Decoding China's North Korean Policy
After a rare inter-Korean nuclear meeting in Bali, a top nuclear negotiator from North Korea arrived in the US to gauge if six-party talks can resume. China is host to talks that aim to dissuade the North's nuclear ambition. In fact, China's role has been highlighted as much as the North's provocations in international headlines.
Pundits have long viewed China as having the capacity to contain Pyongyang's belligerence. With rumors of another North Korean nuclear test making the rounds to engineer legitimacy of the young heir, the usual call to China to rein in its North Korean ally may not be far off.
How much influence China has over Pyongyang’s policy remains, to quote Winston Churchill, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Behind the mystery, there’s a simple truth: China will do exactly what its long-term interest dictates and it will not be swayed by entreaties of any power.
Popular commentary on Sino-North Korean relations suggests that China wields decisive influence on North Korea. A longtime mantra of the US State Department holds that China is the key to North Korean belligerence. How much influence China has over North Korea is still debated among experts. Chinese influence will ultimately depend on Beijing’s calculation of its national interests. That’s the only certainty.
This bedrock principle often eludes outside commentators’ scrutiny, and, as a result, Sino-North Korean relations often mystify international audiences.
China is seen as the major culprit that props the North Korean regime, functioning as its long-time enabler, providing food and fuel aid, neutralizing the UN sanctions. The international community has been perplexed by why China, a G20 member and “responsible stakeholder,” is so obsessed with a blip on the world map.
However, the alarm that China doesn’t do enough to contain North Korea’s provocations is a manufactured reality with a strategic purpose – more a reflection of US policy frustration rather than an objective analysis of China’s foreign-policy objectives, which should serve the national interests.
The Chinese national goal is to continue its rise as a global superpower. This requires a stable security environment in its neighborhood, especially the Korean Peninsula. Simply put, China wants to keep its backyard quiet. This offers a guide in decoding China’s foreign-policy logic on North Korea.
For the foreseeable future, that means China will be status-quo oriented: It needs to be prodded before it acts, as in US-led campaigns to intercept illegal arms sales by North Korea, and will be unenthused to join an international initiative that attempts to radically change the status quo on the Korean Peninsula. On the other hand, China will act proactively when perceiving signs of instability in North Korea – it invited North Korean leader Kim Jong Il three times in one year.
Four other pointers help in understanding China’s foreign policy behavior on North Korea:
Firstly, China will act in a way that fosters the stability of the North regime. The duo recently embarked on joint economic projects on two border areas, river island Hwanggeumpyeong and the Rajin-Sonbong area. By providing North Korea with economic incentives, China wants to stabilize North Korea amid a volatile transition process from Kim Jong Il to his third and youngest son, still in his 20s.
Secondly, China provides economic incentives to North Korea so that the North doesn’t resort to military adventurism that can destabilize the region, for instance, arms provocations against South Korea. Chinese experts call it “buying peace” from North Korea.
Thirdly, as seen in China’s behavior during the two violent incidents last year, China is not likely to rebuke North Korea in matters that could compromise its own interests. China did not join the international community in condemning North Korea in the aftermath of the Cheonan incident involving the sinking of a South Korean navy vessel. China judged that such condemnation would make North Korea feel cornered, prompting it to resort to further extreme provocations, even full-scale war on the Korean Peninsula. In the same context, like the US, China doesn’t want a nuclear North Korea. China wants to remain the sole nuclear power in East Asia and worries that North Korea’s developing nuclear weapons will spark a domino effect in neighboring countries, including arch-Asian rival Japan. But in doing so China doesn’t want to corner the North. China knows, when cornered, a mouse can bite a cat.
Simply put, China will gently nudge North Korea, but won’t pressure it. China learned a good lesson after harshly criticizing North Korea for the latter’s first nuclear testing in 2006 calling it “han ran,” or wanton. North Korea reacted: It became less responsive to China’s calls. It even carried out the second nuclear testing 50 miles from China’s border, prompting some Chinese schools to evacuate.
All in all, China is not likely to go out of its way to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear program. But when tension in the Korean Peninsula gets of control, China will act to contain the situation. For example, China merely counseled both Koreas to stay calm in the aftermath of the Cheonan incident, but proactively managed the situation when the tension spiked further, on the verge of a war after the North Korean shelling of South’s Yeonpyeong Island, by dispatching its top foreign envoy, State Councilor Dai Bingguo, who outranks foreign minister Yang Jiechi. Dai met face-to face with top leaders of both Koreas. After Dai’s meeting with Kim last year, North Korea didn’t carry out its repeated threat of “retaliation” against South Korea in case Seoul carried out military drills near disputed waters. Predicting when China sits back and when it’s working behind the scenes can be a frustrating exercise.
Fourthly, this brings us back to the question of how much influence China really has over North Korea. China’s influence is an overstated premise. In 2006 and 2009, China demanded that North Korea not go ahead with nuclear experiments, North Korea didn’t comply. Like a parent dealing with a spoiled child, China has learned that its influence diminishes when it criticizes Pyongyang.
Chinese influence over North Korea is an assumption, strategically adopted by the US and South Korea. The two nations view China’s role as helpful in solving the North Korean problem. It’s a recognition of China’s growing stakeholder role in the region, a strategy of using China to influence North Korea. It’s also a preventive measure so that China may later be part of the solution. The US and its Asian allies, including South Korea, should not expect China to adopt their positions on North Korea, in accordance to US strategy for the region.
Track records show that China acts in its best interests. China is willing to shoulder outside criticism in defending North Korea when its national interests are at stake.
(Seong-hyon (Sunny) Lee is a Seoul-born columnist and journalist, based in China. He’s completing his PhD on North Korea at Tsinghua University in Beijing. This is reprinted with permission of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization)