Parsing China’s Korea Policy

2013-02-26 by Richard Weitz

At a press briefing on Monday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman called for calm and that all parties avoid taking action that could worsen the situation on the Korean Peninsula following the Feb 12 nuclear test of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

He said that, while Beijing opposed the test, China wanted to see an early resumption on the Six-Party Talks seeking a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and that the Security Council to adopt measures that would seek “realization of denuclearization, non-proliferation, and peace and stability on the peninsula.”

Meanwhile, Chinese news commentary blamed the U.S. intransigence as much as DPRK recklessness for the latest crisis.

Beijing’s reluctance to impose severe sanctions on North Korea despite its recent nuclear test should not be surprising.

The North Korean Challenge is a Looming Threat to Global Stability (Credit image: Bigstock)

The North Korean Challenge is a Looming Threat to Global Stability (Credit image: Bigstock) 

PRC officials have long opposed North Korea’s acquiring nuclear weapons or testing long-range ballistic missiles because these actions encourage other countries to develop nuclear weapons and missile defenses that negatively affect China’s security.

Yet, Beijing’s willingness to pressure Pyongyang to modify its policies is constrained.

Despite their irritation with the DPRK regime, most Chinese officials appear more concerned about the potential collapse of the North Korean state than about its leader’s intransigence on the nuclear and missile questions.

PRC policy makers have long opposed North Korea’s acquiring nuclear weapons or testing long-range ballistic missiles because these actions encourage other countries to develop nuclear weapons and missile defenses that negatively affect China’s security.

They fear that North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons might induce South Korea, Japan, and even Taiwan to pursue their own nuclear forces, which under some contingencies might be used against Beijing as well as Pyongyang. Some Chinese, recalling their problems with Russia and Vietnam, worry that the DPRK might even threaten to use nuclear weapons against China in some future dispute.

PRC decision makers presumably would also like to avoid the negative reaction in Washington and other capitals that would arise if it became evident that Pyongyang had re-transferred materials and technologies originally provided by China to third countries. There is evidence that North Korea has exchanged technologies useful for developing WMD and ballistic missiles with Pakistan, another Chinese ally, as well as with Syria and other countries of proliferation concern.

Chinese leaders also fear that these ostentatious displays of North Korea’s improving missile and nuclear capacities will further encourage the United States, Japan, Taiwan and other states to develop missile defenses that in turn will weaken the effectiveness of Beijing’s ballistic missile arsenal.

The PRC’s increasingly sophisticated missiles represent a core element of its national security strategy.

Beijing has deployed over one thousand intermediate-range missiles within distance of Taiwan to deter, and if necessary punish, Taipei from pursuing policies objectionable to Beijing.

In addition, PRC strategists see their strengthening missile capabilities as a decisive instrument in implementing China’s anti-access/area-denial strategy against the United States. The Chinese military seeks the ability to target any American military forces, including aircraft carriers, which attempt to defend Taiwan or otherwise confront Chinese forces. As a last resort, the PRC relies on its long-range strategic ballistic missiles to deter the United States from employing its own nuclear forces against China.

Through the Six-Party Talks and other mechanisms, PRC policy makers have sought to induce the DPRK to relinquish its nuclear weapons and moderate its other foreign and defense policies in return for security guarantees, economic assistance, and diplomatic acceptance by the rest of the international community. Such a benign outcome would avoid the feared consequences of precipitous regime change—humanitarian emergencies, economic reconstruction, arms races, and military conflicts.

Yet, Beijing’s willingness to pressure Pyongyang to modify its policies is constrained by a fundamental consideration. PRC policy makers have found themselves cross-pressured in the case of North Korea. Although they would prefer that Pyongyang refrain from provocative actions like missile testing, and would welcome a denuclearization and Korean peace agreement, they are not willing to impose substantial pressure on the DPRK regime for fear that it would collapse.

Some of characterized this condition as a “mutual hostage situation” where Beijing” feels forced to continue to support North Korea despite, and increasingly due to, the North’s destabilizing activities. 1

The DPRK’s sudden demise would induce widespread economic disruptions in East Asia; generate large refugee flows across their borders; weaken China’s influence in the Koreas by ending Beijing’s unique status as interlocutors with Pyongyang; allow the Pentagon to concentrate its military potential in other theaters (e.g., Taiwan); redirection of ROK investment flows from the PRC to North Korea, which would require a massive socioeconomic upgrading to reach ROK-levels as part of reunification; and potentially remove a buffer separating their borders from U.S. ground forces (i.e., should the U.S. Army redeploy into northern Korea).

At worst, the DPRK’s collapse could precipitate military conflict and civil strife on the peninsula—which could spill across into Chinese territory.

PRC policy makers have therefore consistently resisted military action, severe economic sanctions, and other developments that could threaten instability on the Korean peninsula. The Chinese government has been willing to criticize DPRK behavior and temporarily reduce economic assistance, but mostly has aimed to entice Pyongyang through economic bribes and other inducements.

Along with South Korea and Russia, China has resisted imposing sanctions that could inflict severe harm on the fragile North Korean economy.

To limit external threats to the DPRK, Chinese government representatives have also consistently striven to downplay concerns about the extent of North Korea’s missile program as well as its nuclear activities, including evidence of the DPRK’s involvement in the proliferation of nuclear and other WMD technologies to third parties. They depict Pyongyang less as a nuclear-armed rogue regime than as a potential failed state and humanitarian disaster in the making. The Chinese government has never committed to the demanding U.S. goal of “complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament,” at least as a near-term goal.

PRC officials generally depict ending the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program as a long-term objective that may require accepting a North Korean ability to continue some nuclear activities, despite such activities giving the DPRK at least a limited inherent nuclear weapons capacity. They also argued that the United States and other countries would need to make some concessions to Pyongyang to secure North Korea’s denuclearization, rather than expect North Korea to disarm first before discussing the provision of any possible rewards.

This line has continued despite the change in government in Pyongyang. “Seoul, Tokyo and Washington are hoping China exert more pressure on North Korea,” writes a March 2012 commentary in The People’s Daily. “They are counting on the fact that China can eventually bring Pyongyang to its knees.” But the article counters that, “As long as South Korea, Japan and the US do not give North Korea a sense of security, it will not stop lashing back at them.”

Despite their unease with the Kim dynasty in Pyongyang, PRC policy makers appear to have resigned themselves to dealing with this regime for now while hoping it will gradually reform over time into a more stable, less troublesome, but still pro-Beijing state.


  1. U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2011 Report to Congress (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, November 2011), p. 242

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