The South Korean president is warming up to her Chinese counterpart. The international community is making requests of China to take a firmer stance. Even human rights reports mention China’s repatriation policy.
It would seem there is an underlying assumption behind all of these events: that China can change North Korean behavior, that it’s lack of support would be the end of the Kim regime, or at least cause it to favor the South. However, a survey of Chinese experts finds that they don’t believe China a) can make the North Koreans change course, or b) would like to see what would happen if they tried to force them to change their ways.
In essence, China is as frustrated by the situation as the West, and even experts there see little in the way of resolving the matter without turning the situation dangerously unstable.
In part nine of a major new NK News expert interview series, Chinese experts include:
- Cui Yingjeou, former professor of the Peking University who studied in the Kim Il Sung University in the 1960s. He was a track-two academic of the PRC side during the nuclear crisis of the ’90s
- HaoHao Ye – PhD candidate at Sun Yat-sen University
- Lu Chao – Senior researcher at the Academy of Liaoning social science
- Tsai Jian – Professor at The Fudan University in Shanghai
- Zhang Liangui – Professor of international strategic research at the at the Communist Party’s central party school
Additional reporting: Ting-I Tsai
Q8) Is China’s perceived ability to pressure Pyongyang overstated by the international community? What level of influence do you believe Beijing actually has on Pyongyang’s behavior?
I think the U.S. should have put more effort into North Korea’s denuclearization. North Korea’s nuclear weapons are a serious issue for all the countries in Northeast Asia and the United States. Everybody should work together, especially the members of the Six-Party Talks.
China will not make any compromise on the nuclear weapons issue. There is no such possibility. China will stick with the policy of pushing for the denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, which is China’s bottom line. No matter what, there will be no change in this policy, and China will actively cooperate with other parties for the goal.
The U.S. has urged China to end its aid to North Korea, believing Pyongyang would be submissive. This is inaccurate: providing aid to Pyongyang is a complicated issue.
China has implemented UN sanctions, which are to punish North Korea, not to end the regime.
It is difficult to estimate China’s influence over Pyongyang. In the Kim Jong Il era, the two countries followed the practice of notifying each other on serious issues. But the ties are going through a relative low point, and there seems to be no such practice now. Hence, it is difficult to estimate China’s influence. For instance, we don’t want them to develop nuclear weapons, but they are still doing it. However, close economic ties do give China some leverage. When China implements UN sanctions, its effect is more significant than with other countries.
When China implements UN sanctions, its effect is more significant than with other countries.
North Korea is a sovereign country. And due to its Juche ideology, it hardly takes advice from any other countries. As a result, China has always been cautious, and generally avoided offering suggestions to Pyongyang.
China has indeed provided aid to North Korea for years, which has contributed significantly to North Korea’s stability. Now, unless there are some significant shifts, China is not willing to make any changes to the current policy.
A significant shift would mean North Korea aggressively escalating tensions on the Korea Peninsula, including aggressively pushing for its nuclear weapons plan and jeopardizing regional stability. China disagreed with the escalations in August (of this year) and March 2013, in which Pyongyang escalated tensions by (temporarily) abolishing the Armistice Agreement. It is not in China’s interest for there to be any war. China would reconsider aid should there be another Fatherland Liberation War (North Korea’s name for the Korean War).
… there is no way that China can stop a war should the two Koreas decide to go to a war.
China wants to maintain the status quo. But there is no way that China can stop a war should the two Koreas decide to go to a war.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons were a problem for the U.S. China was stupid enough to walk into Washington’s trap, making this problem its own. It had nothing to do with China.
In order to win the support of South Korea, China chooses to actively interfere the now. Could China make South Korea a closer friend? No. South Korea’s closest friend remains the Americans. There is no way to alter the structure of the U.S.-South Korean military alliance. Some might think China would be tougher after (South Korean) President Park (Geun-hye)’s attendance at the military parade, but I don’t think so.
What else can we do? We have exhausted all the options. How much tougher can Beijing be? And what kind of substantial pressure could anyone create? If there were any solution to change the status quo, I think Professor Zhang Liangui’s idea of striking is the only one. But no one can afford to carry out the plan. It is not in China’s interests when North Korea turns chaotic.
It’d be in the U.S.’s interests should the China-North Korea relationship collapse. I don’t understand why China shoulders the responsibility of solving the problem since China has no capability to solve it.
International society has over-estimated China’s influence on North Korea. China indeed has some leverage over North Korea, coming partly through their military-alliance accord, which makes North Korea think they have enough backup from China to challenge Western countries. Also, due to economic reliance North Korea thinks China would, in the end, support North Korea militarily.
However, some (People’s Liberation Army) forces have advocated revising the alliance accord lately. This would not happen easily, even now. Revising or abolishing the accord would leave North Korea to counter Western countries alone, which would lead to instability or regime collapse – this would damage China’s strategic interests. Economically, China is almost North Korea’s sole supporter. International society thinks North Korea would surrender once China halts the economic exchanges and supplies, but China’s strategy is not about making North Korea surrender.
China’s strategy is not about making North Korea surrender
China prefers to maintain regional stability and balance, which matters most to China. By looking at the current relationships in the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. has created a lot of pressure on China by implementing its “Pivot to Asia.” China is not that interested in altering the status quo. To China, the prime concern in dealing with the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons is stability and peace, but stability comes first. Therefore, since any economic sanctions could lead to North Korean instability, China’s implementation of the UN sanctions is quite limited.
We have seen the UN’s passage of several rounds of sanctions, but China hasn’t effectively implemented them. We are always worried about possible chaos in North Korea. China indeed has two major tools to punish North Korea, but would not use them readily. China has been more actively cooperating with South Korea economically and implementing the sanctions more aggressively since President Xi (Jinping) took power, but all these efforts are limited. In doing so, China is trying to convey it dissatisfaction with North Korea’s risky policy, but China also doesn’t want to create too much pressure, beyond Pyongyang’s threshold of tolerance. It is China’s dilemma.
In my opinion, I think the international community overstates China’s influence over North Korea to some extent.
With China rising rapidly, it has greater influence over Asia and even the world. But with the end of the Cold War, economic interdependence replaced ideology as a defining factor in East Asian relations and opened up new economic and political opportunities between South Korea and China. These opportunities came at the expense of North Korea, as Chinese leaders gradually found that mutual economic interests with South Korea outweighed long-standing ideological and personal ties with North Korea.
Chinese leaders gradually found that mutual economic interests with South Korea outweighed long-standing ideological and personal ties with North Korea.
Even though China has a traditional friendship with North Korea because of historical and geographical factors, their relationship is changing, and North Korea does not do what China wants it to do any longer. However, China also wants to develop a normal relationship with North Korea. But I think North Korea also realizes this and is attempting to decrease its dependence on China and develop its ability to be self-reliant. That, however, will be a long process and North Korea is likely to still need China’s support in international relations.
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