Shades of Red: China’s Debate over North Korea
Asia Report N°179
2 Nov 2009
Pyongyang’s latest round of provocations has prompted Beijing to reconsider its North Korea policy. A rocket launch, the withdrawal from the Six-Party Talks, and the 25 May nuclear test all deepened doubts in China about its policies towards its neighbour. This series of escalating gestures coincided with reports that Kim Jong-il was seriously ill, which set in train succession plans. Together, the nuclear tensions and succession worries drew out an unusually public, and critical, discussion in China about its ties with North Korea. The debate took place between those proposing a stronger line against North Korea (“strategists”) and others advocating the continuation of substantial political and economic cover for China’s traditional ally (“traditionalists”). Beijing ultimately supported a strongly worded UN Security Council presidential statement and a resolution mandating a substantial sanctions regime, albeit one focused on missile and defence programs that would not destabilise the economy. Although many in the West have pointed to this debate as a sign of a policy shift, Beijing’s strategic calculations remain unchanged. As one high-level Chinese diplomat said, “Our mindset has changed, but the length of our border has not”.
North Korea’s attempted satellite launch and nuclear test generated significant domestic and international pressure on Beijing, while its withdrawal from the Six-Party Talks stripped China of its primary strategy for dealing with the nuclear crisis. Chinese policymakers began to question whether North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and desire for recognition as a nuclear power by the international community were in fact negotiable. Beijing was angered by the latest escalation and was ready to reprimand the North, but in a controlled way that would protect Chinese interests.
China prioritises stability over denuclearisation due to a vastly different perception than the U.S. and its allies of the threat posed by a nuclear North Korea. Beijing’s largest worries are the possibility of military confrontation between North Korea and the U.S., regime implosion, a flood of North Korean refugees into China, or precipitous reunification with South Korea leading to a U.S. military presence north of the 38th parallel. It therefore continues to shield North Korea from more punitive measures, including stronger economic sanctions, for its provocative behaviour. China negotiated for over two weeks to ensure that UN Security Council Resolution 1874 was strong enough to satisfy the U.S. and its allies yet sufficiently restrained in its effects to mitigate any damage to the North Korean regime. It remains reluctant to tighten the screws on Pyongyang. Beijing learned a lesson when its strong reaction to the 2006 nuclear test damaged bilateral relations, and now attempts to deal with the bilateral relationship separately from the nuclear issue.
Overall, North Korea has created a number of foreign policy dilemmas for China. The latest round of provocations makes Beijing’s balancing act between supporting a traditional ally and responding to its dangerous brinkmanship more difficult, especially when combined with heightened international pressure. Pyongyang’s behaviour has the potential to undermine Chinese regional security interests, particularly if Japan and South Korea respond by developing offensive military capabilities. While there is an ongoing debate on North Korea policy within Beijing policy circles reflective of divergent views of U.S.-China relations, overall there remains significant aversion to any move which might destablise China’s periphery. Beijing therefore views the nuclear issue as a longer-term endeavour for which the U.S. is principally responsible, and continues to strengthen its bilateral relationship with North Korea.
Beijing/Seoul/Brussels, 2 November 2009