Fire on the City Gate: Why China Keeps North Korea Close
Asia Report N°254
9 Dec 2013
China tolerates the nuclear ambitions of North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK) for now because its interests in the neighbourhood are much wider and more complex than this single issue. Beijing and the West often work toward their shared goal of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula with contradictory approaches that reflect their different priorities. The West uses diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions and extended deterrence to pressure Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program. Many Western policymakers believe the DPRK will denuclearise if sufficient costs are imposed and that Beijing holds the keys because the North is economically dependent on it. But China is reluctant to take any coercive action that might destabilise the regime and change a delicate geopolitical balance. It instead continues with diplomatic engagement and economic cooperation as the instruments it hopes will cause the leadership to denuclearise in the indeterminate future.
A decade has passed since the Six-Party Talks (China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and the U.S.) were convened to roll back the DPRK nuclear program; the last round was in December 2008. When the process began, many expected that the North’s brinkmanship and transgressions would lead China to exert strong pressure on it to reverse course. In that decade, however, the DPRK has conducted three underground nuclear tests and four long-range missile flight tests, torpedoed a South Korean (Republic of Korea, ROK) naval patrol boat and shelled a South Korean island, while still receiving political and economic support.
Following the third nuclear test, in February 2013, Beijing responded briefly with sternness, but a significant and lasting policy shift has yet to take place and does not appear likely any time soon. China’s fundamental geostrategic calculation remains in favour of sustaining the regime and keeping it close. Stability still trumps denuclearisation as a priority, and it does not perceive North Korea’s nuclear weapons as a direct or pressing threat, unlike the U.S. and its allies. Rather, it considers denuclearisation a long-term goal and appears to have resigned itself to living with a nuclear DPRK for the time being.
North Korea’s belligerent behaviour in March-April 2013 tested China’s patience, jeopardising regional stability and undermining Beijing’s interests in the midst of its once-a-decade leadership change. In response, Beijing supported and implemented additional UN sanctions, issued strong warnings and reportedly slowed joint economic development projects. President Xi Jinping’s messages from summits with his U.S. and South Korean counterparts signalled rising discontent with the regime. However, these actions were designed to manage the North’s behaviour and defuse mounting regional tensions, rather than to achieve denuclearisation. They were short-term, tactical and easily reversible, not indications of a strategic change in policy.
Beijing likely considers Washington a bigger threat to its geostrategic interests than Pyongyang and its North Korea policy contingent on Sino-U.S. relations. Though China’s leadership intends to build what it calls a “new type of major power relationship” with the U.S., Washington’s rebalancing toward Asia has deepened suspicion. A popular view in China is that the Obama administration has been taking advantage of tensions on the Korean peninsula (as well as in the East and South China Seas) to strengthen its strategic position in East Asia. Deep-seated mistrust of the U.S. impedes cooperation on denuclearisation and enhances Pyongyang’s value to Beijing, even though the North is no longer seen as the military bulwark it once was. China-ROK relations have warmed significantly but not sufficiently to alter either’s strategic calculation on the Korean peninsula. Despite the shared denuclearisation objective with the South and the U.S., Beijing firmly opposes the regime collapse in the North that many in China suspect Washington seeks. Nor does China share Seoul’s reunification goal.
Beijing sees denuclearisation as a long-term goal to be achieved by alleviating Pyongyang’s insecurity, for which it considers Washington principally responsible. Many in China thus blame Washington as much as Pyongyang for the nuclear problem and resent the pressure the U.S. puts on China to control the North. China appears primarily concerned about managing Pyongyang’s behaviour in order to prevent overreaction by Seoul or Washington that could expose it to risks of instability or conflict on the Korean peninsula. It prefers to be a mediator, ensuring itself interaction with and influence over all parties involved so as to prevent hostility from escalating into open conflict. For now, it will not risk the status quo.
Beijing/Seoul/Brussels, 9 December 2013