Old Ally, New Headaches: Will China Turn Cold on North Korea?

With North Korea’s recent missile test capturing the world’s attention, China’s response to its old ally’s transgressions will be critical for any chance of progress. With new leadership in Beijing, is there the possibility for a change in China’s approach? 

North Korea's successful test of an 'Unha-3' three-stage rocket on 12 December resulted in a familiar chorus of condemnation from the international community. Yet Beijing's reaction to the launch marks a subtle break from past practice. A statement from Chinese state media outlet, Xinhua, acknowledged the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's 'right to conduct peaceful exploration of outer space,' but concluded with a frank call for Pyongyang to abide by UN resolutions banning its missile testing. China's willingness to take further action to rein in its troublesome ally may prove crucial in reaching a lasting solution to the latest crisis. 

Over the past two decades, the international community has pursued a range of policies - from engagement and incentives to isolation and sanctions. The failure to achieve results, combined with Pyongyang's progress in its nuclear policies, mean that the calculations have changed. It now maybe time for a new approach.

North Korea appears to possess an independent Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) capability and rapidly developing missile technology, raising the question of whether policymakers can afford to leave the DPRK out in the cold. At the same time, a policy of concession and engagement has run up against the reality of the North's brinkmanship and determined efforts to pursue a nuclear programme.

China's Role

As with so many other issues in the region, China holds the key to resolving the impasse.  

Previous attempts by Beijing to broker a solution through the Six Party Talks have failed to deal with the twin problems of the DPRK's nuclear activities and ballistic missile programme. In 2006 and 2009, Pyongyang ignored Beijing's calls to abandon its nuclear weapons tests. And only a few weeks ago, it is believed that a recent delegation to Pyongyang sent by China's new Party General Secretary, Xi Jinping, sought to persuade Kim Jong-un to halt the latest test, but was rebuffed.

China has used these setbacks to argue that North Korea is beyond its control.   Indeed, before the 12 December rocket launch, a prominent researcher at a Chinese state think-tank said that Beijing had 'no such ability' to prevent it. Yet the reality suggests otherwise. In 2011, close to 90 per cent of North Korea's foreign trade was conducted with China and the deep penetration of DPRK businesses into the Chinese economy makes imposing international sanctions on them, without Chinese acquiescence, difficult. Bilateral trade ties are set to deepen, particularly if efforts to develop special economic zones in the Korean port city of Rason and elsewhere reach fruition. China has also been instrumental in shielding the North from punitive responses to its provocations - most notably after the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong crises. Food aid from China, despite its allegedly poor quality, is essential to propping up whatever meagre livelihood ordinary North Koreans endure. Its energy exports allow the North Korean economy to keep stuttering along.

Chinese Concerns

Policymakers in Beijing have been loath to exploit this influence because they fear greater pressure on Pyongyang could spark military conflict or regime collapse. A refugee crisis on China's border regions and the prospect of loose nukes and small arms would pose a major challenge for the Chinese government, which is facing an internal stability problem of its own. The prospect of a US-sponsored liberal democracy, probably unified with South Korea, dramatically taking the place of an old ideological ally is equally alarming to the CCP leadership. Analysis also suggests that China sees WMD proliferation as a U.S. problem. Beijing is prepared to tolerate a nuclear-armed DPRK, so long as the arsenal remains small and does not provoke armed intervention by the United States - or cause Beijing's regional competitors, Japan and South Korea, to seek their own nuclear deterrent. China's reaction to Pyongyang's apparent mastery of long-range rocket technology - which has occurred a lot sooner than many analysts had anticipated - is still unclear.

However, after the 2006 nuclear test, China showed signs of adjusting its policy towards North Korea, which was declared as 'brazen'. This is a diplomatic term usually reserved for the most serious affronts to the Chinese state. In the subsequent years, moderates within state institutions such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called for stopping support for China's troublesome ally. They were eventually overruled by conservatives in party institutions and the PLA, who saw stability in the status quo. China's recent statement that the latest missile test contravened UN resolutions is therefore interesting, as it may suggest renewed discussion of the issue within the Xi administration. As Xi Jinping heads the all-powerful Foreign Affairs and National Security Leading Small Groups - and chairs the Central Military Commission - much will depend on his personal opinion of Pyongyang's activities.

The time may now be right for the international community to re-engage China over its support for the DPRK. Propping up the Kim dynasty does not serve Beijing's interests in the long-term. Dynamics on the Korean Peninsula are a perennial powder keg. DPRK provocations have facilitated a diplomatic rapprochement between Japan and South Korea. Both countries are working in trilateral cooperation with Washington on missile defence and an expanded US military presence in the region has partly been the result.

Caution has defined China's approach to the DPRK over the last two decades and this policy is unlikely to change soon. Beijing's policy of attaching strings to its cooperation with the West, as it has done previously over US arms sales to Taiwan, will complicate matters. Yet ultimately, China working with others over the DPRK is in the interests of all stakeholders. A partnership with Beijing will also enable policymakers in Seoul and the wider international community to seek fresh solutions to a deteriorating situation on the Korean Peninsula.


Edward Schwarck

Research Fellow, Asia Studies

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