What’s Wrong with China’s North Korea Policy?

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It no longer makes strategic sense for China to support North Korea.
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Imagine you are the leader of a country with nuclear weapons. You know that three of your country’s neighbors also possess nuclear deterrence. Then one day you find out that another neighbor has nuclear ambitions. This country has been your protégé for six decades. But it is a peculiar relationship because you are ashamed of bragging about it at home or abroad. The protégé is a hereditary personal dictatorship.

The question is: Would you give your blessing to the protégé’s nuclear ambitions or would you try your best—on your own or in cooperation with the international community—to prevent your apprentice from acquiring nuclear weapons? The choice should be a no-brainer. Any sensible leader would not want another nuclear power on its border, especially one ruled by a dictatorship. Yet, China seems to have chosen the opposite path of turning a blind eye to the nuclear ambitions of its protégé, North Korea.

North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests—the first in 2006, a second in 2009, and the last in February of this year. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that it was “strongly dissatisfied” with and “firmly opposed” to the latest test. The test site was reportedly less than 70 kilometers away from the Chinese border, alarming millions of residents in northeast China. The Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection released several statements after the nuclear test to reassure residents that no radioactive particles had been detected in aerosol samples collected in the northeast region.

North Korea has decided to repay China’s support by endangering millions of Chinese citizens’ lives with potential nuclear fallout, or even a nuclear apocalypse. This signifies the utter failure of China’s North Korea policy.

The most important reason for China’s commitment to supporting the North Korean regime appears to be Pyongyang’s geopolitical value. North Korea could serve as a buffer zone between China and U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. This kind of strategic thinking led China to enter the Korean War in 1950, sending millions of troops across the Sino-Korean border to drive U.S.-led UN forces from northern territory.

However, many far-reaching changes since the Korean War have rendered the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula much less menacing, which has significantly reduced North Korea’s strategic value to China. For instance, in 1964 China detonated its own atomic bomb, and in 1979 U.S.-Chinese relations were normalized and ties between the two countries have been rapidly growing. Additional changes that tipped the balance were the democratization of South Korea, the end of the Cold War, and the rise of China as an economic and military power. In light of Beijing’s much-improved security environment in northeast Asia, the reasons for China’s continued pandering to North Korea are not clear.

Another reason that China may be supporting North Korea is to prevent regime collapse. The potential influx of North Korean refugees into northeast China could develop into a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented scale. That could destabilize a region that is home to one of China’s most important agricultural and industrial bases.

While China’s concerns about North Korean refugees are legitimate to a degree, they do not justify Beijing’s unconditional support for Pyongyang.

China may not be the primary destination for North Korean refugees. South Korea has the benefit of sharing the same language as North Korea, and compared to China’s political system, South Korea provides the additional appeal of an open democracy.

In addition, the other major regional powers (the United States, South Korea, and Japan) cannot afford a destabilized northeast Asia, which is home to the world’s second- and third-largest economies. Together, China and the other major regional powers have more than enough resources to manage a crisis of such a scale.

China’s continued support of the North Korean regime may also stem from historical memory of the Korean War. The war cost more than half a million Chinese lives. Some Chinese believe that abandoning North Korea may mean all those lives were sacrificed in vain.

While China’s security environment in 1950 may have justified intervention in the war, times are changing, and it is neither necessary nor desirable to back the current North Korean regime. To allow this legacy to dictate China’s current North Korea policy is to swim against the tide of history.

Further complicating this policy is the fact that North Korea may be a useful strategic buffer for China, but Beijing needs to factor in whether Pyongyang is willing to play the role of pawn in another country’s chess match. China’s decision to normalize relations with South Korea and its full embrace of the capitalist road with nominally socialist characteristics may have deeply upset and alienated the North Korean leadership. It is difficult to believe that North Korea would happily offer itself on the altar of Chinese interests. More importantly, after living under the shadow of the Chinese empire for hundreds of years, the nationalist North Koreans have many reasons to be resentful and suspicious of the patronizing Chinese.

If China continues to view North Korea as a buffer state, then Pyongyang is in the position to ransom Beijing for political and economic support. To frame the current relationship more vividly, North Korea is the tail wagging the Chinese dog. China has little unilateral leverage over North Korea, which may be why Beijing is eager to restart the Six-Party Talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear program. But the Chinese have only themselves to blame.

It is time for China to let go of North Korea. Close association with such a regime does not provide any benefit to China’s national interests and international reputation. Moreover, Beijing should actively work with the international community to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Having an unpredictable, ungrateful, and totalitarian regime armed with nuclear weapons is the last thing China wants on its border.

Xie Tao is an associate professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.


This article was published as part of the Window into China series

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Comments (9)

  • TJDubbs
    I am curious is there is much consideration, on the Chinese side, of economic potential (and benefit to China) that could result from North Korea normalizing relations with the rest of the world (regardless of whether that results from a change in government or a change in policy). Not only would China no longer have a neighbor making nuclear threats against China's major trading partners, but there would be a new market that could eventually purchase Chinese goods, rather than receive aid for free. Chinese companies could reduce labor costs by moving factories to North Korea, which may be hurting for jobs, despite the claim that no one is unemployed there. It seems both countries have benefits to be reaped if North Korea becomes a "normal" country, although the magnitude of economic benefit would admittedly be relatively small for China, simply because of the difference in size of population.
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    • thmak replies...
      NK's nuclear development is a direct response to USA's nuclear threat.
  • Xie Tao
    The economic benefits that China can reap from a normal DRPK are quite small, if not negligible, despite reports of booming border trade and significant Chinese investment in several projects. However, a unified and prosperous Korean peninsula could mean substantial economic benefits to China. So a long-term challenge for China is whether it is willing to facilitate the reunification of the Korean peninsula, presumably with continued US military presence and under a democratic system. When that happens, China will be surrounded by many democratic (or democratizing countries that have close political and/or strategic ties with the U.S. That will certainly increase Chinese leaders' sense of "encirclement" by the U.S. Nevertheless, the experiences of Germany and Vietnam suggest that reunification of the Korean Peninsula is inevitable. So instead of opposing or obstructing reunification, China should prepare for the inevitable. Besides, Kim Jun-un's alarming rhetoric aside, there is the possibility of a normalized relationship with the U.S. Such rhetoric provides the necessary political cover for him to charter a new course. That's exactly what Mao and Nixon did when they were planning for a rapprochement.
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    • thmak replies...
      It should be said that So a long-term challenge for USA is whether it is willing to facilitate the reunification of the Korean peninsula, presumably without continued US military presence and under a imposed democratic system by USA. .
  • Contrarian
    The author's question is misleading.
    The real question is why China joined in the US-led UN sanctions on DPRK
    since 2006.

    By refusing to exercise its veto over the US-led tough sanctions, didn't China
    send a clear message to North Korea that "we can no longer protect you"?
    Why did China normalize its relations with ROK in 1992 without inducing US's normalizarion of relations with DPRK?
    Why is China expressing concerns about North Korea's nuclear tests, but keep silent about US nuclear threats against DPRK?

    It seems it is, in fact, the mistaken policy of China kissing the imperial US and open abandonment of North Korea which is driving the latter into development of its nuclear deterrent.

    Finally, let's face the history correctly! Korean War is still continuing today despite the end of the Cold War in the West. If US crushes North Korea finally, due to inaction of China, the next target of the US Empire will be China. Watch out the new US "Pivot" to Asia-Pacific!
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  • JBSiegel
    Collapse of the DPRK is a matter of time and really a question of 'when' and not 'if'. I think managing that transition cleaning would be in China's best interests. Each day that passes, the news makes me wonder if Kim3 will bumble into a war that would have disastrous consequences for China.

    I would hope that China would consider that a unified Korea run by the current government of the South, would need neither nuclear weapons nor an ongoing US presence.

    China could replace a tinderbox with a large US presence with a peaceful and prosperous trading partner to its south if it manages the implosion of the North carefully.
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    • Xie Tao replies...
      Any chinese visitor to DPRK could attest to North Koreans' suspicion and resentment of China. But we pretend the relationship is as strong and intimate as ever. That's the worst you can have for foreign policy making. Chinese leaders need to face the uncomfortable truth.
      Going beyond DPRK, i'd argue that China's biggest foreign policy challenge is how to build up good relations with its neighbors. Without a stable and peaceful backyard, China could never pursue it ambitions afar. I visited Vietnam, Burma, and India recently, and my sense is that local people generally don't like the Chinese. What is so enlightening is that the Vietnamese warmly welcomed back Americans, who did horrible things to their country, while they view the Chinese with resentment despite China's aid and support.
      A distant superpower may seem much less threatening than a rising power next door. That being said, China still needs to rethink what can and should be done to win the trust of its neighbors. Economic ties usually do not go hand in hand with political trust. The latter requires additional investment of statesmanship and resources.
  • thmak
    To Xie: There is absolutely nothing wrong with China’s policy towards NK but there is absolutely something wrong with Xie’s viewpoint. China has nothing to be peculiar or ashamed of, except Xie’s own opinion. Every nation has its freedom and right to develop its own defense postures just like USA. USA preaches democracy and freedom of this and that but it wants to be the only nuclear dictator. USA regards SK as its client state while China respects and trusts NK. If Xie thinks that China regards NK as its buffer zone, then Xi should realized that USA extends its buffer zone from its border all the way to every corners of the world. Xie should know that there is no potential nuclear fallout from HK but there is a potential nuclear fallout to Japan and N America. Xie should know that China entered into the Korea war because America threatens to invade China through Korea. Xie should know that China wants to maintain world justice by not allowing other nations to interfere into other’s internal problem at will. Xie is miserably wrong to say that China provide unconditional support to NK. Xie should also know that America’s continued support of SK is because America will regard their lost lives were sacrificed in vain. Xie’s advocacy of interfering into other nations internal problems is to swim against the tide of democracy, freedom, human rights. Xie’s viewpoints of “pawn”, “alter”, “Chinese empire”, “tail wagging”, “leverage”, “ungrateful”, ”totalitarian” are just garbage notions.
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  • Queensberry
    "Any chinese visitor to DPRK could attest to North Koreans' suspicion and resentment of China. "???? You are disgusting, Xie! Yes, NK is a dangerous neightbour who might not only ruin themselves but also bring trouble to China. But to say that the North Koreans having suspicion and resentment of China is purely a lie! Of course, it is better for China's interest to get ride of this former ally and friend, but do not find excuses and put the blame on the Norther Koreans!
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Source http://carnegieendowment.org/2013/03/26/what-s-wrong-with-china-s-north-korea-policy/ftjw

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