As the North Korean regime continues to issue provocative warnings for foreigners to evacuate the Korean peninsula, suggesting military escalation, regional cooperation has become essential to maintainingstability on the peninsula. With the economic and strategic interests of nations around the world at stake, the necessity for multilateral collaboration is stronger than ever.

L. Gordon Flake of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, Jin Canrong of Renmin University, Zhu Feng of Peking University, and Paul Haenle and Zhang Chuanjie of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center joined the Financial Times’ Geoff Dyer to discuss the North Korea issue, and ways in which cooperation can be enhanced to stabilize relations on the peninsula.

Drivers for China’s Policy Change

  • Changes in North Korea’s Behaviors: According to Flake, North Korea’s level of escalation and rhetoric is beyond normal in the last two months. Unlike his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Un has continued provocative acts beyond proper boundaries. For example, the recent North Korea’s nuclear test that was conducted close to China’s border has made Beijing concerned about possible radioactive fallout, added Haenle. North Korea’s unpredictability has puzzled and upset the Chinese leadership, stated Zhang.
  • Changes in China’s Interest: The Chinese leadership sees North Korea as long-term liability instead of asset. North Korea’s continuous opposition to Beijing’s directives has affected China’s image as a major player on the international stage, argued Haenle.

Key Signs of Policy Change

  • In Discourse: According to Zhu, the Chinese leadership’s remarks condemning North Korea’s nuclear test are unprecedented. Furthermore, discourse out of Beijing has recently put “no nuclear weapons” as the first priority in China-North Korea relations, stated Jin.
  • In Policy: Beijing has shown a real intent to carry out the United Nations’ resolutions against North Korea, Jin said. It is also doing its best to slow down the nuclear development in North Korea, and help North Korea to become a normal state that emphasizes economic instead of military development, Jin maintained.

Resistance to Policy Change

  • From the Leadership: China’s foreign policymaking process has become much more diversified, Jin said, with participation from different institutions and independent public opinions. He suggested that China’s strategic policy toward Pyongyang will not change radically, but more gradually. Furthermore, according to Zhang, Beijing has always been wary of Washington’s motives in pushing for regime change in Pyongyang. Hence China is still quite reserved in their cooperation with the United States on North Korea, he said.
  • From the Public: China’s older generation still wants to see a strengthened North Korea as a buffer zone for China against U.S. encroachment in Asia. Many even respect and admire Pyongyang for its adamant stance against Washington.

Opportunities for U.S.-China Cooperation

Haenle, Zhu, Jin, and Zhang agreed that Beijing and Washington need to deepen cooperation on North Korea. At the same time, Haenle cautioned that the United States should fashion a new approach to this issue. Washington cannot afford China feeling that it is being used as a tool to force Pyongyang’s regime change, he warned. Overall, both the U.S. and Chinese governments should facilitate more dialogues to foster knowledge exchange and minimize the communication gap, Zhu and Jin concluded.