Island, much to international disappointment. At that time, Beijing was concerned that a Council response would lead to a further deterioration of the situation.

To be sure, China worked to dilute the current resolution so that it would not target the DPRK’s civilian economy. This is consistent with China’s position on other countries, such as Sudan and Iran, where Beijing insists that normal trade relations (including those with the PRC) not be jeopardized. However, the resolution’s contents remain significant, as does the statement of China’s UN ambassador following the vote that the resolution should be“prudent, measured, proportionate, and conducive to stability.”

The vote is an important bellwether of the foreign policy attitudes of China’s leadership in a time of transition: Xi Jinping assumed the title of general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in November and will assume the state presidency in March. In general, the decision suggests that China’s incoming leaders believe that the Council has a role to play in questions that clearly affect international security, even if its decisions should be “proportionate.”

More specifically, China’s vote also signifies that the new top leaders are comfortable with limited coercion as part of the international community’s decade-long carrots-and-sticks repertoire for dealing with non-proliferation on the Korean Peninsula, and believe that the potential benefits of targeted sanctions outweigh the possibility of a provocative and a destabilizing response from Pyongyang—which has pledged to test a third nuclear weapon this year in response to the UN resolution.  

In addition, China’s willingness to subscribe to stronger sanctions may indicate that younger, more moderate strategists within the PRC, who emphasize a nuanced approach towards non-proliferation, have relatively stronger domestic influence than older “traditionalists” who tend to emphasize China’s historic ties with the DPRK and oppose sanctions as a remedy. If true, this bodes well for China’s continued participation in a dual-track approach to the DPRK.

What the decision does not imply is a basic reorientation of China’s emphasis on strengthening economic ties with the DPRK. As one analyst points out, China is North Korea’s trade partner of “first and last resort,” as exhibited, most recently, in the creation of “special economic zones” for Chinese investment in the North. That Beijing has sought to protect normal trade activity from UN interference is evidence of a continued belief in the value of engagement, even if it is willing to simultaneously support limited coercion.

Despite the Council’s positive outcome this week, observers should continue to ask whether the PRC will comply with the requirements and intentions of relevant UN resolutions directed at the DPRK. As Bates Gill notes China has allegedly been a transshipment point for illicit WMD-related goods flowing into North Korea, and its enforcement of the spirit, if not the letter, of prior UN resolution is suspect. For instance, there was evidence last year that North Korea had acquired technology for a ballistic missile launcher from a PRC technology firm. This raised serious questions about the effectiveness of China’s export control regime.

The latest UN resolution seems to acknowledge this problem by prohibiting states from transferring goods to North Korea when “reasonable grounds” exist to believe that the end recipient has been designated under UN sanctions. The U.S., and the international community writ large, should require that China comply with this measure, ensuring that its growing and complicated trade with the DPRK does not undermine non-proliferation efforts. This requires the expectation of timely and accurate reporting from the PRC to relevant UN monitoring committees, and the willingness by the U.S. and others to identify compliance gaps. 

China’s approval of stronger sanctions on the DPRK is a positive sign that the incoming leadership in Beijing is willing to participate in multilateral efforts to punish DPRK violations. However, the resolution is only meaningful if China itself complies. The U.S. and others should work consistently to achieve that goal. 

Joel Wuthnow is a China analyst at CNA, a think tank based in Alexandria, Va., and author of Chinese Diplomacy and the UN Security Council (Routledge, 2012). He is on Twitter @jwuthnow.