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.


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.