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.