A Complex Calculus: China's North Korea Dilemma
Image Credit: Wikicommons

A Complex Calculus: China's North Korea Dilemma


It appears that China is growing exasperated with instability on the Korean Peninsula. Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell recently remarked that “The most important new ingredient [in the North Korean crisis] has been a recognition in China that their previous approach to North Korea is not bearing fruit. That they are going to have to be much clearer and much more direct with Pyongyang that what Pyongyang is doing is undermining Chinese security…. There is a subtle shift in Chinese foreign policy. You’ve seen it at the U.N., you’ve seen it in our private conservations… I don’t think that subtle shift can be lost on Pyongyang. It’s not in their strategic interest to alienate every country that surrounds them. I think they have succeeded in undermining their trust and confidence in Beijing.” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice similarly stated that the Chinese are   “very much of the view that Kim Jong-un has gone too far, and that this now is a situation that has the potential to directly threaten their interests in the region.”

In fact, China has already agreed to two rounds of sanctions, and China and North Korea have failed to hold high-level talks since December 2012. (It is nevertheless rumored that Chinese envoy Wu Dawei may soon travel to Pyongyang. Last week, Wu traveled to Washington to meet with Glyn Davis, his American counterpart, and pressed for a return to the six-party talks.) However, according to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations, China sees little of its nearly $6 billion in bilateral trade with North Korea affected by the UN sanctions, given that it characterizes the trade partnership as furthering economic development and humanitarian work. It also remains unclear whether China adequately enforces the existing sanctions regime. Yet, in a positive sign, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se has reported that “we hear that China already instructed… local governments to implement the resolution… So, I think China is playing its role rather well.”

Speaking at the Boao Economic Forum for Asia on April 7, Chinese President Xi Jinping remarked that “The international community should advocate… [a] vision of comprehensive security and cooperative security, so as to turn the global village into a big stage for common development rather than an arena where gladiators fight each other. And no one should be allowed to throw the region, or even the whole world, into chaos for selfish gains.” Many observers viewed the comments as a direct reference to the escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula. In a conversation with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi similarly stated that the People’s Republic of China “oppose[s] provocative words and actions from any party in the region and do[es] not allow troublemaking on China's doorstep.”

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Beijing University professor Wang Xinsheng, a Northeast Asia historian, argues that the president’s speech sent a “clear message” to the DPRK and was among the “toughest remarks” made by any Chinese leader to date. Yet, at the same time, other experts are arguing that recent government statements are also a warning to the United States and its allies. Minzu University Korean studies professor Huang Youfu argues that Washington and Tokyo have used tensions in Northeast Asia “as an excuse to deploy cutting-edge weapons” there. Tsinghua University Sino-American relations specialist Sun Zhe furthermore argues that the United States should not make unreasonable requests of China. Beijing cannot sever its economic ties with Pyongyang because the consequences would harm both countries. He believes that Washington should cease joint military exercises with Seoul and offer to negotiate directly with Pyongyang to reduce regional tensions. “[U.S. politicians] are asking China to do something very serious, and yet the U.S. government won’t make even a symbolic move like stopping military drills.”

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