Parsing China’s North Korea Policy

Parsing China’s North Korea Policy
Soldiers in tanks move through Kim Il Sung square during a military parade, Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017 (AP photo by Wong Maye-E).
At a press briefing Monday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman responded to North Korea’s Feb. 12 nuclear test by calling for all parties to avoid taking action that could worsen the situation on the Korean Peninsula. While China expressed its opposition to the test, Beijing also stated its desire to see an early resumption of the Six-Party Talks seeking a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and called for the Security Council to adopt measures that would seek “realization of denuclearization, nonproliferation, and peace and stability on the peninsula.” Meanwhile, Chinese news commentary blamed U.S. intransigence as much as DPRK recklessness for the latest crisis. Beijing’s reluctance to impose severe sanctions on North Korea despite its recent nuclear test should not be surprising. Despite their irritation with the North Korean regime, most Chinese officials appear more concerned about the potential collapse of the North Korean state than about its pursuit of nuclear and missile programs. Chinese policymakers have long opposed North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles capabilities, because they might encourage other countries to develop nuclear weapons and missile defenses that would negatively affect China’s security. In particular, Beijing fears that South Korea, Japan and even Taiwan might be induced to pursue their own nuclear forces, which under some contingencies might be used against Beijing as well as Pyongyang. Some in Beijing, recalling China’s past history with Russia and Vietnam, worry that North Korean nuclear weapons might even one day pose a threat to China. Chinese decision-makers presumably would also like to avoid the negative reaction in Washington and other capitals that would arise if it became evident that Pyongyang had transferred materials and technologies originally provided by China to third countries. There is evidence that North Korea has already exchanged technologies useful for developing weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles with Pakistan, another Chinese ally, as well as with Syria and other countries of proliferation concern. Chinese leaders also fear that these ostentatious displays of North Korea’s improving missile and nuclear capacities will further encourage the United States, Japan, Taiwan and other states to develop missile defenses that in turn will weaken the effectiveness of Beijing’s ballistic missile arsenal. China’s increasingly sophisticated missiles represent a core element of its national security strategy. Beijing has deployed more than 1,000 intermediate-range missiles within striking distance of Taiwan to deter, and if necessary punish, Taipei from pursuing policies objectionable to Beijing. In addition, Chinese strategists see their strengthening missile capabilities as a decisive instrument in implementing China’s anti-access/area-denial strategy against the United States. The Chinese military seeks the ability to target any American military forces, including aircraft carriers, that attempt to defend Taiwan or otherwise confront Chinese forces in East Asia. As a last resort, China relies on its long-range strategic ballistic missiles to deter the United States from employing its own nuclear forces against China. Through the Six-Party Talks and other mechanisms, Chinese policymakers have sought to induce North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons and moderate its other foreign and defense policies in return for security guarantees, economic assistance and diplomatic acceptance by the rest of the international community. Such a benign outcome would avoid the feared consequences of precipitous regime change in Pyongyang, which could potentially include humanitarian emergencies, economic reconstruction, arms races and military conflicts. The sudden demise of the North Korean regime would in all likelihood induce widespread economic disruptions in East Asia; generate large refugee flows across the Chinese-North Korean border; weaken China’s influence in the Koreas by ending Beijing’s unique status as interlocutor with Pyongyang; allow the U.S. to concentrate its military attention on other theaters in the reigon, such as Taiwan; result in the redirection of South Korean investment flows from China to reconstruction projects in North Korea as part of reunification; and potentially remove a buffer separating China’s borders from U.S. ground forces in the event the U.S. Army redeploys into northern Korea. At worst, North Korea’s collapse could precipitate military conflict and civil strife on the peninsula, which could spill across into Chinese territory. These concerns constrain Beijing’s willingness to pressure Pyongyang to modify its policies, for although Chinese policymakers would prefer that North Korea refrain from provocative actions like missile testing and would welcome denuclearization and a peace agreement on the Korean Peninsula, they worry that substantial pressure on the North Korean regime might provoke its collapse. Some observers have characterized this condition as a “mutual hostage situation,” where Beijing feels forced to continue to support North Korea (.pdf) despite, and increasingly due to, the North’s destabilizing activities. As a result, although the Chinese government has been willing to criticize North Korean behavior and temporarily reduce economic assistance, it has consistently resisted military action, severe economic sanctions and other developments that could threaten instability on the Korean Peninsula. Along with South Korea and Russia, China has resisted imposing sanctions that could inflict severe harm on the fragile North Korean economy. To limit external threats to North Korea, Chinese government representatives have also consistently striven to downplay concerns about the extent of North Korea’s missile program as well as its nuclear activities, including evidence of North Korean involvement in the proliferation of nuclear and other WMD technologies to third parties. They depict Pyongyang less as a nuclear-armed rogue regime than as a potential failed state and humanitarian disaster in the making. Moreover, the Chinese government has never committed to the demanding U.S. goal of “complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament,” at least as a near-term goal. Instead, Chinese officials generally portray the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as a long-term objective that may require accepting a North Korean ability to continue some nuclear activities, despite such activities giving Pyongyang at least a limited inherent nuclear weapons capacity. They have also argued that the United States and other countries would need to make some concessions to Pyongyang to secure North Korea’s denuclearization, rather than expect North Korea to disarm first before discussing the provision of any possible rewards. Despite their unease with the Kim dynasty in Pyongyang, Chinese policymakers appear to have resigned themselves to dealing with this regime for now, while hoping it will gradually reform over time into a more stable, less troublesome, but still pro-Beijing state. In the meantime, Chinese pressure on North Korea will remain constrained by its fears of what might arise in the event of precipitous collapse. Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a World Politics Review senior editor. His weekly WPR column, Global Insights, appears every Tuesday. Photo: A North Korean soldier stands guard at the 36th parallel (photo by Iason Athanasiadis).

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.