Tensions surrounding North Korea’s ceaseless provocations are increasingly intensifying in Northeast Asia. In addition to two nuclear tests last year, Pyongyang on July 4 also celebrated its first successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). During the resulting UN Security Council meeting, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley accused China of “holding the hands” of the regime in Pyongyang.
U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have also repeatedly requested that China exert more pressure on North Korea. Nevertheless, Beijing, instead of meeting the two countries’ expectations, only offered a lukewarm response: it reiterated its proposal that Pyongyang declare a moratorium on both nuclear and missile tests, in exchange for the United States and South Korea halting their large-scale joint military exercises.
In fact, this idea was first proposed on March 8 by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Yet Seoul and Washington rejected the proposal, regarding it as another infeasible political slogan from China. Despite the rejection, Beijing continues to put forward the idea, even after Pyongyang’s recent ICBM launch. Beijing, in its persistence, has given the proposal a name, “dual suspensions” (in Chinese, 双暂停, meaning “temporarily suspending both”), and it appears to be the Communist Party of China (CPC)’s new official strategy toward the North Korean threat.
Behind this new approach is one of Beijing’s foreign policy priorities: maintaining regional stability. In the absence of Western-style democracy, CPC legitimacy stems largely from its ability to deliver economic growth; should the Chinese economy collapse, so will the Party’s legitimacy. To avoid this situation and continue its rapid industrialization, the CPC’s foreign policy is designed to promote stability in neighboring states so that it can keep concentrating its resources on economic growth. In this sense, one of the neighboring countries that CPC needs to give special attention to is no doubt its belligerent, nuclear-armed ally, North Korea.
Korea experts in China recently published a comprehensive analysis of the nuclear problem of the Korean Peninsula, A Study of Crisis Management of the Korean Peninsula (朝鲜半岛危机管理研究). Published internally by the People’s Liberation Army, this book is considered a genuine assessment of the intentions behind the CPC’s North Korean policy. It states that “China’s core interest [in the Korean peninsula] is preserving stability and preventing war; its extended interest is maintaining influence over North Korea to a certain extent.” Providing the rationale for this broad foreign policy goal, the analysis stresses that “maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula is helpful for China in acquiring a peaceful external environment, providing stable international circumstances for China’s economic construction.”
The report presumes that Washington is attempting to “reduce China’s strategic room” and to “forestall and contain China’s rise” by using the Korean Peninsula as a “main advance post.” Pyongyang, meanwhile, “by implementing a brinkmanship policy” and “causing a nuclear crisis,” aims to make the United States “have no choice but to abolish long-standing economic sanctions and blockades on North Korea.” In this way, Pyongyang wants to “avoid collapse of the national economy.”
Given the circumstances, the report concludes that “any strategic miscalculation on either side can cause inadvertent confrontation, eventually resulting in serious armed conflict.” Consequently, to maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula, China, no matter how the North Korean nuclear problem develops, needs to continue playing the role of mediator, arbitrator, peace promoter, and dialogue facilitator.
China’s preference for peace on the Korean Peninsula is long-standing. Mao Zedong consistently, albeit unsuccessfully, opposed Stalin and Kim Il-sung’s plan to launch the Korean War in 1950. Moreover, when Kim Il-sung, after witnessing the communists’ victory in the Vietnam War, visited Beijing in 1975 to request aid for a second attempt to unify Korea by force, Mao rejected this plan for a second Korean War. This is not to say that China is humanitarian and philanthropic, nor does it mean the “blood brothers alliance” between China and North Korea is obsolete. Instead, it means that China opposes war or instability on the peninsula regardless of the instigator. That is why, even under strong criticism from the international community for its lenient implementation of economic sanctions on North Korea, Beijing cannot simply let the dictatorial regime in Pyongyang collapse. China firmly believes, as the PLA report put it, that “the security problem of the Korean peninsula itself is inseparable from China’s national security.”
Thus China has apparently felt it necessary to become an arbitrator again as tensions increase. In June 2015, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Choi Yoon-hee and U.S. Forces Korea commander Curtis Scaparrotti signed a new Operation Plan, OPLAN 5015. Unlike previous Operation Plans, including OPLAN 5027, which have been based on “retraction, realignment, and counter-striking” OPLAN 5015 (although classified) is widely believed to include the concept of a preventive strike. With a focus on “bolstering the capabilities for striking the headquarters,” OPLAN 5015 contains a scenario for launching a prompt strike on North Korea’s headquarters and carrying out the preemptive “decapitation” of North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.
After signing OPLAN 5015, many voices from both Washington and Seoul have been insinuating a possible preemptive strike, to which Pyongyang responded with even more bellicose rhetoric and larger scale nuclear tests. For example, former U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, stated on September 16, 2016 that a preemptive strike to the North is certainly one option among an array of others. Similarly, a South Korean Ministry of National Defense spokesperson also stated at a regular media briefing that “if there is a sign that North Korea’s use of nuclear weapon is imminent, [we can] carry out preemptive strike for self-defense.”
In response, Rodong Simun, the official newspaper of the Workers’ Party of North Korea, warned on April 11, 2017 that “preemptive strike is by no means an exclusive property of the U.S.” and that “if the U.S. loses control and shows any trivial indication of an attempt to carry out preemptive attack on us, our powerful nuclear weapons will annihilate the bases of aggression and provocation.” With Pyongyang’s nuclear provocations on one hand and the U.S.-South Korea alliance’s hawkish reaction on the other, China perceived that the risk of armed conflict in the Korean peninsula had reached a critical point, and that it was required to arbitrate again. Thus it offered up the “dual suspensions” idea and has been promoting it at every chance.
Will China’s new proposal work? It is up to Washington and South Korea. Pyongyang already expressed its willingness to accept the proposal. It is time for China to persuade Seoul and Washington.
Son Daekwon is a Ph.D. Candidate at Peking University and a KF Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.