How China Reads North Korea

How China Reads North Korea

Beijing thinks the time is right for fresh diplomacy.

As the crisis in Syria unfolds, a less noticed problem has been the widening gap between China and the United States about how to handle another “rogue regime”—North Korea. After signs of growing cooperation with the U.S. earlier this year, China has reverted to a heavy emphasis on dialogue as a solution to the DPRK nuclear issue. The United States should redouble its efforts to ensure that Beijing continues to adequately pressure Pyongyang.

Following North Korea’s February nuclear test, some observers saw China changing course on the DPRK. Evidence included aggressive implementation of UN Security Council sanctions and a firmer approach in Beijing’s bilateral dealings with Pyongyang. Many were also heartened by Xi Jinping’s apparent suggestions at the Sunnylands summit in June that China would use its leverage to promote a shift in North Korea’s behavior.

However, some analysts have cautioned against excessive claims about a change in China’s position. For instance, Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt warned that Beijing’s continued emphasis on stability on the Korean Peninsula, versus nonproliferation, would mean that it may be “many more years before we might see China’s much anticipated policy shift.”

Indeed, recent evidence from Beijing supports these more cautious arguments. Last week, the PLA’s Deputy Chief of the General Staff met with a visiting delegation from the ROK, reportedly emphasizing China’s pursuit of a solution through “dialogue, negotiations, and consultations.” The Chinese and DPRK nuclear envoys also recently met in Pyongyang, and “exchanged views on the resumption of the six-party talks.”

During my own recent discussions with civilian and military analysts in Beijing, Chinese interlocutors emphasized several similar points:

● The six-party talks should be resumed in the near future. The time is right, some analysts argued, because of a recent abatement of tensions, and because of signs that North Korea may prize economic over nuclear development.

● China expects that the United States will support a renewal of the six-party talks—indeed, this seems to be a condition for the forging of a “new type of great power relationship” between the two countries. As one senior Chinese diplomat I spoke with in Beijing put it, “If the United States refused to engage in dialogue, the PRC would be very suspicious of U.S. intentions.”

● The Chinese military is not willing to enter into discussions with the United States about how to respond to a contingency on the Korean Peninsula. One high-ranking PLA officer said that, although the idea of such coordination is “reasonable,” talks would be an unnecessary provocation and likely lead the situation to become more “complex.”

If these trends continue, there is likely to be a widening gap between China and the United States, which tends to prefer a stronger emphasis on sanctions and has been highly skeptical of the possible effectiveness of further six-party talks.

In fact, it should come as no surprise that Beijing would reconsider, and perhaps abandon, the tougher approach it took earlier this year. The refrain is familiar. For instance, China’s harsh rhetoric and vote in favor of UN sanctions after North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test was followed in 2007 by a push for dialogue; a similar pattern developed after China’s approval of sanctions in response to DPRK provocations in 2009, with a more conciliatory approach in 2010.

As one Chinese analyst explained, this pendulum-like shift is the result of China’s attempt to balance two contradictory interests: a short-term interest in stability (which would be undermined by an overly assertive approach), with a long-term interest in nonproliferation (which could be served, in part, by the application of pressure). It appears that the pendulum has swung back to an emphasis on stability.

To be sure, Chinese analysts continue to harbor concerns about DPRK nuclear and missile developments. One prominent civilian analyst reported that he believed the DPRK has amassed enough plutonium stock for four to eight nuclear warheads, and has the “potential to miniaturize its nuclear devices.” Several PRC analysts also estimated that the chances for a fourth North Korean nuclear test are relatively high. The growing difference between Washington and Beijing appears not to lie in threat perceptions, but in preferred policy responses.

Ultimately, it may take a fourth nuclear test for the pendulum to shift back towards approval of more robust sanctions from Beijing. Nevertheless, despite its attention to the crisis in Syria, the United States should continue to encourage Beijing to do its utmost to convince Pyongyang to abandon nuclear developments and comply with international nonproliferation norms.

Next week, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Danny Russell will have an opportunity to do so when he visits Beijing. In coordination with allies and partners in the region, Russell and other senior U.S. officials should clarify additional steps that China can take to implement UN sanctions (such as by freezing certain DPRK accounts held in the PRC), identify PRC firms that may be evading sanctions, and call for frank conversations about how China and the United States should coordinate efforts should a major crisis on the Korean peninsula occur.

Dr. Joel Wuthnow is a China analyst at CNA, a research organization based in Alexandria, Va. He is on Twitter @jwuthnow.

Image: Flickr/John Pavelka. CC BY 2.0.