Fire on the City Gate: Why China Keeps North Korea Close
9 Dec 2013
North Korea’s belligerent behaviour is testing the patience of China, its principal backer, but a consequential Chinese policy change, which the U.S. and its allies hope for, is not likely soon.
“The cost of sustaining the Kim regime may have increased and the benefits may have declined, but the calculation remains that the potential consequences of cutting Pyongyang loose are unacceptable”.
Daniel Pinkston, Crisis Group’s Deputy Project Director for North East Asia.
In its latest report, Fire on the City Gate: Why China Keeps North Korea Close, the International Crisis Group examines the relationship between China and North Korea in the light of Pyongyang’s accelerated nuclear activities and provocative rhetoric. Although China shares the West’s goal of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula and implements UN sanctions on the North, its strategy is defined by substantially different priorities. For Beijing, the real threat is not so much in the nuclear program as in a possible change to the delicate geopolitical balance should the regime in the North collapse.
The report’s major findings are:
- China sees denuclearisation as a goal that can only be achieved in the long term, while peace and stability on the peninsula have to be guaranteed first. It fears that the West’s insistence on diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions could produce unacceptable consequences, such as regime collapse, a refugee flood or a unified Korea as a U.S. ally. It therefore nurtures diplomatic ties and economic engagement, hoping to influence the regime’s thinking.
- The role China chooses to play reflects its geopolitical positioning, with Washington central to the calculation. Deep mistrust of the U.S. impedes cooperation on denuclearisation and enhances Pyongyang’s value to Beijing. China’s desire to establish “a new type of major power relationship” with the U.S. offers the possibility to expand common ground but does not bridge the gap in positions.
- Beijing suspects the U.S. is using the North as an excuse to gain strategic advantage in the region, with China as a potential target; blames Washington for Pyongyang’s sense of insecurity; and believes it is up to the U.S. to change its policy so as to create an environment for diplomatic progress.
- China under Xi Jinping will be less tolerant of errant North Korean behaviour than previously and is unlikely to continue unconditional support for the North. But Chinese actions will likely continue to be tactical, designed to manage and control Pyongyang and prevent overreaction by Seoul or Washington, without having a denuclearised North as their principal motivation.
“The prevailing opinion in China favours relaxing pressure to alleviate Pyongyang’s existential concerns”, says Yanmei Xie, Crisis Group China Analyst. “The Chinese approach aims to coax the North onto the path China charts: economic reform, controlled opening, eventual international integration, then possibly denuclearisation. It partially offsets the West’s isolation-sanctions-deterrence method”.
“Each time a crisis flares on the Korean peninsula, it sparks debates in China on the costs and benefits of sheltering the North, whose strategic value to China continues to evolve”, says Daniel Pinkston, Crisis Group’s Deputy Project Director for North East Asia. “The cost of sustaining the Kim regime may have increased and the benefits may have declined, but the calculation remains that the potential consequences of cutting Pyongyang loose are unacceptable”.