Making Sense of China's Stance on North Korea

By Denny Roy

(Note: This commentary originally appeared in The Korea Herald on August 25, 2009)

The rise of Chinese power in the Asia-Pacific region has tested the ability of China and the United States to base their relationship on shared interests rather than on areas of strategic dispute. Dealing with the nuclear crisis in North Korea has been a test case for the stability of the new bipolar power structure in Asia.

Americans generally applauded China's willingness to play a managerial role by hosting the six-party talks, but many Americans and other observers have been disappointed by what they perceive as China's failure to exercise its presumably overwhelming influence over Pyongyang to force denuclearization. Making sense of China's behavior on this issue begins with understanding China's interests in Korea.

China's strategic thinking about North Korea has evolved since the Cold War. The Chinese originally saw substantial advantage in a socialist buffer state between the Chinese border and the U.S.-aligned southern half of the peninsula. Beijing also preferred a divided Korea to a united medium-sized power. Not only was there a danger that this united Korea might follow the path of South Korea and join the U.S. camp, but the Chinese government also worried that a strong Korea might make irredentist claims over parts of the bordering Chinese provinces of Liaoning and Jilin. These provinces have strong Korean-Chinese minorities, and some Koreans have argued that both sides of Mount Baekdu should belong to Korea.

Three developments have made the Chinese more relaxed about the prospect of a united Korea. First, the improved relationship with South Korea, including efforts by the South Korean government to avoid antagonizing China, has given Beijing more confidence that a united Korea would be manageable.

Second, China is no longer interested in sponsoring a socialist international economic system to rival the predominant liberal, capitalist world economy. Whatever benefit accrued to the presence of a socialist "brother" state in North Korea has become greatly devalued as China has largely adopted the norms of the larger international community.

Third, the intransigence of North Korea has grown increasingly wearisome. North Korea has long been an economic drain on China, which provides much of the country's food and energy supplies. China sees in North Korea today some of the features of Maoist China that the Chinese have cast off, including the grotesque personality cult of the paramount leader.

Chinese leaders have repeatedly urged Pyongyang to follow the successful Chinese post-communist model: liberalize economically (privatize agriculture and industry while engaging robustly with the world economy) while maintaining an authoritarian, one-party political system. This approach would allow North Korea to revive its economic development while addressing the ruling regime's concerns about protecting its monopoly on political legitimacy.

Pyongyang has made half-hearted efforts in the direction of economic reform and openness, but the regime seems convinced that substantial political liberalization would jeopardize its Juche project and, more to the point, undermine the ideology that forms the basis of Kim Jong-il's right to rule. The relationship borders on extortion; despite its heavy dependence on China, North Korea often fails to follow Chinese advice, and the Chinese feel compelled to keep Kim's regime on life-support out of concern that North Korea's demise would cause them even worse difficulties.

An increasing number of Chinese strategists are coming to believe that China's interests would be better served by a united Korea, even one in which the South's political system prevailed over the entire peninsula, than by the status quo of a divided Korea with a chronically dysfunctional and crisis-prone North. For these Chinese thinkers, there remains the problem of the transition between the status quo and a unified Korea, which threatens high risks and costs for China.

During the 1990s, while Western analysts were predicting the imminent collapse of the Kim regime, their Chinese counterparts continued to insist that the Pyongyang government would survive, and that the issue was how to encourage change in the regime's policies rather than replacing the regime. What looked then like wishful Chinese thinking now looks like a more sound understanding of North Korea. China continues to hope for gradual reform in North Korea that will reduce both the North's economic backwardness and its tensions with Northeast Asia's democratic states. Many South Koreans can accept this, even if they are suspicious of China's ultimate intentions.

China and the United States have similar interests but differing agenda. For the United States, denuclearization is essential. For the Chinese, it is preferable but not the highest priority.

Nuclear weapons are a threat to the United States and to U.S. allies South Korea and Japan. The chances of North Korea actually launching a nuclear attack on any of these countries are extremely remote. There is a greater risk of the North using its possession of nuclear weapons to bully Seoul or Tokyo into making concessions.

But the real danger is that North Korean officials might try to sell nuclear material or technology to a non-state group with hostile intentions toward the U.S. Analysts hope that Pyongyang would not dare take such a gamble. One hopes that the same fear of U.S. attack that motivated the North Koreans to acquire nuclear weapons would also restrain them from the act that would justify devastating American retaliation.

But North Korea is in desperate need of cash and has a track record of other kinds of outlaw behavior, including kidnapping of foreign nationals, drug trafficking, counterfeiting and terrorist bombings. A prudent policy maker cannot rule out the possibility that the North Koreans might try to transfer fissionable material or other nuclear bomb components under the assumption that the transaction could be "laundered" sufficiently that Pyongyang would not be linked with the use of a nuclear weapon by one of the Kim regime's illicit business partners.

In contrast, from China's standpoint North Korea's nuclear weapons program is not a direct threat. Nuclear-armed North Korean missiles will not be aimed at China or China's quasi-allies (Burma, Pakistan and members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization). China is on relatively good terms with the Muslim world, is not the major sponsor of Israel, and has no military bases in the Middle East. China is vastly less likely than the United States to be the target of a nuclear terrorist attack. North Korea's nuclear weapons are a problem for China mostly because they are a problem for the United States. The nuclear crisis raises the possibility of escalating U.S.-North Korea tensions culminating in a war on China's doorstep.

Stability, not denuclearization, is China's most compelling interest in North Korea. A breakdown of order and political authority could lead to several serious problems for China: (1) pressure on Beijing to help pay the costs of relief and reconstruction operations in North Korea; (2) large North Korean refugee flows into China, forcing China to either accept the disruption and expense of caring for them as well as the enlargement of China's potentially restive Korean minority, or alternatively to mobilize security forces to stop these refugees from crossing the border, a move that would likely bring China much negative international publicity; (3) the political vacuum on China's border could lead to a confrontation with intervening South Korean or U.S. forces; (4) roaming bands of unpaid North Korean soldiers-turned-brigands causing havoc in the border areas; and (5) a breakdown of the structures that ensure command and control over North Korea's nuclear weapons and related facilities.

The United States has ruled out a preventive war against North Korea, and the Obama administration has signaled that North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons alone is not enough to justify an American campaign to overthrow the Kim regime. The United States is willing to honor Seoul's wish to avoid an early and sudden demise of the Kim family dynasty, which would saddle South Koreans with a crushing financial and social burden.

Still, Americans generally despise the Kim regime and feel sympathy for the plight of the North Korean population. Americans would welcome a more liberal regime in North Korea, especially with their distance from the mess that might result from a "hard landing" by the Kim dynasty.

Thus, while China and the United States may have common preferences, their priorities are completely different. Since it is a frontline state that would immediately feel the effects of disorder across the border, China fears a collapse of the North Korean government far more than it fears the possession of nuclear weapons by its formal ally. For the United States the nuclear weapons are the immediate and most compelling problem, and the stability of the North Korean regime is something of an afterthought.

With this year's breakdown of the six-party talks, Pyongyang's announcement that it will strengthen rather than bargain away its nuclear weapons program, and North Korea's return to its past tactic of crisis-mongering, Chinese policymakers have visibly moved from symbolic punishment toward a willingness to support medium pressure on North Korea.

Outside pressure on North Korea can be categorized. Enforcing the U.N. sanctions against North Korean companies identified as weapons traders is an example of light pressure. Cutting off financial flows, as the United States implemented in the 2007 Banco Delta Asia episode, is medium pressure. An example of heavy pressure would be a cessation of delivery of crucial supplies, such as China's temporary interruption of oil deliveries to North Korea in 2003 and 2006.

The Chinese are unlikely to apply sustained heavy pressure on Pyongyang because they fear this could cause a collapse of the North Korean government, thus failing to uphold their chief interest of stability. Chinese leaders also understand that if they push so hard as to alienate Pyongyang, they will lose their influence there. This is a delicate game for Beijing. The Chinese have an interest in the continuation and eventual success of the six-party talks. They also hope to mentor North Korea toward successful reform. Movement of Chinese policy toward coalescence with the tougher American position on sanctions will complicate the constructive aspect of China's relationship with North Korea.

Nevertheless, Chinese active or tacit support of a long-term program of medium pressure on North Korea through a variety of channels now seems possible. Such a campaign might be sufficient to force North Korea to signal that at least part of its nuclear weapons program is back on the negotiating table, satisfying the American precondition for a resumption of talks.

On the question of the six-party talks, there is room for compromise between the United States and North Korea. Pyongyang has said it will not return to negotiations in that format, but would welcome bilateral talks with the United States (under certain "conditions"). The Obama administration says bilateral talks are possible within the "context" of the six-party talks. In practical terms, it appears both sides could be satisfied with a combination of bilateral talks plus frequent consultations between U.S. officials and those in Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow that immediately precede and/or follow the U.S.-North Korea meetings. The Obama administration aims for greater consultation with the other parties to gain buy-in and to avoid presenting them with unpleasant surprises. Seoul can expect that Washington will make a reasonable effort, probably more than occurred under the Bush administration, to keep South Korean officials informed about the American agenda and to take account of their expressed interests.

Process is, of course, a different matter than substance. Even if Pyongyang wants to talk, it remains to be seen whether U.S.-North Korean negotiations can solve any of the fundamental questions. It is easy to imagine such talks floundering on the issues of whether North Korea agrees even in principle to work toward denuclearization, or what concession the United States must make first, or whether this denuclearization is complete or verifiable. But regional security is closer to realization if this experience leads to a better understanding by the Asia-Pacific states of China's basic strategic interests, particularly on the question of the Korean Peninsula. Some of China's neighbors might be pleased to discover that the distance between China's and their own strategic visions have narrowed.

Denny Roy is a Senior Fellow at the East-West Center, focusing on Northeast Asia security issues. His latest book is The Pacific War and Its Political Legacies. He can be reached at



The EAST-WEST CENTER is an education and research organization established by the U.S. Congress in 1960 to strengthen relations and understanding among the peoples and nations of Asia, the Pacific, and the United States. The Center contributes to a peaceful, prosperous and just Asia Pacific community by serving as a vigorous hub for cooperative research, education and dialogue on critical issues of common concern to the Asia Pacific region and the United States. Funding for the Center comes from the U.S. government, with additional support provided by private agencies, individuals, foundations, corporations and the governments of the region.


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