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.

The world has held its breath over the last two months. For nuclear strategists and specialists in the field of international security, this boiling predicament on the Korean Peninsula has been less an occasion for fatalist joking than a grim spectacle of just how dangerous and destabilizing the process of nuclear proliferation can be in any situation, let alone one in which both “players” in an asymmetric rivalry are inclined toward bombast, ambiguity, and risk-taking.    

When Donald Trump first took office, he and his national security advisors quickly reached the conclusion that China is the key to resolution or even just managing the volatile situation on the Korean Peninsula. In this conclusion, the 45th president was not actually wrong. He simply underestimated the difficulties and complexities involved, including the imperative for Washington to make some very hard choices in order to ease the crisis.

China is best positioned among all the powers of Northeast Asia to wield both sticks, and more importantly carrots, to manage a peaceful resolution of the North Korea nuclear crisis. In this space, I have repeatedly argued for the prioritization of the North Korean nuclear issue within U.S. foreign and defense policy circles, as well as within U.S.-China relations. However, such a policy would require a close understanding of Beijing’s complex and often contradictory approach to Pyongyang. This approach has a significant geo-economic dimension, likely involves calculations with respect to Chinese interests in the Arctic, could require some “rebalancing” toward Pyongyang, as well as a certain understanding of how military scenarios could unfold from a Chinese perspective on the Peninsula—all themes I have explored in previous editions of this Dragon Eye series.

Still, it has not been possible to develop a relatively comprehensive typology of Chinese assessments regarding the Korean nuclear issue. But that is now almost realizable thanks to the diligent work of a Chinese postdoctoral researcher named Zhou Xiaojia [周晓加] at Fudan University of Shanghai. This academic published an ambitious survey of “The North Korean Nuclear Issue and the Perspectives of Chinese Scholars” [朝鲜核问题与中国学者的观点] in the May/June 2017 issue (No. 3) of the international relations journal Peace and Development [和平与发展]. This edition of Dragon Eye will summarize Zhou’s survey in the hopes of contributing to enhanced U.S.-China mutual understanding on this most vexing, yet important issue for global security. Zhou’s initial estimate is both crisp and profound: “Chinese scholars do not agree” [中国学术界看法不一].

Zhou’s first cut on the issue concerns the underlying reasons or responsibility for the current crisis. One group of scholars seems to blame the inherent difficulties of achieving cooperation, according to this survey. Thus, Fan Jishe [樊吉社] explains that given the twin goals of denuclearization and preserving stability, the problem lies in that Washington prioritizes the former, while Beijing prioritizes the latter. Another scholar Yang Xiyu [杨希雨] suggests that the major divide between China and the United States is that Beijing has always accepted North Korea’s right to peacefully develop nuclear energy, while Washington never did. The scholar Li Kaisheng [李开盛] sees no basis for cooperation because of different interests and a fundamental lack of strategic trust between Beijing and Washington. Li explains that one of the major restraints on the United States possible use of force against North Korea has been “China’s opposition and even [the possibility] of Chinese counter-attack” [中国的反对甚至反击]. He also straightforwardly explains that China will not accept the removal of the North Korean ruling regime, because that would mean U.S. military power directly on China’s border and the loss of China’s “strategic buffer” [战略缓冲地带]. Taking a rather less confrontational approach, the scholar Zhu Qin [朱芹] observes that the Six Party Talks failed because trust and punishment mechanisms were lacking. She also notes that those talks tended to consistently favor the stronger parties over the weaker parties, leading to increasing alienation by the latter. The scholar Cheng Xiaoyong [程晓勇] emphasizes the role of China and Russia insisting on preserving stability on the Korean Peninsula. That trend is further reinforced, he explains, by South Korea’s likewise strong aversion to the use of force.

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.

If many Chinese scholars cluster around that middle position, however, there are a few outliers identified in this survey, as well. Yan Xuetong [阎学通], for example, seems to starkly disagree with almost all his colleagues. He says China faces a choice: a nuclear North Korea that does not have hostile relations with China or a nuclear North Korea that does have a hostile relationship with China. Admitting that China has no way to force North Korea to denuclearize, Yan says that sanctions will only ensure that China and North Korea become adversaries. Taking up a similar thesis as Wang Xiaobo mentioned above, Yan mentions the possibility that China should extend nuclear security guarantees [核保护伞] to North Korea if it agrees to denuclearization. But he also says that Beijing might well have to simply accept a nuclear North Korea and even have to “actively embrace” [积极拉拢] a nuclear North Korea, so that it does not become an enemy. Dai Xu [戴旭] likewise thinks that the United States and Japan use the North Korean nuclear issue to create difficulties for China. He is similarly skeptical of sanctions, saying this will damage China-North Korean relations. He agrees with Yan that China (along with Russia) should offer a nuclear umbrella to North Korea.

A final group of Chinese scholars discussed in this survey holds the opposite view and contend that it is time to sever ties with North Korea. A scholar of this “camp” is Chu Shulong [楚树龙], who contends that “tolerating amounts to abetting” [姑息养奸]. Chu says that Pyongyang has deliberately made the Korean Peninsula more tense and crossed over Beijing’s “red lines,” damaging Chinese interests. He says China should severely restrict or even suspend aid to North Korea, as well as strengthen sanctions. As part of taking a “tough attitude” [严重态度], China must prepare for all contingencies, including a military conflict, Chu asserts. One other important Chinese academic is mentioned and this is Shen Zhihua [沈志华], who observes that China-North Korean relations have traditionally been “extremely unstable” [非常不稳定] and that Pyongyang has continuously exploited contradictions in Russia-China relations to serve its own interests.

Near the end of the survey, the author makes the candid statement that “it’s very difficult to discern whether or not scholarly opinion has an impact on Chinese foreign policies.” One may go a step further even and ask if this survey of Chinese scholarly views is truly comprehensive. Many noteworthy foreign policy experts are somehow omitted, for example Shen Dingli, Jin Canrong and Wang Jisi. Then, there are experts on North Korea that I have discussed in previous Dragon Eye pieces that are also not mentioned here, including Wang Junsheng or the well-known Zhang Liangui. There is the additional issue that much of the cited literature is a few years old and some of these scholars may well have altered their views given the fast pace of events, especially recently. Perhaps our Chinese postgraduate researcher (on whom we have been relying) should be asked to redraft this important survey? Surely, more work of this kind is necessary on both sides of the Pacific.

Given events of the last week, it is hard to be optimistic about the ongoing North Korea Crisis. However, a precursor to a negotiated way forward may well be a fuller understanding of Chinese assessments, since almost all agree that Beijing will be crucial to the design, diplomatic bargaining, implementation and verification of any deal that brings Northeast Asia back from the brink.

Lyle J. Goldstein is Professor of Strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the United States Naval War College in Newport RI. He does not tweet, since he is a scholar, but you can reach him at [email protected]. The opinions in his columns are entirely his own and do not reflect the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government.

Image: Reuters