Does China Want the Koreas to Reconcile?

A ChinaFile Conversation

This Friday, April 27, the South Korean and North Korean leaders will meet in the demilitarized zone dividing their estranged countries to discuss improving relations and possibly even formally ending the Korean War, which has continued in the form of an often tense and fragile armistice since the cessation of combat in 1953. This inter-Korean summit, the first since 2007, signifies closer ties between the two Koreas—and will be an important bellwether for Donald Trump’s late-May or early-June meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It will also be watched closely by North Korea’s neighbor China, which has long stood as Pyongyang’s most important ally and played the role of gatekeeper for its relations with the rest of the world. While China’s Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping’s meeting in March with Kim seemed to have fortified the recently-strained Beijing-Pyongyang relationship, it’s unclear whether Kim’s apparent diplomatic openings are to Beijing’s advantage. Would Beijing benefit from closer ties between North Korea and South Korea or North Korea and the U.S.?  What would Beijing gain from North Korea’s continued isolation? —The Editors


In a sharp contrast to his cold treatment in November 2017, the Chinese special envoy, Song Tao, was warmly received in Pyongyang in April 2018. Hugging his Chinese guest in front of a giant portrait of President Xi Jinping, the North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un was apparently sincere and trustworthy.

Kim had originally extended an olive branch to President Donald Trump of the United States, first with a letter in early March for a possible meeting by May. Yet he went to Beijing first, in March, to meet President Xi of China. In Kim’s eyes, President Xi is more reliable than President Trump. Kim is obviously leveraging China against the United States.

In this context, China is much less worried about North Korea’s detente with South Korea because China has become indispensable to Kim’s next moves. Closer ties between the two Koreas do not necessarily mean worse relations between North Korea and China. A more peaceful Korean peninsula would significantly undermine the justification for the U.S. military presence, even though Kim Jong-un does not link his April 27 meeting with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea with the immediate withdrawal of American troops. Moreover, a nuclear-free Korean peninsula would strengthen China’s opposition to the U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea.

China’s real concerns are not the fact that Kim’s engagement with Trump would bring the United States closer to North Korea at the expense of China, but the fact that Kim’s moves are probably of tactical nature instead of strategic moves. Beijing is afraid that Kim Jong-un would get away with the tactics of his father, Kim Jong-il. Under President Hu Jintao’s watch, Beijing hosted six rounds of Six-Party Talks from August 2003 to September 2007. In the end, unfortunately, North Korea walked out of the talks and resumed its nuclear tests. The only difference between Kim Jong-un and his father is that the younger Kim seems to be more adventurous and more unpredictable. His father tested nuclear devices twice, in 2006 and 2009, and the son has conducted nuclear tests four times since 2013.

There is no reason for China not to trust Kim Jong-un. It seems to be in his best interest to work well with China vis-à-vis his dealings with President Trump. From this perspective, there should be no major surprises in the forthcoming meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas. However, there is no guarantee that Kim would always work toward the best interests of China. It remains to be seen how Kim will play his hands in his meeting with President Trump without jeopardizing China’s vital interests.

The summit meeting between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in represents one of the most significant diplomatic events of the decade. While the meeting promises to mend fences between the two Koreas, thereby enhancing peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula, China will watch it with deep apprehension because of the prospect of strategic realignments in Northeast Asia.

China’s grand strategy toward the Korean Peninsula is shaped by geography and politics. No great power wants to see other great powers establishing a presence nearby. This is why they all prefer to establish regional primacy in their own parts of the world. In this context, the Korean Peninsula has been at the frontline of China’s geopolitics for many centuries. China has intervened repeatedly on the Korean Peninsula, waging war to prevent other great powers from establishing themselves there. It began with the Ming Dynasty’s 1592-98 military intervention to repel Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea. Then, during the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, the Qing Dynasty fought Japan again, trying to foil its plan to control Korea. The most recent Chinese intervention came in 1950, when Mao Zedong pitted his peasant army against the advancement of the U.S. military.

The divided Korea resulting from the Korean War to this day offers China a security buffer. Although fraught with tension, North Korea’s special relationship with China allows Beijing to keep the U.S. safely away from China’s borders. North Korea’s role as buffer explains why it can challenge China’s foreign policy interests repeatedly without facing punishment from Beijing.

Now, a potential rapprochement between the two Koreas may end China’s strategic comfort. If Kim is willing to give up nuclear weapons and if both Koreas can achieve real, or even full, reconciliation, North Korea’s special relationship with Beijing will come to an end. This is not to mention the prospect that North Korea may also be able to normalize relations with the United States after the Kim-Trump meeting. Particularly worrisome to China is the possibility that the U.S. military might remain on the Korean Peninsula even after such a rapprochement. Indeed, Kim recently indicated that he would not tie his promised denuclearization to a demand that the U.S. military withdraw.

Great powers need spheres of influence to have greater security certainty. Uncertainty in an anarchic international order amplifies a great power’s insecurity and anxiety. The prospect of North Korea’s drifting away from China presents a clear strategic problem for Beijing.

This concern explains Beijing’s 180-degree turn in its North Korea policy after the announcement of the Kim-Moon and Kim-Trump summits. Kim, who is seen as a troublemaker for China, was quickly invited to Beijing for a meeting with Xi. He was accorded the highest level of protocol, including a private lunch hosted by Xi and his wife. This quick turnaround no doubt reveals Beijing’s anxiety about the future direction of North Asian security.

The forthcoming summit between the two Koreas has the potential to trigger a strategic realignment in Northeast Asia, a prospect that deeply worries Chinese policymakers. However, there is not much that China can do about the direction of inter-Korean relations. This sense of helplessness only magnifies Beijing’s concerns.

Chinese leaders are pleased to see a pause in the DPRK’s provocative missile and nuclear tests, which raised concerns about a possible crisis on China’s border or U.S. unilateral strikes on the Peninsula. But Beijing has always prioritized stability over denuclearization in its North Korea policy, and the preservation of a buffer zone between itself and U.S. forces. The situation now is anything but stable, and China’s buffer zone may be in jeopardy. Amidst these rapid changes, China appears to have been caught flatfooted.

Developments over the past year have moved at a staggering pace. With the potential of a peace agreement between the North and South and Pyongyang’s apparent willingness to drop U.S. troops’ removal from the Peninsula as a precondition for discussions over denuclearization, Beijing faced a situation in which its relations with the DPRK were at historic lows. As the reality of a Kim-Trump Summit has grown, Xi has been scrambling to preserve China’s leverage and relevance in the rapid developments that could shape the future of the Peninsula and regional politics. Beijing moved swiftly to repair ties with Pyongyang in order to arrange for Kim’s visit to Beijing ahead of summits with Moon and Trump. Xi is also expected to travel to Pyongyang shortly after the Trump summit. In contrast to the first five years of Xi’s time in office, Chinese scholars favoring traditional strong ties with the North are suddenly back in favor.

While Beijing is nominally supporting DPRK dialogue, it would much rather those discussions be taking place in Beijing, with China as mediator. China is trying to appear cool and collected, but behind the curtains, Chinese leaders are weary of becoming sidelined in negotiations, and losing control over developments on the Peninsula. The Chinese system craves stability and predictability, yet their U.S. interlocutor is uniquely unconventional and unrestrained.

If the Koreas mend fences, China would like to ensure both sides of the Peninsula lean toward Beijing. China purports to prioritize denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but it will be a very unhappy neighbor if the result of the dialogues, which begin April 27, is a process that leads to a U.S.-friendly North Korea or U.S.-aligned united Korea.

At the beginning of March, when Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in agreed to hold the first inter-Korean summit since 2007, the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated: “We hope that all relevant parties can seize the current opportunity, work for the shared goal and make concerted efforts to promote the process of denuclearization of the Peninsula and politically resolving the Korean Peninsula issue. China is willing to continue to play its due role to this end.”

The ministry clearly expressed China’s hope that Seoul and Pyongyang continue on the path of reconciliation they have started. Why should China be against that move? Stability of its surrounding region, and especially at its borders, is a strategic interest for the leadership in Beijing. In order to achieve this goal, stability on the Korean peninsula is a crucial factor. If the two Koreas reconcile, the chances of a dramatic war at China’s doorstep drastically decrease. The improvement of relations between South and North Korea could lead to the relief of some sanctions against North Korea, to a restart of economic exchanges between the two Koreas from which China could benefit too, given that it is both an important trade partner with Seoul and the largest economic patron of Pyongyang. Furthermore, and most importantly, the fact that China-North Korea relations are back on track again gives the leadership in Beijing more leverage to control what happens on the Korean peninsula. When Kim Jong-un met Xi Jinping in March, Kim had just that in mind: to gain the approval of his idea of denuclearization from his most important “ally” and to have China again on his side with a view to both the inter-Korean summit and the summit planned with Trump. What China probably does not want is a reunification of the Korean peninsula under the lead of a South Korea backed by the U.S. Cold War logic is still operating around the 38th parallel.

Understanding China’s approach towards the Korean peninsula requires taking fully into account China’s long-term strategy towards the broader Asia-Pacific region, which has been clarified under Xi Jinping. China aims to reorganize the Asia-Pacific region in a post-alliance security framework, as underlined in the white paper on China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation (January 2017) and several of Xi’s key speeches in recent years (for instance, at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA)). China considers the U.S. presence and influence in the region illegitimate, and is confident that Beijing now has the diplomatic ability and economic leverage to progressively reduce them both. This is a very long-term ambition—by 2050—that requires step-by-step implementation, and one that has started to materialize more clearly in recent years through actions such as China’s strong pressure to limit the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea.

A nuclear North Korea is not incompatible with China’s strategy in the region, and China does not feel directly threatened by it. Denuclearization per se is therefore not a top priority for Beijing. At the same time, the negotiation process over denuclearization can be of use to China to promote, step-by-step, its long-term regional strategy. In 2017, Beijing’s “double suspension” proposal was shaped with this aim in mind: it advocated for the DPRK’s suspension of its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the suspension of large-scale U.S.-R.O.K. military exercises, but was quickly rejected by the U.S. and its allies. In 2018, under the new circumstances, China is likely to come up with another idea to channel the discussions towards a downgrading of the U.S. presence in the region. It may do so less publicly and more subtly than in 2017, using bilateral and personal channels of communications first and on a more frequent basis, as proposed during the Xi-Kim meeting in Beijing last March.

In any case, given Beijing’s strong determination to reorganize the Asia-Pacific region, it is most likely that it will weigh in all it can before and after the Trump-Kim summit to channel the negotiations towards a process that leads, in the long-term, to a united Korea that is not U.S.-aligned. As Bo Zhiyue underlined earlier in this conversation, “a more peaceful Korean peninsula would significantly undermine the justification for the U.S. military presence.” The process could lead more easily to a reconsideration of U.S.-R.O.K. joint military exercises, the deployment of THAAD, the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea, or other signs of a U.S. presence that China already opposes today. Even if they do not appear as preconditions for discussions over denuclearization at this point in time, they could shortly reappear in the discussions.

China’s weight in the negotiations remains significant given its special relationship with Pyongyang—the centrality of China for the implementation of sanctions and its overall economic leverage on both North and South Korea. Such weight may also increase with the support of countries, such as Russia, who share with China a post-alliance/post-Western vision for the reorganization of the region. In any case, whether alone or with “like-minded” countries, opportunities for China to weigh in on the negotiation process will be numerous as it has just started and is likely to be a long and sinuous one.

China’s reactions to the inter-Korean summit meeting on April 27 were odd at best. Throughout the day, there were hardly any public comments and analyses by Chinese “pundits.” Indeed, the websites of Xinhua News Agency and the Global Times were devoid of any such comments and analyses. Given the profound significance of the event, which was extensively covered and analyzed by media around the world, the collective silence from China’s commentators was truly amazing. Only toward the very end of the day did the Global Times release an editorial on the summit. The initial silence was a testament to China’s very ambivalent attitude toward the monumental developments in the Korean Peninsula. It revealed China’s anxiety regarding the future of Northeast Asian security.

As other contributors have suggested, China ought to welcome recent developments in the Korean Peninsula. Peace and reconciliation between the Koreas should void the need for the future presence of the U.S. military on the peninsula. This scenario would enhance China’s security. So what then explains the reticence of China’s official coverage of the summit?

Defensive realism and offensive realism, two variants of structural realism, offer plausible answers. Defensive realism suggests that the anarchic international order motivates states to use different balancing means to deter potential threats from other countries. While a divided Korea results in the DPRK and the ROK viewing each other as the biggest threat, thereby motivating them to ally with China and the U.S. respectively, a unified Korea should hedge against a powerful China by retaining the alliance with the U.S. In fact, South Korean diplomats and security experts all say the alliance should continue after unification. Therefore, rather than the U.S. military pulling out of the peninsula, a more likely scenario is that a new set of balancing dynamics will emerge that will be directed against China.

Offensive realism suggests that great powers try to seize any advantage to either establish an edge over their rivals or cultivate existing edges. This suggests that the United States will attempt to exploit any opportunities created by a Korean reconciliation. It is highly reasonable to surmise that the U.S. will not offer to end the alliance and pull out its troops. Indeed, U.S. efforts to expand NATO after the Cold War present evidence of how great powers offensively exploit strategic opportunities to advance advantages over rivals, even a wounded rival like the post-Soviet Russia. A repeat of this “NATO expansion” scenario is highly possible after a Korean reconciliation, which would definitely worsen China’s security situation in Northeast Asia.

Defensive and offensive realism thus both offer clues to China’s obvious strategic anxiety at the moment. Recent monumental developments among the DPRK, the ROK, and the United States have made the future security situation more uncertain for China. Beijing should be aware of those realist dynamics that could be a harbinger of unfavorable developments for its strategic interests in Northeast Asia.

China is probably watching the two Koreas’ reconciliation and the Trump-Kim summit in the coming months with ambivalence and perplexity due to two recent occurrences: an intensifying U.S.-China strategic rivalry, and Kim’s dramatic departure from his position about denuclearization. The U.S. National Security Strategy report, published in December 2017 under the Trump administration, designated China as a competitor as well as a revisionist power to the current world order. It is a major turn away from the U.S. China hedging strategy, in place since 2005, which acknowledged China as a regional stakeholder. Now, China must reevaluate its Korea policy through the prism of U.S.-China strategic competition rather than strategic cooperation. Geopolitics has become much more prominent in China’s strategy on the Korean peninsula.

Recently, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made a complete U-turn from his tenacious position on nuclear weapons. Although the agreement of the inter-Korean summit between Moon and Kim didn’t reveal much about how far Kim is willing to go toward denuclearization, there is a strong indication that he wants to break from a confrontational attitude toward the U.S. This political about-face alarmed Chinese leaders and scholars who believed that Kim wouldn’t give up North Korea’s nuclear capabilities anytime soon. Kim’s dramatic move may have reminded Chinese of unpleasant memories of North Korea’s foreign policy acrobatics between the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War. North Korea has always been apprehensive about China’s excessive influence, and strongly resisted every attempt by China to intervene. Different from his forebears, Kim Jong-un didn’t pay his respects to Chinese leaders until he visited Beijing in April. Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il cautiously managed their relationships with China and, when necessary, showed a certain degree of respect toward Chinese leaders, albeit superficially. In fact, Kim Jung-un’s cocky attitude toward China is a major cause of Pyongyang’s deteriorating relations with Beijing in the Xi Jinping era.

China long has been a staunch ally of North Korea. However, China also has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo on the Korean Peninsula, especially on matters of unification. Due to the bitter experience and lessons learned from the Korean War, China has been opposed to unification by non-peaceful means. The other reason for China’s tenacious support for stability on the Korean Peninsula is the recognition of its own comparative inferiority to U.S. power. Any change from the status quo likely would end up with U.S. expansion over the entire peninsula. China’s embroilment in Korean affairs could result in tremendous costs in terms of economic development, political prestige, and Beijing’s diplomatic relations with Western powers, let alone military costs.

China always has suspected that U.S. has been trying to utilize tension and conflicts on the Korean Peninsula to increase its influence and to strengthen alliances in Northeast Asia. It is therefore in China’s best interest to have the Koreas peaceful and reconciled. China also is confident that its economic influence on, cultural affinity with, and personal networks to the people of both Koreas will play a pivotal role in the effort. It is noteworthy that China seems to believe that the U.S. may not support a unified Korea if the unification doesn’t advance U.S. interests in the region. In this sense, China shares a common interest with the U.S. on the Korean Peninsula in terms of maintaining stability and status quo.

Kim’s drastic divergence from the existing nuclear policy, together with the increased uncertainty in diplomacy under the Trump administration, however, is a serious cause for alarm to the Chinese leadership. They are worried that North Korea’s willingness to work with the U.S. may help the expansion of U.S. influence on the Korean peninsula. This new concern is a significant departure from the traditional scenario of a South Korean takeover of North Korea via overwhelming economic dominance. Depending on the outcome of the upcoming Trump-Kim summit, the geopolitical landscape may change to a degree that has hitherto been considered unrealistic. The nuclearized North Korea is no longer afraid of flouting China’s interests. Kim’s effort to acquire nuclear capability, in spite of China’s open opposition, is a case in point.

China finds itself in a dilemma. On one hand, China should welcome the Korean détente, as is the traditional stance. On the other hand, China is apprehensive about the possibility of U.S. expansion that would be brought about as a consequence of such reconciliation. Given the situation, it is no wonder that the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi rushed to North Korea to make sure China’s interests were protected. Xi Jinping himself is also expected to visit North Korea within months after the planned Trump-Kim summit.