Is China Doing All it Can to Rein in Kim Jong-un?

Is China Doing All it Can to Rein in Kim Jong-un?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Winston Lord:




Susan Shirk

Susan L. Shirk is the chair of the 21st Century China Program and Ho Miu Lam Professor of China and Pacific Relations at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS) at UC San Diego.  She also is director emeritus of the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. Currently she is an Arthur Ross Fellow at Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations.From 1997 to 2000, Shirk served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs, with responsibility for China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Mongolia.Shirk’s most recent publications are her edited book, Changing Media, Changing China (Oxford, 2011) and China: Fragile Superpower (Oxford, 2007).

The Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) and the Chinese government, as well as many foreign policy experts, have been frustrated with the D.P.R.K. for a long time. But they have been reluctant to use China’s trade with the North Korea to put pressure on it and risk its collapse. We constantly blame Beijing for “propping up” the Pyongyang regime. The P.R.C. is indeed the economic lifeline of North Korea, whose reckless rhetoric and behavior has isolated it from almost every other country. But China’s economic ties with the D.P.R.K. consist almost entirely of trade, not aid.    My U.C.S.D. colleague, , and (the ) are the real experts on the China-D.P.R.K. relationship. In their books and blog, , they present the most accurate data we have about these economic connections, and only a small proportion consists of aid.  

China does business with North Korea largely on the basis of international market prices. In March 2011, the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation brought the first group of D.P.R.K. economic officials to the U.S. for a two week study visit on market economics and the U.S. economy. In fall 2011, I met in Pyongyang with one of the foreign trade officials who had been on that visit. He mentioned to me that he had just been in Beijing negotiating a purchase of wheat. As he described the transaction, the D.P.R.K. paid for the wheat with iron ore.  And the ore’s price was determined by the price China pays other large suppliers of iron ore, like Australia. The price of the wheat was also set according to international prices, i.e. the price on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on the day of the transaction.  

It’s impossible to know how  strictly China is enforcing the United Nations sanctions against the D.P.R.K. Is it carefully inspecting the trade at the border? And financial transactions through Chinese banks?   China’s international reputation would benefit if it would make its enforcement more transparent by allowing Chinese and foreign journalists to report on what is actually happening at the border and in the banks. 

Orville Schell

Orville Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. He is a former professor and Dean at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Schell is the author of fifteen books, ten of them about China, and a contributor to numerous edited volumes. His most recent books are Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-first Century (Random House, 2013) (co-authored with John Delury), Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La from the Himalayas to Hollywood (Metropolitan Books, 2000), The China Reader: The Reform Years (Vintage, 1998), and Mandate of Heaven: The Legacy of Tiananmen Square and the Next Generation of China's Leaders (Simon & Schuster, 1994). He is also a contributor to such magazines as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Granta, Wired, Newsweek, Mother Jones, The China Quarterly, and The New York Review of Books.Schell graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard University in Far Eastern History, was an exchange student at National Taiwan University in the 1960s, and earned a Ph.D. (Abd) at the University of California, Berkeley in Chinese History. He worked for the Ford Foundation in Indonesia, covered the war in Indochina as a journalist, and has traveled widely in China since the mid-1970s.He is a Fellow at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University, a Senior Fellow at the Annenberg School of Communications at USC, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Schell was a Fellow at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and the recipient of many prizes and fellowships, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Overseas Press Club Award, and the Harvard-Stanford Shorenstein Prize in Asian Journalism.

Ambassador Lord’s response on whether China is making as forceful an effort as it could to control the D.P.R.K. certainly has the virtue of brevity—shorter even than “Jesus wept,” from the . And, while I do not disagree with the short and sweet approach of his answer, I also think that it is incomplete. Why? Because it does not hint at the fact that as reluctant as China has been to overtly pressure the D.P.R.K., there has been a tremendous amount change in the China-North Korea zeitgeist.

The Chinese are unsurpassed when it comes to indirection and was a masterpiece of just such indirection. In it, he was clearly criticizing someone, but without naming any names. An in-the-know Chinese colleague visiting from Beijing coyly asked me this morning if I thought Xi was criticizing the Americans and the Japanese…  OR “the North Koreans.” When I said that I hoped it was “the North Koreans” and not us, he laughed and said, “We are really fed up with them. But, the reality is that nobody can control them.”

After waxing elegiacally about “this balmy season with clear sky and warm coconut breezes” at Boao, Xi observed that “our world is far from peaceful,” and that “No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains.” Although such rubric would also cover the U.S.‘s “preemptive warfare in Iraq” or even China‘s own belligerence toward Japan in the East China Sea and the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, while Xi never mentioned North Korea by name, it didn‘t take a lot of guessing to discern that he was targeting Pyongyang.

“While pursuing its own interests, a country should accommodate the legitimate interests of others,” he concluded. As oblique as he was, this sort of indirect directness would have been unimaginable during the Hu Jintao era. But what made it a tantalizing moment was that it suggested that the U.S. and China might actually come to find a new interface of common interest over the D.P.R.K.’s errant behavior.
When I raised this interesting prospect several weeks ago after China joined the recent U.N. sanctions regime against Pyongyang, posted, noting that , Beijing’s new ambassador to Washington, almost immediately countered to say that “it’s very inaccurate to say China and the United States have reached a deal on imposing sanctions on North Korea.”

Perhaps. But then, one must always allow for the possibility that the good Ambassador was simply trying to defend those—possibly like himself—who might espouse such a policy from hard-liners in the Chinese military who are less offended by the D.P.R.K.'s  increasingly embarrassing, anti–social global behavior.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Beijing, calling his comments unprecedented. “It suggests to me, as I’ve watched the ratcheting up of frustration among Chinese leaders over the last many years, that they’ve probably hit the 212-degree boiling point as it relates to North Korea,” he told CNN on Sunday.
I tend to agree with Huntsman, that the Chinese are reaching something of a kindling point in regard to their stubbornly retrograde neighbors. Pyongyang is increasing an embarrassment to Beijing, which wants to be seen as a viable world power, not part of a two-bit alliance of backward . They may not want to see South Korean and U.S. troops on the other side of the Yalu River, but they also do not want to see their “economic miracle” go up in a mushroom cloud somewhere nearby.  So, I’d say, stay tuned. This story is in process!
And, as to Winston Lord’s two letter assessment, “No,” in regard to whether or not Beijing has been making a convincing effort to control Pyongyang, I’d add a few letters: “Not yet.” But, I say this with several caveats: even if Beijing does end up applying much more pressure, it may not be immediately evident to us. And even if the Chinese end up being willing to make a much more forceful effort, we need to be ready for it to be far less successful than we now imagine it might be. My read is—and here I agree with my Chinese colleague cited above—that the Chinese have nowhere near as much ability to control what the D.P.R.K.’s leaders do as we like to imagine.

Final question: Once that Beijing card is played—if it ever is—what then?

Michael Kulma

Michael G. Kulma is the Executive Director of Global Leadership Initiatives at Asia Society’s headquarters in New York. In this capacity, he directs the Society’s four major leadership initiatives: Asia 21 Young Leaders, the Diversity Leadership Forum, the Williamsburg Conference, and Women Leaders of New Asia. He began his career at the Asia Society in 2000, working on policy issues related to Northeast Asia, with a specific concentration on China. Prior to that, he lectured at a number of colleges in the New York City area, focusing on East Asian politics, foreign policy, and international relations.Kulma contributes regularly to print and broadcast media on Asia-focused issues. He was a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations and is a member of The National Committee on United States-China Relations. He received a B.A. in Economics from the University of Chicago, a Master's in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the City University of New York. He speaks Mandarin Chinese.

I agree with Ambassador Lord that the short answer to this question is “no.” The economic lifeline is certainly important to this conversation, but the political relationship and the long friendship between China and the D.P.R.K. is also relevant, and would lead one to believe that China’s sway could/should be stronger. That said, China does seem to be trending toward stronger reaction in both word and deed. Another test by North Korea in the days or weeks ahead will also be another test of how far China is willing to go down the path to doing all that it can do.

Winston Lord

Winston Lord was U.S. Ambassador to China from 1985 to 1989. He was sworn in as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in 1993. Before assuming his duties, Ambassador Lord had been chairman of the National Endowment for Democracy, vice-chairman of the International Rescue Committee, and chairman of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s National Commission on America and the New World.From 1973 to 1977, he was Director of the Policy Planning Staff. Ambassador Lord was a Foreign Service Officer from 1961-67, during which time he was assigned in Washington to the Congressional relations, political-military, and economic affairs staffs, and abroad in Geneva. He has also served in the U.S. Government outside the Department of State as Special Assistant to the National Security Advisor (1970-73), on the National Security Council staff (1969-70), and on the Policy Planning Staff in International Security Affairs at the Defense Department (1967-69).From 1977 to 1985, Ambassador Lord was president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He also has been a member of the Asia Society, the American Academy of Diplomacy, the America-China Society, and the Aspen Institute of Distinguished Fellows. Among the awards Ambassador Lord has received are the State Department’s Distinguished Honor Award and the Defense Department’s Outstanding Performance Award.After graduating magna cum laude from Yale University in 1959, Ambassador Lord obtained an M.A. at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1960. He has received Honorary Doctorate degrees from Williams College, Tufts University, Dominican College, and Bryant College.

My succinct opener was the obvious response to the literal question. On that so far there is unanimous consensus. Clearly China could do more, a lot more.

The questions are: 1) To what degree China is frustrated with the North? 2) Is it changing or will it change its policy? And 3) What impact would this have in any event?

My views are: 1) Yes; 2) I fear (I used this before) and 3) I don’t know but it’s hard to think it would be bad for us.

I would welcome the views of others on the following:

Since China fears collapse, reunification under a democratic South Korea on its border, U.S. troop deployments, loose nukes, refugees etc., would frank discussions of redlines with it (with concurrence of our allies) and our intentions on these problems allay Beijing’s concerns enough for it to get tougher with the North? If the Chinese continue to refuse to discuss these sensitive topics (I don’t know if any secret talks with them are occurring) would it be a good idea to state our intentions to them unilaterally, again with full prior agreement with our allies? Would the latter unilateral approach be too dicey and/or ineffectual in any event in changing Chinese policy?

Ouyang Bin

Ouyang Bin is an Arthur Ross Fellow at the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society in New York and Associate Editor of ChinaFile, where his major interests concentrate on China’s political transformation, state-society relations, and the geopolitics of Northeast Asia.Prior to joining Asia Society, Ouyang worked as a journalist in China. He served as a Senior Reporter at Phoenix Weekly, Senior Editor at Newsweek Select (Newsweek’s Chinese edition), International Editor at Caijing magazine, and Senior Editor with Caixin Media. He has received awards for his reporting from Phoenix Weekly, the Asian Development Bank, and the Reuters Foundation.Ouyang earned his B.A. in Journalism from China Youth University for Political Sciences in Beijing, and his M.A. in Regional Studies-East Asia from Harvard University. He was a Harvard-Yenching Fellow from 2010-2012.

One year ago, I trolled 94 academic articles by Chinese scholars for their attitudes toward North Korea. The articles revealed that 71.3 percent of the papers mentioned the role of the United States when discussing North Korean nuclear issues. Further, 61.7 percent of them held negative attitudes toward the United States, complaining that it is United States foreign policy that exacerbates the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. And 38.3 percent of the papers showed that the authors believed that the United States uses North Korea nuclear issues to justify the maintenance and expansion of America's military presence and political influence in Northeast Asia.

So, it seems that China’s North Korea policy is actually a part of its United States policy, which means that as long as distrust of the United States haunts some of China’s decision makers and their academic consultants, China won’t do “all it can” to rein in North Korea.

Winston Lord was U.S. Ambassador to China from 1985 to 1989. He was sworn in as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in 1993. Before assuming his duties, Ambassador Lord...
Susan L. Shirk is the chair of the 21st Century China Program and Ho Miu Lam Professor of China and Pacific Relations at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS) at UC San...
Orville Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. He is a former professor and Dean at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate...
Michael G. Kulma is the Executive Director of Global Leadership Initiatives at Asia Society’s headquarters in New York. In this capacity, he directs the Society’s four major leadership initiatives:...
Ouyang Bin is an Arthur Ross Fellow at the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society in New York and Associate Editor of ChinaFile, where his major interests concentrate on China’s political...





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