Will China abandon North Korea?

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Will China abandon North Korea?

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Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un

As Xi Jinping assumes his post as President of China at this week’s National Peoples’ Congress, many observers are wondering whether he will usher in a new Chinese strategy toward North Korea. Speculation was first heightened by a blunt opinion piece published in The Financial Times on Feb. 27 by a senior scholar at the Communist Party School in Beijing. In the article, Deng Yuwen called for China to abandon North Korea, which he argued presented only complications to China’s foreign policy and a potential nuclear armed threat to Chinese security. Then on March 5 the Chinese side agreed at the United Nations for the first time to punitive measures short of military force against North Korea and expansion of North Korean entities on the so-called sanctions list.

The possible reasons for a shift in China’s North Korea strategy are clear enough. Pyongyang has now defied Beijing with three nuclear tests, the most recent of which occurred on the eve of the Chinese Lunar New Year. Beijing also appears eager to counter the U.S. “pivot” to Asia by cultivating closer ties to President Park Geun-hye, even if that comes at the expense of China-DPRK relations. Personnel changes could also explain the new tone: State Councilor Dai Bingguo, a Sovietologist who was known for taking a softer line towards Pyongyang, is set to be replaced by the Americanist Yang Jiechi, who in turn is likely to be replaced as Foreign Minister by Wang Yi, an expert on Japan and the Korean Peninsula. And, of course, Xi Jinping brings to his job a background in foreign policy and national security that Hu Jintao never had.

Yet there are also possible explanations for China’s new debate on North Korea that would suggest there is less than meets the eye. After the 2009 North Korean nuclear test there were similar debates among Chinese scholars and rumors of a review of Chinese policy towards Pyongyang. At that time, several prominent experts from Chinese think tanks stated in sessions in Washington that regime change may be the only way to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem.

That criticism of the North quickly dissipated, however. In subsequent years Chinese trade with the North ballooned and Beijing took a passive stance in response to the attacks on the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong. Even in the midst of the current open criticism of the North by prominent Chinese scholars, other intellectuals in Beijing are writing about the need to cultivate a pro-Chinese regime in the North. Pyongyang could also end up defusing the debate by offering to return to the six-party talks or to negotiate a peace agreement on the Korean Peninsula.

Still, the Chinese decision at the UN Security Council and Deng’s article in the Financial Times are unprecedented. China has undeniably increased pressure on North Korea this time. But will it last? The key is to test whether there is a strategic shift with the new team in Beijing. President Park may be the best positioned leader to do that. Beijing wants closer ties to Seoul and Park’s new administration has signaled that it is prepared for engagement based on “trustpolitik” with the North. In exchange, the President should ask Beijing to demonstrate that it will do more to help Seoul and the international community address Pyongyang’s dangerous behavior - not only at the UN, but on the ground in China.

There are concrete things that Beijing could do to follow up on the UN Security Council resolution. China could cooperate more behind the scenes this time to actually implement sanctions and to interdict proliferation activities by the North. Diplomatically, Beijing is the only party still opposed to convening five party talks to coordinate regional approaches to the nuclear issue. Dialogue on the future of the peninsula has also been halting between Beijing and Seoul (and Beijing and Washington). It would be a positive sign if China’s cooperation on the North Korean nuclear threat continued beyond the current discussions in New York.

It is possible that China’s current debate about North Korea policy will dissipate as it has in the past. It is also possible that Beijing seeks closer ties with the Park government, but not closer China-ROK coordination on the North Korea problem. In fact, one hallmark of China’s North Korea strategy has been to conceal its interactions with Pyongyang, to deny its leverage and to urge the other parties in the region to do more to satisfy the North. Even with a firmer Chinese stance towards the North, Beijing’s desire to retain unilateral control over its leverage and interactions with the North could remain firmly in place.

Rather than passively speculate and wait to see what China might do, the Park government should take the initiative to follow up on the UN Security Council sanctions with Beijing. Implementation has always been a major problem in the past with China. But perhaps not this time.

*The author is a senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

by Michael J. Green

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