China’s evolution on North Korea

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China’s evolution on North Korea

There has been a heightened sense in Seoul (and in some think tanks and government agencies in Washington) that China’s stance toward North Korea might be changing in directions that would help resolve the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang. Expectations were raised in February when the deputy editor of the (Chinese Central Party School’s) Study Times wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times arguing that China should let North Korea collapse. President Park Geun-hye’s “trustpolitik” strategy also aims to take advantage of Chinese frustration with North Korea to bring greater pressure on Pyongyang to denuclearize and engage the South.

So in the wake of Xi Jinping’s summits with Presidents Obama and Park, can we now say that China has shifted its stance on North Korea? I have asked this question of Chinese scholars and officials and other experts on Chinese foreign policy in Washington and across East Asia. I think it is fair to make the following assessment about China’s stance toward North Korea at the present time.

First, the Chinese leadership and people are fed up with Kim Jong-un’s regime. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il knew how to push the Chinese to the point of retribution and then pull back and allow Beijing to save face. Hu Jintao had no love of Kim Jong-il, but it appears that Xi and the current leadership hold Kim Jong-un in pure contempt. The Chinese leadership must also answer to the anger of their netizens, who find the young Kim impudent. Chinese citizens in the northeast could feel the North’s latest nuclear test and worry that continued explosions just over the North Korean border could trigger an active volcano in the area or otherwise do lasting damage to the environment. Chinese people are angry, but that alone does not necessarily mean Chinese policy will change.

Second, the Chinese leadership would like to woo South Korean President Park. The President’s skill in Mandarin and her modest but sincere demeanor appeal to the Chinese public. The Chinese government would like to move Seoul away from the harder-line stance of the Lee Myung-bak government and in the longer-term weaken South Korean security ties to the United States - or at least counterbalance those ties with a robust economic and political dialogue between Beijing and Seoul. For sentimental and strategic reasons, Beijing sees an opportunity with the Park government and does not mind showing some favoritism to Seoul at Pyongyang’s expense. There is no sign, for example, that Kim Jong-un will receive an invitation to meet Xi in China in the wake of President Park’s summit. That is significant since every previous South Korea-China summit has been balanced by a China-DPRK summit.

Third, China has adjusted but not fundamentally changed its approach to North Korea in the wake of the nuclear tests. Beijing has implemented UN Security Council sanctions by halting business by major banks with North Korean entities, but continues to allow smaller regional banks to do business with the North. There is some evidence to suggest that the Chinese government is scrutinizing shipments to North Korea more carefully, but only in an episodic rather than systemic manner. China continues to account for an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the North’s food and fuel imports, and trade volume continues to grow. The bottom line is that Beijing continues to resist pressure on the North that might result in instability or collapse of the regime and continues to match sticks with carrots. This is an important tactical adjustment, but not a change in overall strategy toward Pyongyang.

Fourth, the prevailing view among Chinese experts is that the North will have to move toward opening and reform because of Kim Jong-un’s embrace of the Party compared with Kim Jong-il’s embrace of the military. While few Chinese officials or experts will argue that Kim Jong-un is prepared to give up nuclear weapons development any time soon, most would assert that a patient strategy makes sense since Pyongyang will eventually have to choose economic opening in the way Deng Xiaoping did. This is certainly not the mainstream view in Washington, where North Korean weapons development is seen as a way to maintain regime control and coercive leverage over the South and Northeast Asian neighbors without the political risk of opening up.

Fifth, Beijing appears not to have changed its basic stance on diplomacy toward the North. The Chinese view is that Beijing has done its part by implementing UNSC sanctions, and the burden is on the United States, South Korea and Japan to come back to the six-party talks without preconditions. The U.S.-ROK-Japan position is that North Korean nuclear tests and violations of past agreements require steps by Pyongyang to re-establish trust, such as a testing moratorium or other measures. Beijing also continues to resist any suggestion that the six-party talks should be reconfigured toward a five-plus-one arrangement that would put more diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang.

Sixth, while Chinese experts are much more willing to discuss the future of the Korean Peninsula, the Chinese government will likely remain cautious about encouraging a discussion with Seoul or Washington that could be seen provocative to Pyongyang or encouragement of a “regime change” strategy by the United States or South Korea.

In sum, there are important evolutions in China’s view toward North Korea. There is also more debate about North Korea in China. These merit further engagement and dialogue since China’s stance is pivotal. However, it is probably too soon to say that China’s fundamental strategy toward North Korea has changed.

*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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