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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.

Responses

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 sinking of the South Korean Cheonan warship and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island—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.

(Editor’s note: the following is an excerpt from a longer post at the Asia Unbound blog 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 went belly-up 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 brought Japanese and North Korean negotiators together in Ulaanbaatar to discuss the long-standing problem of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens. 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.

File under: The More Things Change…Economist correspondent Gady Epstein’s March 2003 story 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.

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 UNSC Resolution chastising Pyongyang 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 “China model” 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, Park Geun-hye, 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 Kim Jong Il 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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Mike Kulma:Earlier this week at an Asia Society forum on U.S.-China economic relations, Dr. Henry Kissinger remarked that when the U.S. first started down the path of normalizing relations with China in the early 1970s, the economic relationship and trade between the two...

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05.21.13

U.S.-China Economic Relations—What Will the Next...

JONATHAN LANDRETH, ORVILLE SCHELL & others

On Monday, within hours of the announcement that Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet U.S. President Barack Obama on a visit to California on June 7-8, Tung Chee-hwa, the former Chief Executive and President of the Executive Council of Hong Kong, introduced former U.S....

Blog

05.16.13

China: What’s Going Right?

MICHAEL ZHAO, JAMES FALLOWS & others

Michael Zhao:On a recent trip to China, meeting mostly with former colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, I got a dose of optimism and hope for one aspect of the motherland. In terms of science, or laying down a solid foundation for better science to come, things are...

Blog

05.14.13

Why Can’t China Make Its Food Safe?—Or Can It?

ALEX WANG, JOHN C. BALZANO & others

The month my wife and I moved to Beijing in 2004, I saw a bag of oatmeal at our local grocery store prominently labeled: “NOT POLLUTED!” How funny that this would be a selling point, we thought.But 7 years later as we prepared to return to the US, what was once a joke had...

Blog

05.10.13

What’s China’s Game in the Middle East?

RACHEL BEITARIE, MASSOUD HAYOUN & others

Rachel Beitarie:Xi Jinping’s four point proposal for a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement is interesting not so much for its content, as for its source. While China has maintained the appearance of being involved in Middle East politics for years, its top leaders, so far,...

Blog

05.07.13

Why Is a 1995 Poisoning Case the Top Topic on Chinese...

RACHEL LU, ANDREW J. NATHAN & others

With a population base of 1.3 billion people, China has no shortage of strange and gruesome crimes, but the attempted murder of Zhu Ling by thallium poisoning in 1995 is burning up China’s social media long after the trails have gone cold. Zhu, a brilliant and beautiful...

Blog

05.02.13

Does Promoting “Core Interests” Do China More Harm...

THE EDITORS, STEPHANIE T. KLEINE-AHLBRANDT & others

On April 30, as tensions around China’s claims to territories in the South- and East China Seas continued to simmer, we began what proved to be a popular ChinaFile Conversation, asking the question, What's Really at the Core of China’s ‘Core Interests’? The participants...

Blog

04.30.13

What’s Really at the Core of China’s “Core...

SHAI OSTER, ANDREW J. NATHAN & others

Shai Oster:It’s Pilates diplomacy—work on your core. China’s diplomats keep talking about China’s core interests and it’s a growing list. In 2011, China included its political system and social stability as core interests. This year, it has added a vast chunk of the...

Blog

04.25.13

Hollywood in China—What’s the Price of Admission?

JONATHAN LANDRETH, YING ZHU & others

Last week, DreamWorks Animation (DWA), the Hollywood studio behind the worldwide blockbuster Kung Fu Panda films, announced that it will cooperate with the China Film Group (CFG) on an animated feature called Tibet Code, an adventure story based on a series of recent Chinese...

Blog

04.23.13

How Would You Spend (the Next) $300 Million on U.S.-...

ORVILLE SCHELL & MICHAEL KULMA

Orville Schell:When Stephen A. Schwarzman announced his new $300 million program aimed at sending foreign scholars to Tsinghua University in Beijing the way Rhodes Scholarship, set up by the businessman and statesman Cecil Rhodes in 1902 began sending American scholars to Oxford...

Blog

04.18.13

How Fast Is China’s Slowdown Coming, and What Should...

PATRICK CHOVANEC, BARRY NAUGHTON & others

Slower Chinese GDP growth is not a bad thing if it’s happening for the right reasons. But it’s not happening for the right reasons.Instead of reining in credit to try to curb over-investment, Chinese authorities have allowed a renewed explosion in credit in an effort to fuel...

Blog

04.16.13

Why is China Still Messing with the Foreign Press?

ANDREW J. NATHAN, ISABEL HILTON & others

To those raised in the Marxist tradition, nothing in the media happens by accident.  In China, the flagship newspapers are still the “throat and tongue” of the ruling party, and their work is directed by the Party’s Propaganda Department.  That’s the first...

Blog

04.11.13

Why Is Chinese Soft Power Such a Hard Sell?

JEREMY GOLDKORN, DONALD CLARKE & others

Jeremy Goldkorn:Chairman Mao Zedong said that power comes out of the barrel of a gun, and he knew a thing or two about power, both hard and soft. If you have enough guns, you have respect. Money is the same: if you have enough cash, you can buy guns, and respect.Israel and Saudi...

Blog

04.03.13

Bird Flu Fears: Should We Trust Beijing This Time?

DAVID WERTIME, YANZHONG HUANG & others

David Wertime:A new strain of avian flu called H7N9 has infected at least seven humans and killed three in provinces near the Chinese metropolis of Shanghai, with the first death occurring on March 4. Meanwhile, in the last month, about 16,000 pigs, 1,000 ducks, and a few swans...

Blog

04.02.13

Why Did Apple Apologize to Chinese Consumers and What...

JEREMY GOLDKORN, ISABEL HILTON & others

Jeremy Goldkorn:On March 22, before the foreign media or Apple themselves seemed to have grasped the seriousness of the CCTV attacks on the Californian behemoth, I wrote a post on Danwei.com that concluded:“The signs are clear that regulators and establishment media would both...

Blog

03.28.13

Will China’s Renminbi Replace the Dollar as the World...

PATRICK CHOVANEC, DAMIEN MA & others

Patrick Chovanec:This week’s news that Brazil and China have signed a $30 billion currency swap agreement gave a renewed boost to excited chatter over the rising influence of China’s currency, the renminbi (RMB). The belief, in many quarters, is that the renminbi is well on...

Blog

03.26.13

Can China Transform Africa?

JEREMY GOLDKORN, ISABEL HILTON & others

Jeremy Goldkorn:The question is all wrong. China is already transforming Africa, the question is how China is transforming Africa, not whether it can. From the “China shops”—small stores selling cheap clothing, bags, and kitchenware—that have become ubiquitous in Southern...

Blog

03.19.13

China’s New Leaders Say They Want to Fight Corruption...

ANDREW J. NATHAN & OUYANG BIN

In his first press conference after taking office as China's new premier, Li Keqiang declared that one of his top priorities would be to fight corruption, because “Corruption and the reputation of our government are as incompatible as fire and water.” This put Li on message...

Blog

03.15.13

Is the One Child Policy Finished—And Was It a Failure...

DORINDA ELLIOTT, ALEXA OLESEN & others

Dorinda Elliott:China’s recent decision to phase out the agency that oversees the one-child policy has raised questions about whether the policy itself will be dropped—and whether it was a success or a failure.Aside from the burdens only children feel when it comes...

Blog

03.13.13

China’s Post 1980’s Generation—Are the Kids All...

SUN YUNFAN, ORVILLE SCHELL & others

This week, the ChinaFile Conversation is a call for reactions to an article about China's current generation gap, written by James Palmer, a Beijing-based historian, author, and Global Times editor. The article, first published by Aeon in the U.K., “The Balinghou: Chinese...

Blog

03.08.13

Will China’s Property Market Crash, and So What If It...

DORINDA ELLIOTT & BILL BISHOP

Dorinda Elliott:At this week’s National People’s Congress, outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao proclaimed that the government kept housing prices from rising too fast. Really? I wonder what my 28-year-old Shanghainese friend Robert thinks about that. He and his fiancée could never...

Blog

03.06.13

Are Proposed Sanctions on North Korea a Hopeful Sign...

ORVILLE SCHELL, SUSAN SHIRK & others

Orville Schell:What may end up being most significant about the new draft resolution in the U.N. Security Council to impose stricter sanctions on North Korea, which China seems willing to sign, may not be what it amounts to in terms of denuclearizing the DPRK, but what it...

Blog

03.01.13

Is America’s Door Really Open to China’s Investment...

DANIEL H. ROSEN, ORVILLE SCHELL & others

Daniel Rosen:There have not been many new topics in U.S.-China economic relations over the past decade: the trade balance, offshoring of jobs, Chinese holding of U.S. government debt, whether China’s currency is undervalued and intellectual property protection problems have...

Blog

02.27.13

How Long Can China Keep Pollution Data a State Secret?

ELIZABETH ECONOMY, ORVILLE SCHELL & others

Elizabeth Economy:The environment is center stage once again in China. A Chinese lawyer has requested the findings of a national survey on soil pollution from the Ministry of Environmental Protection and been denied on the grounds that the information is a state secret. (The...

Blog

02.22.13

Will Investment in China Grow or Shrink?

DONALD CLARKE & DAVID SCHLESINGER

Donald Clarke:I don’t have the answer as to whether investment in China will grow or shrink, but I do have a few suggestions for how to think about the question. First, we have to clarify why we want to know the answer to this question: what do we think it will tell us? This...

Blog

02.20.13

Cyber Attacks—What’s the Best Response?

JONATHAN LANDRETH, JAMES FALLOWS & others

Jonathan Landreth:With regular ChinaFile Conversation contributor Elizabeth Economy on the road, I turned to her colleague Adam Segal, Maurice R. Greenberg Senior Fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Segal said that “the time for naming and...

Blog

02.15.13

U.S.-China Tensions: What Must Kerry Do?

DORINDA ELLIOTT, ELIZABETH ECONOMY & others

Dorinda Elliott:On a recent trip to China, I heard a lot of scary talk of potential war over the disputed Diaoyu Islands—this from both senior intellectual types and also just regular people, from an elderly calligraphy expert to a middle-aged history professor. People seemed...

Blog

02.08.13

Rich, Poor and Chinese—Does Anyone Trust Beijing to...

ANDREW J. NATHAN, SUSAN SHIRK & others

Andrew Nathan:The new Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping seems to be making some bold opening moves with its attacks on corruption and the announcement on February 5 of plans to reduce the polarization of incomes.  Does this mean Xi is leading China in new directions? ...

Blog

02.06.13

Airpocalypse Now: China’s Tipping Point?

ALEX WANG, ORVILLE SCHELL & others

The recent run of air pollution in China, we now know, has been worse than the air quality in airport smoking lounges. At its worst, Beijing air quality has approached levels only seen in the United States during wildfires.All of the comparisons to London, Los Angeles, and New...

Blog

02.01.13

China’s Cyberattacks — At What Cost?

JAMES FALLOWS, DONALD CLARKE & others

James Fallows: Here are some initial reactions on the latest hacking news.We call this the “latest” news because I don’t think anyone, in China or outside, is actually surprised. In my own experience in China, which is limited compared with many of yours, I’ve seen the...

Blog

01.30.13

China, Japan and the Islands: What Do the Tensions Mean...

ORVILLE SCHELL, JOHN DELURY & others

How did the Diaoyu, Spratly, and Paracel islands come to replace Taiwan as the main source of tension for maritime Asia? And how are we to explain the fact that China’s foreign policy toward its Asian neighbors has now morphed from such slogans as: “Keep our heads down, and...

DISCUSSION

The Popularity of Chinese Patriotism

MARTIN BERNAL

Fundamentally China is a sellers’ market. The first half of this century, when there was a glut of books, seems to have been the exception. Since 1949 a veil has once more been drawn over the center of the mysterious east, and the situation has reverted to that of the...

Mao’s China

MARTIN BERNAL

To most Westerners China is not a part of the known world and Mao is not a figure of our time. The ignorant believe he is the leader of a host of martians whose sole occupation is plotting the destruction of civilization and the enslavement of mankind. The more sophisticated say...

Down There on a Visit

MARTIN BERNAL

In many ways this is the book that everybody interested in China has been waiting for, a book describing what it feels like to be a peasant living through the Chinese Revolution. In the summer of 1962 Jan Myrdal, the thirty-year-old son of the famous Swedish sociologist Gunnar...