Here Is What Chinese Scholars Think about the North Korea Crisis

Chinese paramilitary guards stand in the snow at the Forbidden City in Beijing

China is best positioned to manage a peaceful resolution of the North Korea nuclear crisis.

Forming up the poles of the Chinese debate are some scholars, who pin the blame squarely on Washington versus others that see Pyongyang as most responsible for the current crisis. Xu Ning [许宁], for example, strongly criticizes hardline U.S. policies from the George W. Bush administration that placed North Korea “on pins and needles” [芒刺在背], such that Pyongyang sought nuclear weapons for self-defense [拥核自保]. Moreover, he contends that President Barack Obama’s “rebalance” only made the situation worse in that regard. Sun Ru [孙茹] is not entirely critical of Washington’s stance in that she evaluates U.S. policy in recent years as wielding not only a big stick, but carrots as well [大棒与胡萝卜兼具]. However, she sees little internal U.S. political support for an engagement policy with North Korea and also notes that Washington does not view the North Korean nuclear issue as a “core interest.”

Chinese scholars placing the blame more squarely on Pyongyang, according to Zhou’s survey, include Wang Sheng [王生] and Ling Shengli [凌胜利]. They highlight North Korea’s internal political factors as most salient, especially the Kim regime’s “military first policy” [先军政治]. Zhu Feng [朱锋] contends, according to this survey, that North Korea was left out of East Asian security structures after the Cold War. He says that the North Korean nuclear program not only reinforces Pyongyang’s sovereignty and security, but also seeks to enhance its negotiating position vis-à-vis Washington. Wang Xiaobo [王晓波] is also grouped in this part of the survey by Zhou and he has an assessment that is more charitable to Pyongyang: “China and Russia did not base forces in North Korea, nor did they extend a nuclear protective umbrella over North Korea. This caused North Korea to more energetically develop an independent nuclear force, and so it is not dependent on alliance relations for its security.” [中俄既未在朝鲜驻军, 也未向朝鲜提供核保护伞. 这使得朝鲜更倾向独立发展核力量, 而不是依靠同盟关系维护自身安全]. This scholar does mention the Iraq and Libyan episodes as impacting Pyongyang’s decision-making. One of the most interesting Chinese scholars discussed in this survey apparently takes the strikingly nonpolitically correct view (in China) that the North Korean nuclear crisis can be, at least partially, blamed on Chinese policies. Liang Yunxiang [梁云祥] says that Pyongyang has pursued nuclear weapons “in large part due to China’s ambiguous policies,” including “not supporting North Korea … opposing its nuclear [development], while at the same time refusing to allow the use of force against North Korea.” He concedes that North Korea’s impact on Chinese interests has been “completely negative” [完全负面], but concludes that China simply “cannot abandon North Korea.” Moreover, he makes the point that with North Korea posing such a challenge to the United States, this situation can “alleviate US political pressure against China” [减少美国对中国的政治压力].

Putting the origins of the present crisis aside, this Chinese survey piece then attempts to classify Chinese scholars by their recommended policy prescription, falling under three basic approaches: 1) limited support for North Korea [有限度的支持]; 2) favoring North Korea [朝鲜优先]; or 3) cutting ties with North Korea [与朝鲜切割]. The survey makes quite clear that most Chinese specialists adhere to the first recommendation for limited support. Interestingly, the survey’s author Zhou notes that these mainstream thinkers both wish to prevent North Korea’s collapse, as well as (conversely) North Korea’s potential drift into a closer relationship with the United States, Japan or South Korea. The scholar Zhang Tuosheng [张沱生] is placed in this camp as he described Beijing’s relationship with Pyongyang as evolving from “special relations” to the somewhat more tenuous “normal relations.” Zhang apparently advocates for the righteous path of a “responsible great power” that sometimes supports Pyongyang and sometimes opposes it. Hu Bo [胡波] wants to see continued development of political and economic ties with Pyongyang, but opposes ambiguity in the military relationship that he says must be curtailed. He thinks China should clarify and defend its “bottom line.” He supports the UN sanction regime and says that China may even have to resort to “unilateral sanctions.” [单方制裁]. Then, there is Shi Yinhong [时殷弘], who says China must be flexible. In order to avoid a situation in which North Korea regards China as an enemy, Beijing must also avoid creating circumstances in North Korea that are so difficult that the country becomes chaotic and the Pyongyang regime is driven to take a desperate gamble [孤注一掷]. Shi advocates quite strongly for improving China-North Korea ties, in part to reestablish Beijing’s traditional influence with Pyongyang. And Pang Zhongying [庞中英] also advocates for a balanced Chinese policy that simultaneously avoids getting China dragged into a military conflict, while also preventing regime collapse in Pyongyang.