North Korea’s latest nuclear and missile tests have drawn immediate and strong international condemnations. The UN Security Council has held emergency meetings to discuss Pyongyang’s defiance of the international community and is in discussion on new rounds of sanctions against the Kim Jong-un regime.
The North Korean provocations have also cast the spotlight on China and the United States, the two most consequential powers that share common interests in peninsular de-nuclearization but who often disagree on the best means to achieve that end. Indeed, more than a month has passed since North Korea’s January 6 nuclear test, but no sanctions have been adopted, due largely to the differences between China and the United States over the severity, scope, and the very purpose of punitive measures.
China and the United States have been drawn to the North Korean nuclear issue for over two decades. In the early 1990s, when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) detected North Korea’s covert activities in violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the Clinton administration had seriously contemplated the use of military force against North Korean nuclear facilities. The crisis was averted with the signing of the October 1994 Agreed Framework, which froze North Korea’s plutonium program. In return, the United States and its partners agreed to provide North Korea with two light-water reactors. China was not deeply involved during this first nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Nor was it involved in the establishment and running of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) that was to implement the provisions of the 1994 Agreed Framework.
The Agreed Framework collapsed in 2002 after the Bush administration determined Pyongyang had engaged in a covert uranium enrichment program. North Korea withdrew from the NPT and the second nuclear crisis broke out. President Bush dubbed North Korea, together with Iran and Iraq, as the “Axis of Evil”. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, nuclear proliferation became the most serious threat to US and international security. (The United States subsequently invaded Iraq, on the basis that US intelligence had determined that the Iraqi government was involved in the development of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. This turned out to be untrue.)
This time around, China became more actively involved. Calling for both Pyongyang and Washington to resolve their disputes through dialogue, Beijing hosted a trilateral session in early 2003. This was subsequently expanded into the Six Party Talks, a multilateral process between 2003 and 2008 that included China, North and South Korea, Japan, Russia, and the United States. As the host and chair of the process, China played an important role in facilitating negotiations toward ending the North Korean nuclear program. Six rounds of negotiations were held, culminating in the September 2005 Joint Statement, in which North Korea pledged to abandon its nuclear weapons and return to the NPT.
However, even as North Korea pledged nuclear disarmament, it conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 and eventually withdrew from the multilateral process in early 2009. It subsequently conducted two more nuclear tests in 2009 and 2013. It also continued to develop and test ballistic missiles, despite and indeed in defiance of numerous UN Security Council resolutions and sanctions.
Since early 1994, three successive US administrations, from Clinton to Obama, have sought to engage North Korea through diplomacy and with economic incentives, seeking to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons program. However, these measures of limited engagement have been more than outweighed with continued strong military presence in South Korea, demonstration of deterrence and resolve through regular US-ROK joint exercises, and stringent economic sanctions both in compliance with UN Security Council resolutions and imposed unilaterally.
President Obama came into power in the wake of North Korean withdrawal from the Six Party Talks. Nonetheless, the administration sought to engage North Korea through diplomacy. A special envoy on North Korean affairs was appointed. However, North Korea continued its nuclear program, with a second test conducted in 2009. Following the failed “leap year” humanitarian aid deal in exchange for North Korean cessation of nuclear and missile activities in early 2012, and following Kim Jong-un’s ascension as leader of North Korea in late 2011, the Obama administration has maintained a policy of “strategic patience,” which essentially ignores North Korea until and unless it seriously considers giving up its nuclear weapons and suspend missile tests. At the same time, Washington believes that Beijing holds the key to the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue.
Indeed, Secretary of State John Kerry has publicly suggested that China’s policy on North Korea has failed, triggering a quick rebuke from Beijing. While the United States and China share common interests in North Korean de-nuclearization and have indeed coordinated over the years, their assessments of the situation,priorities, and expectations are quite different and these have prevented the two powers from developing and executing strategies with the same pace and focus. For Washington, the fact that North Korea is increasingly dependent on China for its survival should give Beijing leverage to pressure Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons program. On the other hand, Beijing considers the tension between North Korea and the United States a major cause of the North’s insecurity.
The Obama administration in particular raises questions about the efficacy of Chinese preferences and approaches: de-nuclearization through diplomacy, specifically, to get North Korea to return to the Six Party Talks; resistance to wide-ranging sanctions that go beyond targeting the nuclear and missile programs; and an emphasis on peninsular stability. Washington insists that Beijing’s approaches have been ineffectual, as they give North Korea too much latitude and indeed loopholes to continue its nuclear and missile activities, and therefore these need to change. Possible changes include cutting off energy supplies to North Korea, and restricting or even prohibiting North Korean cargo ships and planes from access to Chinese ports and airports.
China, on the other hand, has accused the US of failing to contribute to peninsular de-nuclearization with the irresponsible policy of “strategic patience,” which in effect allows North Korea to continue with its nuclear and missile development unhindered. In addition, the continued US military presence in South Korea, its massive show of force through large scale military exercises, and its refusal to engage North Korea only heightens the latter’s sense of insecurity. Furthermore, Beijing is suspicious that the Obama administration’s North Korea policy serves its overall strategy of rebalancing to Asia, since North Korean provocations provide the very rationale to strengthen its alliances in the region.
Beijing is concerned that Washington seeks regime change in North Korea, with serious consequences for China — massive refugee flows, major disruption in regional economic development, and possibly military clashes on the Korean peninsula. Beijing therefore opposes the use or threat of use of military force in solving the nuclear issue and only supports limited sanctions. While Beijing has endorsed economic sanctions on North Korea in the past, it does not regard these as the most effective or even preferred instruments in stemming North Korean nuclear and missile programs.
This does not mean that Beijing will continue to acquiesce in North Korean behavior. To the contrary, it is just as frustrated and at times angered by its erstwhile client state. The North Korean nuclear test will again test Beijing’s patience and raise the question of what to do about this recalcitrant client. There have been open debates and Chinese analysts have been quite critical of North Korea’s provocations. Indeed, many of the developments in Northeast Asia, from the US theatre missile defence systems in the late 1990s, which have seen the deployment of Patriot Advanced Capabilities (PAC-3) interceptors in Japan, and more recently, the proposed deployment of the Theatre High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence systems to be deployed in South Korea, to the strengthening of the US-Japan and US-ROK alliances, to some extent, have been responses to North Korean missile and nuclear developments, although one could not dismiss altogether that none of this is targeted at China.
North Korean provocations are seriously undermining Chinese national interests. They insult China’s status as a great power just as they raise questions about China’s image as a responsible power. Clearly, business as usual is not the way to go, but finding the right balance between expressing one’s frustration or even anger on the one hand, and carefully evaluating and situating the North Koran issue in the totality of Chinese interests in peninsular and regional contexts on the other, must be the guiding principle for addressing the current crisis. Taken as a whole, China is unlikely to cut off everything to inflict real pains on Pyongyang, for fear that this may lead to instability, something China has been trying to avoid for years. However, there are steps China can and should take, including really tightening up the existing sanctions, supporting new sanctions, and reducing economic aid to North Korea such as oil supplies. Indeed, Kim Jong-un should no longer be allowed to bite the hand that feeds him.
China is unlikely to cut off everything to inflict real pains on Pyongyang, for fear that this may lead to instability.
But at the end of the day, China views the North Korean situation not just as an issue of nuclear proliferation, but as something directly related to peninsula stability, Northeast Asian balance of power, and the broader ramifications on US-China relations and China’s role and position in the region, including its ties with other major powers. Given the emerging Sino-US competition and rivalry, punishing North Korea beyond a certain extent would not necessarily benefit China, if the end game is the collapse of the North Korean regime, and a unified Korea that is allied with the United States. To a significant extent, China has the least room to maneuver without facing some of the unpleasant consequences, while the US holds the key to halting, and perhaps eventually rolling back North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs so far have largely divided China and the United States, to the detriment of both countries’ fundamental interests. It is high time that they look for ways to cooperate. However, given the US presidential politics, any voices coming from the engagement doves would predictably be drowned by the louder noises of the sanctions hawks in Washington. The prospect for Sino-US cooperation remains rather dim, unfortunately.