With the Iran nuclear agreement now on the table for debate, many foreign-policy specialists and senior diplomats are naturally turning back to the North Korean nuclear issue to ask what lessons might be applied to that seemingly intractable situation. Indeed, it seems likely that lessons have also been instructive in the opposite direction—namely, in providing a negative example of how a half-hearted and often-incoherent strategy, not to mention a failure to coordinate effectively among the great powers, allowed Pyongyang to stride over the nuclear threshold. To date, there have been three DPRK nuclear tests and North Korea seems determined to push aggressively for means of delivering its warheads.
For the whole of East Asia, there is no more-urgent security issue. The strategic significance of potential scenarios related to security on the Korean Peninsula far surpasses the crises in the East and South China Seas in terms of importance. Hundreds of millions of lives and the existence of whole nations are at stake in the former, while the latter issues involve mainly the disposition of “rocks and reefs.” This disparity should be on the minds of both Chinese and American diplomats as they go about preparing for another Obama-Xi summit in Washington DC this coming September. Since anyone who thinks seriously about the future of the Korean Peninsula eventually arrives at the conclusion that the key node (among many important relationships) is that between Beijing and Pyongyang, this edition of Dragon Eye will focus on examination of a few recent Chinese academic assessments of this most vital lattice of the Korean prism.
In the wake of North Korea’s February 2013 nuclear test, the relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing appeared to have reached a new nadir. This brazen third test by the young upstart leader of the DPRK, Kim Jong-un, appeared to be a direct challenge to the new Chinese president, Xi Jinping, who already seemed inclined toward a more dynamic and forceful foreign policy. At that time, a Global Times editorial intoned that “China should not fear North Korea” and even warned that Chinese–North Korean ties could see a break akin to the massive and long-lasting breach in Sino-Soviet relations during the 1960s. Readers familiar with the Sino-Soviet rivalry, including both the bloody skirmishes and nuclear threats that accompanied the break between Moscow and Beijing back then, will have read this comparison as a stern warning to Pyongyang.
An article appearing in the spring 2013 edition of 东北亚论坛 [Northeast Asia Forum] seemed to argue for a radical shift in Beijing’s approach. A few American analysts have previously claimed this journal was not worth looking at, but that is clearly not the case, since this paper was written by a professor at Beijing’s Central Party School, undoubtedly one of China’s premier policy think tanks. Also suggestive of the paper’s importance, it was the lead article in that particular volume of this journal. The author opines against Pyongyang’s skill at “利用大国矛盾” [using tensions among the great powers] to its advantage. The author similarly regrets the tendency of “North Korea-US contradictions becoming China-US contradictions.” The tendency has caused China to become a “挡风墙” [wall blocking the wind]. This assessment minces no words in declaring that a nuclear accident or nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula would pose an existential threat [致命影响] to the security of the Beijing-Tianjin megalopolis, and China’s northeastern region generally. The author is quite outspoken in declaring that China is the biggest loser in the DPRK’s nuclearization and that, moreover, the current Chinese policy toward North Korea—characterized as three “no’s”—“不战不乱不垮” [no war, no chaos and no collapse] is failing to prevent nuclearization, even as the window for curtailing this development is closing.
Since 2013, there have been a number of significant developments pointing in various directions for the critical Beijing-Pyongyang node: the building of a large, new span across the Yalu River, the arrest and likely murder of Jang Song-taek (who had been seen as an advocate for Chinese interests), the hubbub over the alleged DPRK cyberstrike against Sony Pictures, as well as a clutch of successful summits between Xi Jinping and South Korean president Park Geun-hye. A banner headline gracing the front page of the October 15, 2014 edition of 环球时报[Global Times] declared: “Kim Jung-un Resurfaces and Causes a Stir.” According to this favorable rendering, which was accompanied by a large photo of the DPRK leader, “… actually, the last six weeks have witnessed many signs of stabilization in North Korea, for example suggested by the lack of unusual military activities …. But this has all been neglected by the hostile US, Japanese and South Korean press. ”
A couple of Chinese academic articles published in 2015 may also imply that Beijing is returning to its traditional policy of trying to gradually beckon Pyongyang into a more interdependent relationship that facilitates Chinese-style reforms, after what seems to have been a brief flirtation with more confrontational measures during 2013. A paper published in the journal of the China Institute for International Studies (CIIS) seems to emphasize the role of power asymmetries in forestalling diplomatic solutions. The author suggests that “南强北弱的态势日益明显” [the daily more-obvious situation of the South being strong and the North being weak] presents grave challenges for the future of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. Likewise, the prospect of “吸收统一” [absorption unification] is not presented in a favorable light. Similarly, this author explains with some evident sympathy for North Korea that Pyongyang, confronted with Seoul’s vast superiority in both economic terms and also in conventional armaments, has viewed its nuclear-weapons program as “唯一可破坏这种优势的巨大威胁” [the only way to destroy the huge threat of this advantage] held by Seoul.
A second piece published in the journal 国际政治 [International Politics] and supported by a China Academy of Social Sciences “key research project” emphasizes the role of “marginalized psychology” in explaining DPRK actions. To the deterrence goal suggested above, this author also suggests that Pyongyang is under enormous ideological pressure and notes that the nuclear-weapons program has given the North Korean regime some badly needed prestige at home. This analysis does view the nuclear-weapons program potentially as a “筹码” [poker chip], but concludes pessimistically that “朝鲜与美国之间的互动已陷入了恶性循环” [North Korea and the United States are trapped in a vicious cycle] of insecurity.
Washington’s current policy on North Korea, often described as “strategic patience,” seems to amount to hand-wringing in the hopes that the Arab Spring might spread to Northeast Asia. In its most practical form, it aims to persuade Beijing to clamp tighter sanctions on Pyongyang.
But the neoliberal approach (e.g. attempting to coax China into a “rules-based order”) seems to be nearly as deleterious as its ideologically tinged cousin, the neoconservative approach. Alternatively, a realist perspective would recognize certain power realities on the ground, including both ROK military might and also the fact that only China has sufficient power and influence to effectively curb the North Korean nuclear program. Wagging fingers (about various “rocks,” for instance) has not been helpful. What is actually needed is much closer U.S.-China diplomatic coordination. Indeed, North Korea should occupy a major place on the Xi-Obama September summit agenda, together with Iran and also climate change. Instead of trying to put ever more pressure on North Korea with sanctions, American diplomats may instead try “deep listening” (for a change) to some Chinese concepts and proposals for resolving the exceedingly dangerous situation on the Korean Peninsula.
Lyle J. Goldstein is Associate Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. The opinions expressed in this analysis are his own and do not represent the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government.
Editor’s Note: The following is a part of a new occasional series called Dragon Eye, which seeks insight and analysis from Chinese writings on world affairs. You can find all back articles in the series here.