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China’s North Korea Problem

Tags: North Korea , China , National Security , Iran , Russia

Saunders, Paul J.

April 09, 2012

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North Korea’s announcement of a satellite launch—which many see as a missile test—planned around the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth on April 15—has prompted some to look to China in hopes that Beijing might discourage the provocative move.

However, like the United States and its allies, China confronts challenging dilemmas in dealing with North Korea. But unlike Washington, Beijing appears determined to avoid the dilemmas by avoiding choices. It is not clear whether avoiding the dilemmas will ultimately protect China’s interests.

And China does have important security, political, and economic interests in North Korea. From a security perspective, North Korea provides a buffer between China and South Korea, a US ally with a significant American military presence. Its nuclear weapons and unpredictable conduct increase instability in East Asia and prompt responses from the United States, Japan, and South Korea that Beijing might rather escape.

At the same time, North Korea’s internal instability threatens China with a refugee crisis or, in certain circumstances, possible Korean unification on South Korean terms.

Politically, North Korea’s perceived status as a client state—and China’s perceived influence there—boosts China’s international role. This is apparent in the way that international attention turns to Beijing after Pyongyang’s periodic outbursts. Economically, North Korea is a valued if relatively small trading partner, probably more important because of who is involved in China than what is at stake.

China’s central problem is that the status quo in North Korea likely seems more attractive than the potential alternatives. Consider the options from Beijing’s perspective:

  • War, or other sustained military action, would be extremely close to China’s borders and very undesirable, no matter who starts it. In addition to security risks and the possible collapse of the North Korean regime, Beijing would face a choice between becoming involved—which could be quite costly—and avoiding involvement, which could undermine China’s international role, considering that Pyongyang is China’s only ally.
  • Strong international pressure, including strict sanctions, could likewise push North Korea toward collapse. This is why China has resisted or weakly implemented sanctions.
  • Conversely, a “grand bargain” between North Korea and the United States (and US allies) would also be troubling for Beijing, particularly if it created conditions for significant US, European, and South Korean investment and other engagement that could affect North Korea’s foreign policy priorities. (Japanese investment would likely be a longer-term prospect due to lingering resentment in North Korea.)
  • Economic collapse due to North Korea’s own failings could produce waves of refugees and might lead to outside intervention, whether approved by the United Nations Security Council or not.
  • Unification with South Korea could create a major new East Asian power, allied with the United States, on China’s border.

With this in mind, China’s leaders have a difficult task in working with North Korea. They must simultaneously discourage provocative North Korean conduct and US and other international pressure while trying to avoid any wide-ranging resolution of US-North Korea and South-North differences. And they must encourage enough economic and political reform in North Korea to prevent collapse but not so much as to change the existing regime and its international orientation.

More generally, there are interesting parallels between China’s relations with North Korea and Russia’s relations with Iran. Like China, Russia is also struggling to maintain an increasingly shaky status quo—preventing war, preventing “crippling” sanctions, preventing regime change, and preventing rapprochement between Iran and the West. Moscow is similarly vexed by a relationship with Iran that is ostensibly cooperative—and in which Russia is often believed to have influence—when as a practical matter Russia’s leaders have only limited leverage (as China in its dealings with North Korea).

There are, however, two key differences between North Korea and Iran. One is that North Korea actually has nuclear weapons and that Iran does not. The other is that notwithstanding Iranian leaders’ inflammatory rhetoric, Tehran’s conduct has been more predictable—and less dangerous—than Pyongyang’s. The combination of these two differences makes North Korea a more dangerous challenge than Iran in important respects.

This raises four important questions, three about China and one about North Korea: Is it possible to develop a policy sufficiently complex and nuanced to achieve China’s goals? If so, are China’s leaders capable of implementing such a policy? And if not, will China’s leaders recognize the difficulties in time to re-think their approach to North Korea? Finally, and most significant, is the status quo that China wants to preserve in North Korea actually sustainable for more than a few years? If it isn’t, Beijing could be in for a number of unpleasant surprises.

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