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

A ChinaFile Conversation

Winston Lord:




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, Steph Haggard, and Marcus Noland (the Peterson Institute for International Economics) are the real experts on the China-D.P.R.K. relationship. In their books and blog, North Korea: Witness to Transformation, 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. 

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 Gospel of John. 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 President Xi Jinping’s talk at the Boao Forum for Asia 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, John Delury posted, noting that Cui Tiankai, 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, Jon Huntsman, weighed in after Xi's Boao speech 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 satrapies. 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?

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.

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 Lucy will keep withdrawing the football (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?

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.