North Korea’s Defiance May Reshape China’s Strategic Calculus

North Korea’s Defiance May Reshape China’s Strategic Calculus

For the past four years, China has consistently shielded North Korea from efforts to impose further international sanctions and to heighten Pyongyang’s diplomatic isolation in response to Pyongyang’s repeated provocations on the Korean Peninsula. That support, however, did not stop North Korea from conducting its third nuclear test earlier this month in direct defiance of Beijing’s appeals, with news of the test interrupting the new Chinese leadership’s observance of China’s most important holiday on Feb. 12.

Debate about the diminishing value of Beijing’s support for and alliance with North Korea was already occurring among Chinese policymakers, academics and citizens. In recent years, especially in the aftermath of Kim Jong Il’s death, this debate has been dominated by the People’s Liberation Army and Chinese Communist Party organizations, such as the International Liaison Department, which favor the unconditional backing of the Kim regime. These key drivers of Chinese policy have powerfully and consistently argued that the cost of North Korean nuclear proliferation for regional security and China’s international image is outweighed by the potential consequences for China of stronger pressure or sanctions on North Korea. The latter are seen as including a collapse of the North Korean state, resulting in a flood of refugees across Chinese borders; a reunification of the Koreas, which would eliminate the buffer between China and one of the United States’ closest allies; and the possibility of Pyongyang engaging in further acts of aggression.

Based on this calculus, Beijing has favored delicate diplomacy, economic engagement and maintaining the status quo on the Korean Peninsula. However, the December 2012 missile test and this month’s nuclear test are forcefully reshaping this critical debate within the Chinese system, redefining its contours to favor a different set of Chinese authorities, who are calling for greater cooperation with the United States and its allies. As the Chinese leadership continues to allow Pyongyang’s nuclear aspirations to go unchecked, three significant long-term consequences of inaction are coming to the fore that undercut traditional arguments and may be causing China’s new leadership to recalculate the benefits and burdens of their country’s historical relationship with North Korea.

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.

More World Politics Review