North Korea: How Much More Will China Take and How Should the U.S. Respond?

North Korea: How Much More Will China Take and How Should the U.S. Respond?

A ChinaFile Conversation

China is increasingly frustrated with North Korea and may even see more clearly that its actions only serve to increase allied unity, stimulate Japanese militarism and accelerate missile defense. For all these reasons the U.S. should lean on Beijing to—at last—not only help strengthen sanctions and implement them but also to reduce/cut off aid and fuel to North Korea. This should be one of our highest priorities with China. We should encourage Seoul and Tokyo to join us in collective demarches to Beijing.

We should also continue to urge the Chinese to discuss contingencies and our respective red lines in case of, for example, regime collapse or unification. This could provide some easing of Chinese concerns about regime change, which is the policy we should pursue.

I am almost 100 percent certain, however, that Beijing will not cooperate beyond cosmetics. The Chinese will continue, as they have for many years, to be a core part of the problem, not the solution.


Tai Ming Cheung

Tai Ming Cheung is the director of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and the leader of IGCC’s Minerva project "The Evolving Relationship Between Technology and National Security in China: Innovation, Defense Transformation, and China’s Place in the Global Technology Order.” He is a long-time analyst of Chinese and East Asian defense and national security affairs. Cheung was based in Asia from the mid-1980s to 2002 covering political, economic, and strategic developments in greater China. He was also a journalist and political and business risk consultant in northeast Asia.Cheung received his Ph.D. from the War Studies Department at King's College, London University in 2007. His latest book, Fortifying China: The Struggle to Build a Modern Defense Economy, was published by Cornell University Press in 2008. He is an associate adjunct professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS) at UC San Diego, where he teaches courses on Asian security, Chinese security and technology, and Chinese politics.

While the North Korean nuclear test is certainly a headache for China’s new post-18th Party Congress leadership, I don’t see that it will have much impact in altering Beijing’s strategic approach to its relations with Pyongyang, which has been baked for some time. Although China does not want North Korea to develop nuclear weapons, there is little that Beijing can do to prevent this from occurring as it is a core priority for the North Korean regime. Whatever hope Beijing had that Kim Jong-un might change course away from militarized isolation toward reform and economic development when he took power is now gone. So Beijing’s goal now is to prevent Pyongyang from turning even more militarist and provocative—as it did in 2010 with the and —which would further undermine an already precarious regional security situation in Northeast Asia. To do this, Beijing has to walk a fine line by taking a tough public stance against North Korea’s actions at the United Nations and with the United States and other regional countries, but at the same time quietly reassure Pyongyang that it is strategically not completely isolated and that its survival is not threatened. While there are growing voices within China, especially among academics and in sphere of public opinion, calling for the Chinese authorities to take tougher action against Pyongyang, the decision makers who really matter are located within the national security apparatus and they are unlikely to change their strategic rationale that a nuclear North Korea is better than a completely isolated and unstable or failing North Korea.

Elizabeth Economy

Elizabeth Economy is the C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). The author of The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future (Cornell University Press, 2004), Economy also co-edited China Joins the World: Progress and Prospects (with Michel Oksenberg, Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1999) and The Internationalization of Environmental Protection (with Miranda Schreurs, Cambridge University Press, 1997). She has published articles in foreign policy and scholarly journals, including Foreign Affairs, Harvard Business Review, and Foreign Policy, and op-eds in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and International Herald Tribune. Economy is vice chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of China and serves on the board of the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development. She is a frequent guest on nationally broadcast television and radio programs, has testified before Congress on numerous occasions, and regularly consults for U.S. government agencies and companies. Economy is currently writing two books: one on China's rise and its geopolitical and strategic implications, and another, with Michael Levi, on China’s global quest for resources (forthcoming, Oxford University Press, 2013). Economy received her B.A. from Swarthmore College, her A.M. from Stanford University, and her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. In 2008, she received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Vermont Law School. 

(Editor's note: the following is an excerpt from a longer post at the of the Council on Foreign Relations in which regular ChinaFile Conversationalist Elizabeth Economy notes, first of all, “Here is what we know about China and the current crisis with North Korea: Beijing doesn’t know what to do.”):

“Another thing we know about China and North Korea is that the potential of Beijing’s leverage — the life-sustaining economic, food, and energy assistance it provides to the DPRK—is not in any way influencing North Korean decision-making. In addition to Pyongyang ignoring Beijing’s warnings over the third nuclear test, let’s not forget that late last year a $40 million investment in North Korea by one of China’s largest mining companies when the North Koreans reportedly mastered the mining processes themselves and evicted the Chinese workers. The Chinese company is still trying to recoup some of its investment. Moreover, efforts by the Chinese to persuade Kim Jong-un to undertake more significant economic reform have apparently fallen on deaf ears. North Korea appears to be the tail that is wagging the China dog.

While we wait for Beijing’s foreign policy to coalesce, we might look to Beijing’s north for some help. Mongolian officials have regularly hosted their North Korean counterparts for national security and economic discussions. They have even acted as a third party host for delicate negotiations involving the DPRK; most recently in November 2012, Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar to discuss the long-standing problem of . Like China, Mongolia has a long-standing relationship with the DPRK; it was the second country to grant diplomatic recognition to North Korea after the Soviet Union. It is unlikely that a simple talk with Mongolia’s personable President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj will have an immediate impact, but at the very least backchannel lines of communication can be exploited. More insight into Kim Jong-un’s thinking and the broader political situation within North Korea is clearly needed.

The Editors

ChinaFile is a new not-for-profit, English-language, online magazine published by the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. We hope to help facilitate a broad, well-informed, nuanced, and vibrant public conversation about China in the U.S. and elsewhere in the English-speaking world.Coverage of China has proliferated and become more diffuse. Some coverage deserves more attention than it gets. Some gets more attention than it deserves. ChinaFile’s editors bring order, clarity, and a discerning if affectionate eye to the flood of commentary and reporting on China.Every day, we sift through coverage of China to highlight and translate pieces that are particularly insightful, well-reported, informative, or otherwise worth reading.Some China coverage is built to last. We find it, we archive it, and we make it easy for you to use and enjoy. Our current partners include: The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, Caixin, The Hong Kong Economic Journal, the websites, Tea Leaf Nation, and CNPolitics, and the bilingual arts and literature magazines LEAP and Chutzpah.When we come across underreported subjects, innovative, elegant storytelling, sharp analysis, experts interested in engaging newcomers, Chinese analysts who want to write for international audiences, or questions we feel haven’t been adequately explained by other publications, we commission and produce our own content. Our contributors are freelancers and regular columnists working both inside and outside of China.

File under: The More Things Change...Economist correspondent Gady Epstein's from Beijing for his former employer, The Baltimore Sun, is worth revisiting in the context of this conversation in that it reminds us that Beijing's ability to pressure Pyongyang ten years ago wasn't much greater than Washington's ability to do the same a whole 20 years ago, in 1993-94, when U.S. President Bill Clinton tried playing good cop with Pyongyang by offering fuel oil and two light-water nuclear reactors to then-leader Kim Jong-il.

John Delury

John Delury is an Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies and Underwood International College in Seoul, South Korea. Delury is currently a Senior Fellow of Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, where with Center Director Orville Schell he recently co-authored Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-first Century (Random House, 2013). He was previously the Associate Director of the Center, where he directed the China Boom Project as well as a task force on economic engagement with North Korea.Before moving to Korea, Delury taught Chinese history and politics at Brown University, Columbia University, and Peking University. He is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, member of the National Committee on North Korea, and sits on the 21st Century Leadership Council of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. His writings have appeared recently in Foreign Policy, Policy Review, Slate, 38 North, World Policy Journal, and Yale Global Online and his commentary appears regularly in the media. Delury received a B.A. and Ph.D. in history from Yale University.

So far we are seeing the usual Pavlovian American responses to North Korea’s third nuclear test—outrage at another provocation, insistence that North Korea is only isolating itself further, grim resolve to break the cycle of provocation by not buying the same horse twice, and, last but not least, turning (in vain) to Beijing to fix it.

Another UN Security Council resolution and enhanced sanctions will do nothing to change the fundamental calculus on Pyongyang’s part, which will take a still harder line in response. The Obama Administration’s North Korea policy of “strategic patience” is like playing a dangerous game of chicken on a one-lane road driving blithely into another car whose driver tied his shoelaces so that his foot cannot let up on the gas.

Americans are waiting for China to intercede and stop the North Korean nuclear bus as it barrels down the road. There are even some hints that Beijing is, by “lips and teeth” standards at least, getting tougher on Pyongyang. China made little effort to slow down or water down the last for its satellite launch, and now Beijing looks prepared to sign off on another one. This might not be just about nukes. Kim Jong Un since taking office has taken a cooler approach to the “great country” to his north, which has a strategic logic to it since he needs to establish his credentials as leader of a defiantly independent DPRK, and North Korea has, over the past few years, become excessively dependent on China for economic activity. There seems to be some jousting now between new leaders Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping as they set terms for the next decade of the PRC-DPRK alliance (North Korea is the only country China is treaty bound to defend militarily).

However, it is highly unlikely that Beijing has shifted its fundamental course in dealing with North Korea and, contrary to almost universal desire in American policy circles for Beijing to “cut off the aid” to Pyongyang, it’s a good thing that China stays the course.

Why? For the simple reason that sticks will not work with North Korea. On the contrary, sanctions and disengagement close off possibilities of North Korea’s evolving toward a more “normal” East Asian nation with a highly integrated economy and relatively moderate foreign policy. Instead, punishing Pyongyang for its provocations plays into the hands of isolationist hardliners, who hold the trump card that North Korea’s continuation as a state and the DPRK ruling elites as a group remain under existential threat of the Iraqi and Libyan variety. A self-perpetuation cycle is born.

What some China experts will tell you is that they get North Korea's rationale. The itself exemplifies the dictum that security comes before all else—China acquired nuclear weapons under Mao in the 1960s, negotiated a strategic breakthrough in the early 1970s with the US—its avowed enemy since the Korean War—on the basis of the shared threat posed by the Soviet Union, and only later in the 1970s began reforming its economy and opening up its foreign relations. Many “Korea hands” in China see North Korea through this lens. They have not given up hope that Kim Jong Un will turn out to lead economic reforms, but rather, are waiting for a strategic breakthough and political settlement in inter-Korean relations as well as US-DPRK relations first.

In Western media coverage and on the think tank circuit, we tend to hear less from such “conservative” Chinese voices, but I would wager their thinking is closer to that of China's leadership. The more “progressive” Chinese foreign policy experts who voice a frustration with North Korea that Americans can relate to are by and large trained as U.S.-China experts. Their critique of Beijing's coddling Pyongyang makes sense in the context of U.S.-China relations, where it seems much energy is wasted on an insoluble problem, and Beijing is squandering capital by sticking up for Pyongyang. But those in both China and the US who argue Xi Jinping should join hands with Barack Obama in taking a hardline on Pyongyang fail to comprehend just how powerful the North Korean system’s “anti-imperialist resilience” (to play off Andy Nathan's phrase) is. Kim Jong Un will just as happily defy Beijing as he will Washington.

For now, the only shard of hope is here in South Korea, where we are awaiting a new president, , who sent mixed signals during her campaign but overall leaned toward some kind of re-engagement with the North. When I visited Pyongyang last month, the attitude toward Park was more open than I'd expected, and the fact that she'd visited the DPRK and met with gave her a certain credibility up-front. Her job will not be an easy one.

The only way out of the nuclear quagmire is to work tirelessly to improve all other aspects of relations with the DPRK, to bring their government, economy and society out into the open, and allow the forces of economic interdepence (based on legal economic activities rather than illicit ones!) and political normalization to grind away. It would make sense, and is probably feasible, for Washington to insist on some kind of freeze and improved monitoring of North Korea’s nuclear program in the meantime. But that is just a band-aid for cancer.

Beijing should stick with its current policy of engagement, and South Korea should return to an improved version of its previous policy of engagement. A way forward will open up, though it will take time. The Obama Administration will need to demonstrate truly strategic patience to allow it to happen.

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...
Tai Ming Cheung is the director of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and the leader of IGCC’s Minerva project "The Evolving Relationship Between Technology and...
Elizabeth Economy is the C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). The author of The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s...
John Delury is an Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies and Underwood International College in Seoul, South Korea. Delury is...





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