Diplomacy around North Korea is a result of neighboring nations’ varying motivations. For now, the most remarkable player is China, which accounts for 90 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade.
So, do other countries have a comprehensive understanding on China’s foreign policy?
Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said that China is essentially interested in implementing the recently passed UN sanctions on the North. Yet, to fully enforce them, she said international society needs to have the exact data for the trade.
In an interview arranged with the Asan Institute in Seoul, she told NK News the political implications of China opposing THAAD deployment in South Korea against the U.S.’s pivot to Asia, criticizing Beijing’s stubborn rejection of the U.S.’s suggestion of a briefing on THAAD. Despite this stiffness, China is trying to maintain a good relationship with South Korea and the U.S. all the while, she said.
“It wants to have good relations with South Korea, with the U.S. but it doesn’t want a hostile relationship with Pyongyang,” she said of Beijing. “A hostile relationship with North Korea could be dangerous for China.”
Still, Glaser indicated that prospects for dialogue with North Korea in the near future are bleak.
NK News: What do you think of Xi Jinping’s policy towards North Korea? Is it really working to contain North Korea’s threat and maintain the region’s stability, a priority for China in the region?
Glaser: Xi Jinping has inherited a very large challenge with North Korea. North Korea’s nuclear programs were already well underway and the Six-Party Talks had not met in a while. Xi Jinping did not put North Korea at the top of China’s agenda. I think he believed that unless the U.S. was ready to make North Korea a top priority, that China alone really could not make a difference. I think he was informed that the U.S. was not willing to engage in serious diplomacy with North Korea unless North Korea met very stringent conditions that the U.S. had set. I think that he ultimately decided to really continue the policy he inherited from (former President) Hu Jintao and, when North Korea conducted provocations, Xi Jinping certainly reacted somewhat more strongly than his predecessor.
I think (the Chinese) worry that South Korea and the U.S might seize that opportunity to intervene in North Korea to seek unification and that would create uncertainties for China
Xi Jinping has met with President Park (Geun-hye of South Korea) eight times while not meeting Kim Jong Un. I think that’s significant. Xi is sending a clear signal to Kim that he will not have business as usual with North Korea as long as they continue this nuclear weapons program. Beyond that Chinese interests have not changed, so even though we have a new leader who is somewhat more willing to put some pressure on North Korea, more willing to be active in foreign affairs in general, nevertheless China’s interest really are to preserve stability on the Korean Peninsula and I think there continue to be fears in Beijing about the consequences of chaos in North Korea.
I think they worry that South Korea and the U.S might seize that opportunity to intervene in North Korea to seek unification and that would create uncertainties for China that I think the Chinese are unwilling to accept. Would U.S. troops be north of the 38th parallel? Who would inherit the nuclear weapons? I think the Chinese continue to worry that South Korea may inherit those weapons and so the uncertainty that reunification would bring is something the China is unwilling to accept.
NK News: What do the U.S. and South Korea have to do to relieve China’s concerns? For example, is it possible for the U.S. and South Korea to promise not to place the joint army up on the 38th line?
Glaser: Well, I think that there should be conversations between the U.S. and South Korea on the one hand and China on the other, but I don’t think we should be making any particular promises. The situation would be very fluid if there is a need for U.S. forces to be north of the 38th parallel for some time. If there were to be chaos in the North, the joint forces would have to restore stability such as providing food and assistance to the people, and then we would have to identify where all the weapons of mass destruction places are located.
I think we have to be careful about promising too much too soon because there really would be a lot of work to do. But I think in China’s conversations with South Korea, they probably would like to hear from Seoul that the alliance would not be used to damage Chinese interests in the future and ultimately if Beijing and Seoul have a good understanding I think that will help the Chinese going forward. But the other contextual factor is the U.S. “rebalance to Asia.”
I think the Chinese fear the U.S. pressure seeking to prevent China from changing the status quo around China’s periphery, particularly in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. I think the Chinese are quite worried about the potential for North Korea disappearing as a buffer state between South Korea and China. I think Xi Jinping today believes that the prevailing status quo is more predictable and less dangerous than an uncertain set of changes in North Korea that could lead to pressures on Chinese interests.
NK News: Is there any correlation between China’s ambitions in the West Pacific region and North Korea? If not, what are the other factors which motivate China’s North Korea policy?
Glaser: I don’t think so. I think they are quite separate. China’s growing activity in the maritime space around China is motivated by many different factors. One is China’s growing capabilities, military coast guard capabilities that it just didn’t have until recent years. It is motivated by a desire to assert sovereignty in areas China has long claimed but hasn’t had the capability to enforce. It is motivated by the desire to allow the military to have more influence. Xi Jinping approved building the artificial islands because he needs popularity and the military’s support. This is restoring Chinese greatness. I don’t think North Korea, in particular, I see as part of that. I think this is more because it’s a general strategy to protect and advance Chinese interests around its periphery.
(The factors behind China’s North Korean policy are) the U.S. pressure around China. I think China needs security around its border. The U.S.-China relationship overall is a factor. For example, China will sometimes do more to put pressure on North Korea because the U.S. encourages it to do so. China wants North Korea to be a generally positive issue in the U.S.-China relationship.
When the fourth nuclear test took place and China’s immediate reaction was yes, China can condemn this, we can agree to a new UN Security Council resolution, but then Secretary of State John Kerry said we will not have business as usual and the U.S. started to pressure China to agree to a resolution that had serious sanctions that would harm North Korea economically. In the past China always opposed those actions and the fact China that agreed to many of these sanctions that the U.S. insisted on was in part because of Xi Jinping’s desire to have a good relationship with the U.S. So, China’s policy toward North Korea is in part a function of the U.S.-China relationship.
South Korea is also a very important factor for China in formulating its policy towards North Korea. I think that Xi Jinping has very clearly tilted in the direction of a better relationship with Seoul even though this has obviously been objected to by Kim Jong Un. North Korea is finding all sorts of ways to criticize China. They are not happy with China’s pressure on them and Xi Jinping’s close relationship with President Park. But I think that is also a factor when South Korea insists that China do more than I think Xi Jinping also has to respond to some extent. So I think this is also a factor and China has to balance all of these competing interests. It wants to have good relations with South Korea, with the U.S. but it doesn’t want a hostile relationship with Pyongyang. A hostile relationship with North Korea could be dangerous for China.
However, China will not agree to do something that it sees as harmful to its interests.
NK News: Do you mean THAAD?
Glaser: Well, that I don’t think it is so harmful to Chinese interests. The first level (of the opposition to THAAD) is political. China has made it quite clear for many years that it opposes U.S. alliances in Asia. In the mid-1990s the Chinese termed U.S. alliances in Asia “Cold War relics” and this was basically a rhetorical stance for a long time but now that China has more capability – diplomatic, economic and military capability – it seeks to weaken these alliances. Since it has forged better relations with South Korea, I think that China has begun to see the potential of weakening the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
I think their vision is to have all U.S. troops eventually off the Korean Peninsula. The U.S.-Japan alliance, China has not made much headway in weakening that alliance, but I think it sees it has made some progress with South Korea. So, if China agreed to deployment of THAAD in the peninsula this would be a setback of its policy for weakening the alliance. That’s the political layer.
In military and security terms, the Chinese fear the networking of missile defense systems. So, if THAAD were deployed on the peninsula, we would tell the Chinese this is only to be used against North Korea but they fear that this system could then be connected and networked with the systems that (are placed in) Japan and maybe even in Taiwan. So, they think this could be a regional or even global network.
China doesn’t believe that it would be a standalone system; they don’t trust us. Then another level of concern that is related to the military and security threat is whether or not the third system could weaken China’s nuclear deterrent; whether it could actually undermine that deterrent. So, apparently the THAAD system has a few different settings. It can have a short-range setting that is about 600km and be pointed at North Korea or it could have up to a 2,000km range. This is the radar called the TPY-2 and if it’s pointed to China it could see a very long distance.
Now, there is another aspect here, that a Chinese expert has argued that if China were to launch an ICBM that radar can distinguish between a nuclear warhead and decoys. Because China wants to ensure that it could penetrate missile defense systems in the United States. When they launch an ICBM they will release decoys so that a missile defense system cannot easily tell the difference between what’s fake and what the real nuclear warhead is; if in the boost phase, as this ICBM is taking off, if the radar can distinguish between the nuclear warhead and the decoys that could damage China’s ability to penetrate missile defense in the United States. So, they believe it has this capability and so they are worried that China is what they call their second-strike capability will be undermined, they will not have a reliable second strike capability against the United States.
Washington has offered, many times, briefings to the Chinese on the technical capabilities of the (THAAD) system, but China refused to accept debriefing
The last two things that I have mentioned which relate to the radar are issues that can be discussed between the U.S. and China and the U.S. has offered to have talks with China to see if China’s concerns could be reassured. We want to share with them some of the technical capabilities of this system and when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke in the U.S. he said it is reasonable for China to have its concerns addressed. Well, if it’s reasonable then China should agree to sit down with the U.S. and talk. Washington has offered, many times, briefings to the Chinese on the technical capabilities of the system, but China refused to accept debriefing. So, this suggests to me they really don’t want to be reassured, they just don’t trust us and they really want to put pressure on South Korea for political reasons.
It feels like China thinks every other country, every neighbor should have to take into account Chinese security interests when they make their own decisions and if China voices some objections about something a country is going to do then that country has to stop, have to take Chinese concerns into account. So the Chinese don’t say this very exquisitely, but I think they want this kind of difference from neighbors, China is the big country, China is dominant in this region, everyone is dependent on China economically and therefore they should all do the right thing and not damage China’s security interests.
This is like a test case for China to put pressure on South to say “no, it will not deploy THAAD.” It will be a big win for China and if South Korea makes the decision not to deploy it. I think will make South Korea vulnerable in the future. I believe South Korea should stand up to China and say our interests, South Korea’s security interests, have to come first and if there is a conflict between South Korea’s security interest and Chinese interests, South Korea’s security interests have to come first. North Korea’s threat is growing in exponential ways and China has to recognize that. So, I think the Chinese should accept a briefing and we should talk about how we could provide these reassurances to them.
NK News: Under this context, how can the U.S. and South Korea persuade China to strengthen the level of the sanctions against North Korea?
Glaser: China is a critical player in these sanctions and it is more critical than the U.S. and South Korea. The amount of trade that goes across the border is substantial, and particularly the export of coal and iron ore from North Korea to China, which the Chinese have agreed to stop.
We don’t have good data yet. This is (the) early days and I think we should try to convince the Chinese to provide the UN with data of their imports of coal and iron ore and to monitor the companies in China that in the past had been importing.
Now we move, really, to the monitoring enforcement phase and I do think we have to try and convince the Chinese to provide us with data so we know what’s going on and then we have something we can try and compare with, maybe, other sources if they don’t match up then we can go back to China and say “you haven’t exported or you haven’t imported any coal but we think this amount of coal has entered your boarder,” and I think we really do have to deal with it through the use of data because we can’t simple talk at the level of 33,000 feet and say, “Are you importing coal or not?” The Chinese say no and then there (are) other pieces of information that suggest otherwise. It might take time for China to shut down all of the banned activity. There may be banks that pop up somewhere in Dandong or one of these other border cities and the Chinese are going to have to monitor this very closely.
I think the intention of Beijing it to implement these sanctions. We have heard this now at very high levels, Xi Jinping when he met with President Obama at the nuclear security summit at the end of March did state that this is something the Chinese take seriously, that they are going to abide by these sanctions. We have to make sure that China is actually creating the capabilities to enforce themselves because you can have the leader say something at one level and a local official does something, a local government looks the other way.
There are loopholes in China’s new document that the ministry of commerce released. One loophole I think is that humanitarian concerns can enable the export of something to North Korea.
NK News: How can the sanctions be effective, under what conditions?
Glaser: We have to make sure we are getting data that they are monitoring it and we probably won’t know for many months, maybe even longer than six months or even a year, as to whether or not these sanctions are having an effect on North Korea. It will certainly not change North Korea’s behavior if there are all these gaps, so we have to make sure China is implementing them.
We need to cut off the access of the elite to the kinds of things that make their life pleasant, these luxury goods we have never actually enforced the ban on luxury goods. You can buy anything in North Korea. I have stood along that border on the Chinese side and watched luxury cars drive across the border with no license plates, which means they are not coming back they are just going to North Korea. People who live there tell me you can buy wine from anywhere in the world. If you have money you can go in shops, you can buy everything.
We have to find ways to cut off access of the elite to the international banking system, we have to make their lives tough, and I think the decision to ban the export of coal and iron ore is particularly critical and we can’t do it without China. China is so critical in this regard and then we can look back six months a year from now and then we can have a serious discussion on whether sanctions are working or not but we have never tested this proposition and I think we have got to stay the course for the time being.
China will probably try to monitor stability in North Korea and if they think that these sanctions are causing instability then their own enforcement will probably be somewhat lax
One concern that I have is (that) the Chinese prioritize the preservation of stability. China will probably try to monitor stability in North Korea and if they think that these sanctions are causing instability then their own enforcement will probably be somewhat lax or they will pull away from the enforcement. When the U.S. has pressured China to stop giving oil to North Korea, it has always refused and the most it has done has been to suspend oil delivery for a few days but it has never stopped sending oil because that could likely cause an economic collapse in North Korea. These are Chinese interests, stability must be preserved.
NK News: Last February the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested peace talks. What is the exact content of this suggestion?
Glaser: I think the Chinese are frustrated with the lack of diplomatic progress. They know they can’t force North Korea to denuclearize and the U.S refuses to resume talks. The Chinese have tried to convince the United States to lower the bar for talks, to agree to a freeze on nuclear weapons and resume the Six-Party Talks and the U.S. has adamantly opposed this. I think the Chinese approach has been to try to get the U.S. to do something that North Korea wants.
This is similar to the role that the Chinese played in 2005, for the September 19 Joint Statement. In that agreement you can see things that address the U.S.’s concerns and as well as North Korea’s concerns. There was a mention of a light water reactor, for example, and the U.S. had strongly opposed that but that was giving North Korea something. This is similar.
China tries to think what it can give North Korea and give the U.S. that we can move the situation forward so we can make some progress because there has been such a stalemate. So, the U.S. has in the past not opposed a peace treaty and we had talked when the Six-Party Talks were underway, they were the different groups one of the subgroups was to talk about Northeast Asia peace and stability and we talked about the peace treaty. I think the China believes this is reasonable and the U.S. has never opposed signing a peace treaty with North Korea – of course, with other actors as well.
But the sequence is what China and the U.S. disagrees (on). So, the U.S. continues under the Obama administration to insist on North Korea returning to its commitment under the September 19 Agreement explicitly saying denuclearization is the final go and to-date North Korea refuses to do that. When North Korea has met with Americans sometimes in other cities, they have explicitly said that they will not return to that commitment, that they will be a nuclear weapons state that they already are and that other nations must accept North Korea as a nuclear power.
Under those circumstances the U.S. is unwilling to engage in talks on a peace treaty. So, I don’t know what China has in mind (when they) say they are open to any shape of the table. They want to start talks on a peace treaty because they think they can help deliver the United States to give North Korea one thing that it wants, then maybe they can convince North Korea to give the U.S. what it wants. It’s quite similar the way they have approached this issue in the past.
However, I don’t think they are going to (start the talks). I am very pessimistic – very unlikely – because North Korea refuses to return to its pledge to denuclearize.
Photos courtesy of the ASAN Institute.