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A Complex Calculus: China’s North Korea Dilemma

It remains in Beijing’s self-interest to provide aid to Pyongyang. The alternatives, like a North Korean collapse, could be far worse.

A Complex Calculus: China’s North Korea Dilemma
Credit: Wikicommons

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.”

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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China released its new defense white paper on April 16th. It accused the United States, without directly naming it, of causing greater tensions and instability in the Asia-Pacific region by bolstering military alliances and increasing troop numbers. American policy has stoked the territorial ambitions of the Japanese, Fillipinos, and Vietnamese, forcing China to confront “multiple and complicated security threats.” According to Chinese government spokesman Yang Yujun, “Certain efforts made to highlight the military agenda, enhance military deployment and also strengthen alliances are not in line with the calling of the times and are not conducive to the upholding of peace and stability in the region.”

Chinese Netizen Reactions

Following Pyongyang’s February nuclear test and more recent provocations, many Chinese netizens have voiced their opinions regarding their country’s continued support for North Korea. Supporters, detractors, and even the infamous 50-cent party have all weighed into the debate.

Prominent pundit and former Yahoo China executive Xie Wen took to his Sina Weibo microblog to call upon his government to dramatically change its policy toward the DPRK. Specifically, he said that “Beijing should sever the Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance; cease providing free aid; suspend military cooperation; recall the Chinese ambassador; expel North Korean citizens engaged in drug trafficking, arms trafficking, or counterfeiting; and refuse to provide preferential treatment to North Korea in the Chinese media.”

A Chinese lawyer also posted his frustrations online regarding illicit North Korean activities in China. Chi Suma lamented that some people still refuse to believe that the “Kim Dynasty” not only controls an illicit drug production and distribution network, but also overruns China’s three northeastern provinces with drugs. “So many families broken and people dead, and so many people sentenced to long jail time or the death penalty…. We give North Korea free rice and they give us drugs.”

A former Yunnan Province education official named Luo Chongmin remarked that only Chinese aid has hitherto prevented the DPRK from collapsing. “The aid helps to feed North Korea’s army and government, but starve its people.

Many netizens likened the DPRK to a rabid canine. One commenter asked “I wonder if our government will do anything specific in response or to sanction North Korea’s dictator, other than protesting. If nurturing a tiger is to invite a calamity, what about nurturing a mad dog?” Similarly, another remarked that “Mao raised a dog to watch the door. Turns out the dog is crazy.”

However, it appears that the Chinese Communist Party still shows little tolerance for officials and members of the state-run media speaking out against its stance on the DPRK.    Deng Yuwen, the prominent political commentator and deputy editor of Central Party School journal Study Times, was suspended from his position after he wrote a critical article in The Financial Times. Deng argued that China should abandon Pyongyang and pursue unification of the Korean peninsula. Netizens nevertheless actively discussed his fate, demonstrating once again that despite draconian censorship, domestic microblogs remain an important way to disseminate information and discuss current events.

Official Chinese Attitudes Toward North Korea

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Following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Pyongyang lost a major communist ally and benefactor. Beijing then recognized Seoul the next year. Taken together, these events dealt harsh economic and psychological blows to the Kim Il-sung’s regime. Compounding North Korea’s sense of growing isolation and insecurity during the 1990s was the advent of South Korean democratization and its “economic miracle,” as well as the emergence of the United States as the world’s sole superpower. Although Pyongyang increasingly relied on Beijing for its survival, the regimes were no longer as “close as lips and teeth.” The trust deficit has continued to grow over time.

An editorial published in different state-media outlets directly after the third DPRK nuclear test in February attempted to explain North Korea’s recent actions. Although it was “unwise and regrettable” for Pyongyang to repeatedly defy UN resolutions and threaten international peace with its nuclear program, it argued that North Korean provocations are “deeply rooted in its strong sense of insecurity after years of confrontation with South Korea, Japan, and a militarily more superior United States. In the eyes of the DPRK, Washington has spared no efforts to contain it and flexed its military muscle time and again by holding joint military drills with South Korea and Japan in the region. The latest nuclear test is apparently another manifestation of the attempt of a desperate DPRK to keep threat at bay.” The editorial counseled all sides to continue to engage in dialogue and negotiations, using the six-party talks as a mechanism to defuse the crisis.

Conversely, a senior editor from The People’s Daily published a new editorial calling upon North Korea to follow the example of Myanmar. Ding Gang argues that Western sanctions on Myanmar “suffocated” its economy and increased its dependence on the People’s Republic of China. At the same time, China supplied Myanmar with aid and invested in its infrastructure, benefiting the local people. He cites these factors as the reasons why Myanmar finally reformed and opened up to the world. Calling the “revival” of Myanmar beneficial for China, ASEAN, and other countries in the region, he asserts that China should further encourage North Korea to reform and develop so that it may follow a similar path.

Beijing’s concerns over an unruly neighbor are nothing new. For many centuries, China has feared instability along its borders. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has served as a useful buffer state following the Korean War, putting distance between the People’s Republic of China and U.S. troops stationed in the Republic of Korea and Japan. It has remained in China’s advantage to defend against any major form of political, economic, or social instability in North Korea that could negatively affect China.

For example, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and a host of Western nations have criticized China for refusing to adhere to the international principle of non-refoulement. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol protect those who are “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” China refuses to recognize the rights of North Korean refugees. It labels them “economic migrants” and repatriates them to their home country, knowing full well that they face severe punishment. Yet, China does so because it fears that softening its stance on refugees could cause a flood of North Koreans to cross into its territory, triggering possible instability in both countries.

Many Western observers also wonder why China has remained hesitant to severely restrict aid to North Korea. Simply put, it remains in China’s own self-interest to provide humanitarian, economic, military, and energy assistance as well as push for limited market reforms. A severely weakened yet nuclear-armed North Korean regime could lash out in desperation and/or potentially collapse, which could also prompt North Koreans to pour across the Chinese border. Even worse, a major conflict or regime collapse could signal the return of American troops or allied forces above the 38th parallel, perhaps for years to come if the North is occupied or absorbed into a unified Korea under Southern control. China has long feared that the United States and its allies seek to encircle or contain China, and therefore wants to ensure the continued viability of the North Korean regime.

Thus, although Beijing has more leverage over Pyongyang than Washington, Georgetown Professor Victor Cha argues that the Chinese government is similarly “faced with the choices of rhetorical pressure, quiet diplomacy, and mild sanctions. As long as China continues to value stability on the peninsula more than it worries about a few nuclear weapons, it will not fundamentally change its policy towards its unruly neighbor.”

Julia Famularo is a research affiliate at the Project 2049 Institute and China Power contributor.