Beijing’s North Korea Problem

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Beijing’s North Korea Problem

North Korea’s recent nuclear test presents an interesting problem for China — with no easy solutions.

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.