China and North Korea: New Thinking, Old Policies

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China and North Korea: New Thinking, Old Policies

With a tougher posture on recent provocations, have China’s policies on North Korea really changed?

With the current provocation pause on the Korean peninsular, the extent to which China’s policies towards North Korea have changed due to the leadership turnovers in Beijing and Pyongyang and the DPRK’s provocative behavior is now clearer. In essence, PRC policymakers now employ sharper rhetoric and tactics with Pyongyang, even though China’s goal and strategy for resolving its North Korean problem remains largely unchanged. Beijing still prefers to see a divided Korean Peninsula and seeks a change in the DPRK’s behavior rather than a change in the regime itself. Moreover, it is hard to see what near-term developments could occur that might fundamentally change Beijing’s approach.

Chinese policymakers find themselves in an undesirable position. Since late 2008, Beijing has sought to revive the Six-Party Talks on Korean denuclearization, but the DPRK has refused to meet the conditions set by the United States and South Korea for their resumption. Many Chinese now realize that North Korea is a strategic liability for Beijing’s goals in Asia and perhaps beyond. Not only can Pyongyang’s provocations precipitate a ruinous war on the Korean Peninsula, but they are driving the United States and its allies to increase their military capabilities in the region, which China sees as threatening. Yet, Beijing refuses to wage a major campaign of pressure to coerce Pyongyang into making concessions for fear of ending up with a worse outcome than the present stalemate.

The dilemma was most evident in my conversations during a recent trip to Shenyang, which included an excursion to the DPRK-PRC border. There was deep frustration regarding North Korean ingratitude for decades of Chinese support and the failure of DPRK leaders to take advantage of the bilateral economic opportunities Chinese entrepreneurs were offering them. There was also a strong desire to move Pyongyang along China’s post-Mao path toward more moderate foreign and domestic policies. PRC intellectuals regret that China is allied with the unruly, erratic, and dangerous North rather than the more dynamic South Korea. But above all else, Shenyang intellectuals, like many Chinese policymakers, worry that their DPRK neighbor would self-implode and dump a horrible mess on their lap – and that the U.S. was trying to maneuver Beijing into contributing to a regime change that would harm Chinese security.

Furthermore, while U.S. policymakers are understandably preoccupied with China’s policies towards North Korea, my Chinese interlocutors were fixated on Japan. In almost every conversation I had in China, including in the university classes I taught this spring in Beijing and Shanghai, the Chinese academics and students faulted Tokyo for stirring up its territorial dispute with China by nationalizing the disputed islands between Tokyo and Beijing and castigated Washington for contributing to Japan’s re-militarism through a combination of naïve indifference and a purposeful effort to rely on Japan to reinforce U.S. power in the Pacific in response to China’s rise. PRC analysts stress that their government leaders had to take into account the strong popular sentiments on this issue.

The constrained nature of the change in China’s North Korea policy is evident in how Beijing still adheres to its “three no’s”—no war, no nuclear weapons, no interruption of dialogue—though now no nuclear weapons is most often mentioned first. For example, on June 21, 2013, State Councilor Yang Jiechi told Kim Kye Gwan, the DPRK First Vice Foreign Minister, “China always adheres to denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, adheres to safeguarding peace and stability on the Peninsula and adheres to resolving relevant issues through dialogue and consultations.” The general continuation of the old thinking with some tactical shifting is also manifest in how Chinese analysts still hold the U.S. and South Korea partly – and sometimes mostly – responsible, along with the DPRK, for the persistently bad situation on the Korean Peninsula.

Relations between China and North Korea have deteriorated sharply since Kim Jong-il died suddenly in late December 2011 and was replaced by his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. For months afterwards, the vulnerable DPRK regime cut off contacts with China and other foreign governments, rejected Beijing’s advice not to test North Korea’s nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, eschewed new bilateral cultural and economic initiatives with China, and engaged in provocative rhetoric and actions that severely harmed Chinese interests.

The limits of Beijing’s influence with the new DPRK leadership became evident following the DPRK’s March 16, 2012, announcement that North Korea would launch an observation satellite on a long-range rocket. Most foreign observers saw the planned launch also, if not primarily, as an effort to further develop the DPRK’s long-range ballistic missile capacity. The UN Security Council had prohibited the DPRK from developing its long-range missiles, which had particularly alarmed Japanese and U.S. officials since the DPRK seeks to arm them with nuclear warheads. The PRC Foreign Ministry claimed not to have received advanced notice of the DPRK announcement. Despite a vigorous diplomatic campaign and intense lobbying in Pyongyang, Beijing proved unable to dissuade North Korea from launching its “space rocket.” The episode derailed a DPRK-U.S. nonproliferation-and-food aid agreement that, with China’s support, had been negotiated at the end of February 2012.

The PRC government has reacted to the new DPRK leadership’s confrontational policies by adopting sterner declarations regarding Pyongyang’s nuclear policies and by imposing more prominent sanctions. PRC officials have expressed open irritation with the provocative behavior of the new DPRK government. PRC representatives no longer downplay DPRK’s nuclear ambitions and capabilities and more openly discuss how the DPRK’s nuclear activities could adversely affect China’s security interests. For instance, on June 27, 2013, the new foreign minister, Wang Yi, told a public forum in Beijing “that China stands firm on the goal of promoting and realizing denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, which is not only in China's interest but also serves the common interests of all parties concerned including DPRK and ROK.” In his government’s view, “Only when this goal is realized can lasting peace and stability be maintained on the Peninsula. We are ready to work together with all parties concerned and continue to make unremitting efforts for this goal.” In interviews, some of China’s non-governmental experts on Korea even welcomed the tough stance shown by the ROK and the U.S. toward Pyongyang’s provocations – the two countries had conducted prominent military exercises in the face of Northern threats – as helping to remind Pyongyang of the risks of its over-the-top rhetoric and as a means to help deter the DPRK from taking rash actions.

China’s specific tactics toward the North have also hardened. For example, PRC officials now more often deal with the DPRK through their foreign ministries rather than through their ruling communist parties’ channels. The PRC government signaled its displeasure to Pyongyang after the April 2012 rocket launch attempt by, for instance, permitting five DPRK refugees who had been confined to the ROK diplomatic mission to Beijing to finally take up asylum in South Korea. After North Korea’s early 2013 nuclear test, China voted in favor of UNSC Resolution 2094, which authorized additional economic sanctions against the DPRK. Moreover, the state-owned Bank of China announced it would cease doing business with North Korea’s main foreign commerce bank. More recently, the Chinese government issued new export controls whose declared intent was to prevent North Korea from importing dual-use items that could help its nuclear program.

Nonetheless, China’s operational concept still focuses on resuming the Six-Party Talks on Korean denuclearization, which have not been held since late 2008, in order to lower intra-Korean tensions and reduce the risks of another war on the Korean Peninsula. In March 2012, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi reaffirmed Beijing’s support for the talks, which he described as “an effective mechanism and important platform for discussing and resolving” the nuclear issue as well as for advancing ”the common interests of all parties concerned and meet[ing] the aspiration of the international community to uphold peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and normalization of relations between relevant countries, and build a peace and security mechanism for Northeast Asia.” The following year, Yang’s successor reaffirmed that, for Beijing, “the Six-Party Talks is the common cause of the six parties concerned, which share the aim of pushing DPRK to abandon its nuclear programs, dealing with the concerns of each party in a balanced manner and achieving denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. Now is the time to consider joining efforts and resuming the Six-Party Talks…move towards the same goal, continuously create conditions, and strive for an early resumption of talks instead [in an apparent criticism of the U.S. policy of strategic patience] of remaining an onlooker.”

Chinese analysts recognize that the DPRK’s provocations are negatively affecting China’s security by, among other consequences, strengthening the ROK-U.S. alliance and by encouraging the U.S. and Japan to augment their military forces in the Asia-Pacific. However, Chinese writers continue to call on all parties to contribute to relaxing tensions and make concessions in the interests of achieving a negotiated solution to the Korean crisis. “Seoul, Tokyo and Washington are hoping China exert more pressure on North Korea,” writes a March 2012 commentary in The People’s Daily. “They are counting on the fact that China can eventually bring Pyongyang to its knees.” But the article counters that, “As long as South Korea, Japan and the US do not give North Korea a sense of security, it will not stop lashing back at them.” These statements insisting that all parties, and not just North Korea, are responsible for the current tensions and must contribute to their resolutions continued into 2013.

To promote an exclusively peaceful dialogue, Beijing has regularly warned Washington and its allies not to use or threaten to use force and to eschew any provocative actions regarding North Korea. Following the April 2012 rocket launch, Beijing blocked Western proposals to impose more sanctions on North Korea and would consent only to the Council’s rotating president making a statement that criticized the launch and instructed the Council’s sanctions committee to look for more measures to apply against the DPRK, which Beijing could use initially to pressure North Korea from engaging in further provocations but later veto as required. Beijing eventually accepted only three of the 40 financial, business and other entities that the United States wanted to add to the list of sanctioned DPRK institutions. After its successful rocket launch in December 2012, the Chinese government insisted that “the Security Council's reaction should be prudent, moderate and conducive to maintaining peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula so as to avoid further escalation of situation.”

Although the Chinese government has issued new banking regulations and export controls, North Koreans can continue to use smaller Chinese banks and less formal financial mechanisms to buy dual-use goods in China. In addition, analysts believe that even export controls by China and other countries may no longer present a major obstacle to North Korea’s nuclear program since the DPRK is now able to construct many critical components of its nuclear program domestically.

PRC analysts generally agree that the traditional concept of North Korea serving as a strategic buffer between China and the U.S. military has faded in importance given the advent of modern military technology. The United States can easily attack China with its air and naval forces without the need to have U.S. forces move from the Korean Peninsula across the Yalu River into Chinese territory, which would be a foolish strategic move in any case. Nonetheless, a countervailing consideration has arisen in the form of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Although PRC policymakers dislike North Korea having weapons of mass destruction, they would welcome even less having a unified Korean state allied to the United States possessing such weapons. If a war were to break out on the Korean Peninsula, the Chinese military might intervene in North Korea less to save the North’s leaders (many DPRK leadership safe houses are thought to be located in the far north near the Chinese border) or to create a territorial buffer against any advancing U.S. or ROK forces (the PLA could enforce such a buffer with its offensive missiles and air defense systems from its bases in China without having to occupy parts of the DPRK with ground forces) than to seize the DPRK’s nuclear weapons (also likely to be located or moved north in a war) before they became loose nukes or were confiscated by the liberating South Korean army.

Even new thinkers profess uncertainty regarding the ultimate U.S. goals on the Peninsula. They fear that some Americans still aim for regime change in Pyongyang, regardless, or perhaps because, of the costs of such a development to China. They also believe that the overall U.S. aggressive posture toward North Korea during the previous two decades explains why DPRK leaders feel the need to acquire nuclear weapons and district Washington’s motives. In describing Pyongyang’s position, PRC analysts often employ the same vocabulary as they use to describe China’s own decision to develop a nuclear deterrent in the face of years of U.S. nuclear threats beginning with the 1950-53 Korean War. Although some PRC analysts welcomed the U.S. military escalation in 2012 in the face of North Korea’s belligerent rhetoric as a means of deterring DPRK adventurism or a fatal miscalculation, the U.S. reaction caused some prominent Chinese analysts to wonder whether the Pentagon is simply using the North Korean threat as a ruse to deploy missile defenses in northeast East Asia, remilitarize Japan, and strengthen the ROK-U.S. alliance as part of a campaign to contain China’s rise.

The more open Chinese debate regarding their country’s policies towards the DPRK, along with the new willingness of Chinese experts to discuss their Korean policies with foreigners, is a welcome development. If nothing else, the more open ROK-US dialogue allows us to better understand our differences. But the new Chinese government under Xi Jinping has not (yet) made any fundamental changes in China’s policies towards the Korea.

At the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto, U.S. President Barack Obama complained about the Chinese government’s “willful blindness” in its restraint to the “consistent problems” from the DPRK’s reckless policies. Although Chinese leaders are no longer blind about the DPRK’s threat to their regional interests, Beijing’s foreign policy toward Pyongyang remains too constrained for its own good.

Obama and other U.S. leaders will need to raise the DPRK issue repeatedly with their Chinese counterparts to elevate its priority within the PRC decision-making system. Unless Xi and other Chinese leaders take charge of the issue, and regardless of the nice words from the PRC Foreign Ministry, China’s DPRK policies will be decided by the PLA, the CCP International Department, private corporations, and provincial leaders – who all have an interest in maintaining good ties with the existing DPRK regime.  In particular, Obama needs to stress that Beijing’s leisurely timetable for solving the DPRK problem – seen in Beijing as requiring decades of patience and understanding until Pyongyang follows China’s post-Mao reform path, differs from the clock in Washington, where Americans see Pyongyang as only a few years away from being able to implement its threats of waging nuclear war against the United States. Meanwhile, the United States should work with Japan, Russia and additional countries, through the Proliferation Security Initiative and other measures, to vigorously impede the export of WMD-related items from the DPRK to other states of proliferation concern. Washington should also encourage Seoul to continue its efforts to reduce Chinese anxieties about unification and the ROK-U.S. alliance (more on this to follow).