China's High-Stakes Korea Conundrum

Military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea. Flickr/Stefan Krasowski

A recent academic article hints at a possible shift in China’s approach on the peninsula.

Even the promising trilateral meeting recently of South Korean, Japanese, and Chinese foreign ministers could not dispel the dark cloud over the Korean Peninsula. As the annual South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises got underway, Chinese news commentators discussed in detail which U.S. Air Force bombers deployed to Guam had which type of relevant nuclear payloads. Of course, there was also the disquieting news item that North Korea successfully launched a ballistic missile recently from a submarine – an event that hardly registered for the busy candidates in the U.S. presidential election contest. Meanwhile, this summer also witnessed significant protests in South Korea as Seoul announced that it would deploy Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile systems over vocal objections from Beijing. Compared to various incidents involving fishing boats and coast guard vessels in the South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula might justifiably claim priority on the attention of strategists across the Asia-Pacific.

It is widely understood that the key dyad in the Korean Gordian Knot is Beijing’s tie to Pyongyang – a point underlined in this column more than once. With the conviction that U.S. leaders need to have the most complete possible picture of China’s approach to North Korea, this edition of Dragon Eye examines another “shot across the bow” from Beijing’s hot internal debate about its future relationship with Pyongyang that was published in an early 2016 edition of Northeast Asia Forum [东北亚论坛] by Wang Junsheng, a researcher of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). The paper is identified as the product of a “National Social Science Fund Project” [国家社科基金项目].

Wang is unusually candid in characterizing the North Korea debate in China in his article’s first paragraph as pitting the “abandon North Korea” [弃朝] line of thinking against those who maintain China must “protect North Korea” [保朝]. He does a bit of tracing of the origins of the “abandon North Korea” argument and mentions the previously influential (and subsequently discontinued) journal Strategy and Management [战略与管理] in this regard. He further explains that there have been two major waves of “abandon North Korea” sentiment in China: in 2002 after the “second Korean nuclear crisis” and then again during 2011 when Kim Jong-un assumed the reins of power in Pyongyang. Wang observes that it is hardly difficult to pull down some of the 65,000 results on the Chinese search engine Baidu if one searches for the phrase “China should abandon North Korea” [中国应放弃朝鲜]. Maintaining that Beijing must firmly reject the U.S. and South Korean policies that are premised on a “theory of North Korean collapse,” [朝鲜崩溃论] Wang’s article argues emphatically that Beijing must “further develop ties with North Korea … and send North Korea a clear signal.”

The piece is hardly oblivious to the burgeoning ties that have formed between Seoul and Beijing. The author notes that South Korea has emerged as China’s third largest trading partner. The point is made more than once, moreover, that Chinese President Xi Jinping has met directly with ROK President Park Geun-hye more than half a dozen times already and these two leaders evidently share a genuine rapport. Explaining that ROK-PRC ties are “the best in history,” Wang suggests that the relationship features “hot politics and hot economics” [热政热经] in an obvious contrast to China-Japan relations that are frequently characterized as “cold politics, hot economics.” By contrast, Wang observes that Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un have not built a “personal relationship.” In a not too veiled critique of the current Chinese leader, the author notes that “Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and such Chinese leaders all visited North Korea multiple times.” He is disturbed by the tendency of Korean tensions to increase U.S. military influence in the region and emphasizes the threat to China’s security that could emerge from enhanced “U.S.-Japan-South Korean trilateral military cooperation.” He is critical of the gradual diminution of Chinese aid for North Korea in recent years. For Wang, the most fundamental foundation of the China-North Korean special relationship is not simply their shared ideological tradition, but more particularly the “blood alliance” [血盟] forged in the “War to Resist America.” In a passage sure to make American readers cringe, the author notes that North Korea’s then leader Kim Il-Sung was the very first head of state to visit after the “Tiananmen Incident” of 1989.