On 23 February 2017, the Korean Central News Agency published an article that condemned China’s newest economic sanctions against North Korea in a tone that Pyongyang had not used about Beijing since the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution.
“A neighboring country, which often claims itself to be a ‘friendly neighbor’, […] has unhesitatingly taken inhumane steps such as totally blocking foreign trade related to the improvement of people’s living standard,” KCNA argued.
“This country, styling itself a big power, is dancing to the tune of the U.S. while defending its mean behavior with such excuses that it was meant not to have a negative impact on the living of the people in the DPRK but to check its nuclear program.”
This verbal spat, foreshadowed by an earlier North Korean article that indirectly warned China against using the DPRK as a “playing card” vis-à-vis the U.S., flatly disproved expectations that Beijing’s unrelenting opposition to the deployment of THAAD in South Korea, combined with China’s stake in economic cooperation with North Korea, might lead to a Sino-DPRK rapprochement in the near future.
To be sure, China showed little inclination to respond to North Korea’s vitriolic words in kind.
On the contrary, an editorial published in Global Times emphatically declared that “Beijing is not the least bit interested in engaging or amplifying a verbal conflict with Pyongyang.”
Nevertheless, the very argument that Global Times used to explain China’s restraint touched a sore spot of the Sino-DPRK relationship: the vast imbalance of power between the two neighboring countries and North Korea’s comparatively low position on China’s geopolitical priority list.
“Beijing has so much power that it could easily just let this one go,” the editorial pointed out. Locked in a confrontation with Washington and Seoul, Pyongyang was unable to find a diplomatic counterweight against Chinese pressure, and thus China could afford to treat North Korea’s indignation with Olympian disregard.
Sooner or later, Global Times reasoned, a “rational attitude” would prevail in Pyongyang, and the isolated North Korean leaders would realize that they had no other option but to adapt to China’s preferences.
Actually, China’s ability (and willingness) to pursue its grand strategy in disregard of North Korea may have aggravated, rather than alleviated, the truculence of the Kim Jong Un regime.
As noted before, the KCNA accused Beijing of colluding with Washington against Pyongyang – a charge reflecting the uncomfortable fact that in Northeast Asian power politics, China could easily find alternative partners if its relations with one or another state became strained, but the DPRK could not.
China could afford to treat North Korea’s indignation with Olympian disregard
If truth be told, the North Korean leaders have mainly themselves to blame for this situation: their narrow-minded, zero-sum attitude greatly differed from China’s more holistic approach to the region’s problems. Still, it deserves attention that certain aspects of China’s Northeast Asian strategy effectively created a no-win situation for the DPRK, even if Beijing’s actions were not purposefully directed against Pyongyang.
During the last ten years, Chinese leaders have developed several alternative courses of action to cope with the often-changing diplomatic conditions in Northeast Asia, a region fractured not only by the recurrent inter-Korean conflicts but also by Sino-Japanese, Japanese-South Korean, Chinese-ROK, and Russian-Japanese disagreements.
Depending on the scenario they encountered at a given time, they repeatedly refocused their attention from one potential partner to another, particularly if they needed to forge alliances against a third power.
Unfortunately for the North Korean leaders, none of these Chinese policy alternatives was as compatible with their own objectives as they would have preferred, not the least because, in Beijing’s eyes, Pyongyang was not in the same league as Tokyo, Seoul, or Moscow.
One conception China pursued with considerable determination was the idea of Chinese-Japanese-South Korean trilateralism. From 2008 to 2012, the three heads of state regularly held trilateral summits, and in 2011, they set up a Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat. The massive volume of trade between the three countries created a basis for negotiations about a CJK FTA.
From a Chinese perspective, trilateralism offered a chance to improve Sino-Japanese relations and to make Tokyo’s foreign policy less America-centric. In 2013-2014, trilateral cooperation was gravely disrupted by Sino-Japanese and Japanese-ROK friction, but in November 2015, the three countries resumed the practice of holding trilateral summits.
The North Korean leaders have mainly themselves to blame for this situation
In periods of trilateral cooperation, the Chinese leaders had a big stake in ensuring the tranquility of inter-Korean relations, since a flare-up between North and South could endanger regional stability, and it carried the risk of causing friction between Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo. If Pyongyang did refrain from openly confrontational acts, China also appeared ready to engage the DPRK.
GETTING JAPAN ONSIDE
In recent times, Sino-North Korean relations have been the most harmonious in those periods when China pursued trilateral cooperation with South Korea and Japan (2008, 2011, and August-December 2015). For the Chinese leadership, the combination of trilateral cooperation and inter-Korean rapprochement was a win-win situation, as it facilitated Beijing’s efforts to maintain friendly relations with both Koreas. This is why, in November 2015, the Chinese Foreign Ministry welcomed the news that the two Koreas would hold vice-ministerial talks in December.
However, the North Korean leaders saw the issue of CJK trilateralism in a different light. Since they habitually opposed any sort of Japanese-ROK and Chinese-South Korean rapprochement, they resented the fact that South Korea played an important mediating role in the process of trilateral cooperation.
Trilateralism enabled the ROK to maintain cordial relations with its two big neighbors, and thus effectively enhanced South Korea’s bargaining position vis-à-vis the DPRK in the very same period when inter-Korean relations took a nosedive. Notably, the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat was set up in Seoul – a compromise solution that suited both Tokyo and Beijing, but hardly pleased Pyongyang.
While North Korea’s tacit adaptation to China’s trilateral strategy could have brought substantial economic benefits for the DPRK, the prospect of these benefits was ultimately insufficient to dissuade Pyongyang from confronting Seoul.
Actually, some of the belligerent actions North Korea took in 2010 and 2016 may have been deliberately aimed at disrupting Sino-ROK and Chinese-Japanese-South Korean cooperation, but even if they weren’t, they still threw a monkey wrench into Beijing’s plans.
“The Cheonan affair has already dealt a blow to Sino-ROK relations,” Zhang Liangui, a Chinese DPRK expert lamented in July 2010. “The ROK and Japan both would rely more on the U.S. and thus boost the triangular alliance.”
Sino-North Korean relations have been the most harmonious in those periods when China pursued trilateral cooperation with South Korea and Japan
“As a measure of defense, the DPRK would play the China or Russia card, and the idea of two opposing triangles may gain ground. All these would hinder the efforts to forge an East Asian community.”
SPANNER IN THE WORKS
On 24 August 2016, when the foreign ministers of the three East Asian powers were about to meet in Tokyo, North Korea tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile – an act that incurred China’s explicit disapproval.
A Chinese expert named Jin Qiangyi promptly concluded that the missile test was timed to coincide with the trilateral meeting, for “Pyongyang was intentionally creating favorable conditions for Seoul to deploy the THAAD system, which will definitely expand rifts between China and South Korea.”
Since the North Korean leaders had little reason to be satisfied with CJK trilateralism, one might assume that in 2013-2014, when trilateral cooperation was badly wrecked by the renewed Sino-Japanese and Japanese-ROK disputes, they found the new situation advantageous to their interests. Paradoxically, this was not the case.
In response to the challenge of Chinese-South Korean cooperation, Pyongyang largely maintained its hard-line position toward Seoul but re-examined its attitude toward Beijing and Tokyo
On the contrary, in this period Chinese-South Korean cooperation reached a particularly high level, much to the chagrin of Pyongyang. This consensus was based primarily on the two sides’ shared disapproval of Abe Shinzo’s nationalist and revisionist stance, but it was also directed against North Korea’s nuclear program.
In June 2013, Park Geun-hye selected China as the destination of her second overseas trip, but she refused to visit Japan. Anxious to isolate Abe (whom a Chinese cartoonist depicted skulking on the sidelines of a Sino-ROK summit), China readily reciprocated Park’s preference for Beijing over Tokyo by displaying a similar preference for Seoul over Pyongyang.
While earlier Chinese leaders had customarily visited the DPRK before traveling to the ROK, Xi Jinping paid a visit to South Korea in July 2014 but never visited North Korea. Chinese economic assistance to the DPRK seems to have been severely curtailed, which has had an adverse impact on the recently launched Hwanggumpyong-Wihwa project.
In response to the challenge of Chinese-South Korean cooperation, Pyongyang largely maintained its hard-line position toward Seoul but it re-examined its attitude toward Beijing and Tokyo.
In contrast with the situation in 2012 (when the North Korean media frequently covered the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and it did so from a pro-Chinese angle), in 2013-2014 the KCNA considerably reduced its references to this dispute, and if it did occasionally mention the topic, it seems to have done so mainly with the intention to create discord between Seoul and Beijing, rather than to express sympathy with China vis-à-vis Japan.
For instance, in October 2013 the agency alleged that Park Geun-hye “supported Japan in its moves to grab [the] Diaoyu Islands.” Still, this issue was not really suitable to provoke friction between China and the ROK, because Seoul carefully avoided taking sides in the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute.
After that North Korea tried a different tack, and entered talks with the previously reviled Abe administration – a strange bedfellow if ever there was one. Since Abe was similarly unnerved by the emerging Sino-ROK partnership, he made an effort to reach an agreement with Pyongyang about the long-festering issue of the DPRK-abducted Japanese citizens.
At the very same time when Xi Jinping visited Seoul, Tokyo announced the partial lifting of Japanese sanctions on the DPRK in exchange for a North Korean promise to reinvestigate the abduction cases. This Japanese gesture promptly incurred Seoul’s disapproval, but in the end the North Korean leaders could not draw substantial benefits from the short-lived Japanese-DPRK rapprochement.
EXPLOITING THE PAST
If neither CJK trilateralism or a Sino-ROK bilateral partnership was to Pyongyang’s liking, how about a situation in which China confronted both Japan and South Korea?
Faint signs of such a scenario started to appear shortly after the November 2015 trilateral summit, as Beijing received the Japanese-ROK “comfort women” agreement (28 December 2015) with mixed feelings. The Chinese Foreign Ministry voiced cautious optimism, but China Daily soon declared that Tokyo’s gesture was “not enough to signify Japan is ready to truly own up to its past.”
In July 2016, the U.S.-ROK agreement on THAAD further deepened the rift between China and the other two East Asian powers, for the Japanese government promptly welcomed Seoul’s step – a response that stood in a sharp contrast with Beijing’s furious protests. A Chinese observer charged that the Japanese government was also mulling to deploy THAAD, not so much as a shield against North Korean missiles but rather to “provoke China and North Korea” and thus justify Abe’s military build-up.
North Korea tried a different tack, and entered talks with the previously reviled Abe administration
On the very same day when Japan and South Korea signed an intelligence-sharing agreement (23 November 2016), the Chinese Foreign Ministry condemned this step on the grounds that it would “aggravate antagonism and confrontation on the Korean Peninsula.” GSOMIA, China Daily warned, would also create tension in Sino-ROK relations, “since the sharing of intelligence could relate to China.”
From a North Korean perspective, China’s opposition to Japanese-South Korean cooperation was at least potentially an advantageous development, all the more so because one could reasonably expect that Beijing and Pyongyang would see eye to eye as far as THAAD and GSOMIA were concerned. Indeed, North Korean propaganda frequently emphasized that THAAD was directed not only against the DPRK but also against China and Russia.
Nevertheless, China’s wrath over THAAD was not necessarily sufficient to bring about a genuine Sino-DPRK rapprochement, though the Chinese leadership did repeatedly express its dissatisfaction by blocking various UN Security Council resolutions about North Korea.
Ironically, the very fact that both Beijing and Moscow were dead set against THAAD made it less, rather than more, imperative for the Chinese leaders to reach out to Pyongyang.
Since Russia was a far more powerful and desirable ally than the DPRK, the Chinese government, having joined forces with Moscow, could easily afford to turn a cold shoulder to North Korea. Actually, the emerging Chinese-Russian partnership was directed not only against THAAD but implicitly also against Pyongyang.
During high-level Chinese-Russian talks – such as Wang Yi’s visit in Moscow (March 2016), Sergey Lavrov’s trip to Beijing (April 2016), the discussions of Kong Xuanyou and Igor Morgulov (July 2016), and the meeting of Yang Jiechi and Nikolai Patrushev (September 2016) –, the two sides repeatedly combined their criticism of THAAD with statements about their unwillingness to recognize the DPRK as a nuclear state.
This standpoint enabled the Chinese leaders to have their cake and eat it too. By cooperating with Russia, rather than North Korea, they could voice their resolute opposition to THAAD and simultaneously uphold China’s image as a responsible stakeholder. Furthermore, China could use the THAAD issue to reinforce the less-than-complete consensus between Moscow and Beijing. Since the Chinese leaders monitored Abe’s attempts to woo Russia with thinly veiled anxiety, they had good reason to contrast the idea of a joint Chinese-Russian front against THAAD with Japan’s pro-THAAD stance.
China’s wrath over THAAD was not necessarily sufficient to bring about a genuine Sino-DPRK rapprochement
In some cases, China’s efforts to appear as a responsible stakeholder induced Beijing to engage Washington at the expense of both Tokyo and Pyongyang. At the Obama-Xi Jinping summit of June 2013, the two leaders’ shared disapproval of Pyongyang’s belligerence helped them in reaching a rapprochement.
As a Chinese scholar named Wang Fan put it: “China’s participation in resolving the DPRK nuclear issue has helped propel China’s image as a responsible power committed to regional stability, and thus reshaped some US assumptions on China.”
Locked in a conflict with Tokyo, Beijing had a strong stake in projecting such an image, all the more so because the Abe administration did its best to portray China as a security threat. Considerations of this kind have influenced China’s foreign policies in the recent months, too. Following the election of Donald Trump, the Chinese leaders tacitly welcomed his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact they had regarded as an instrument of Obama’s “pivot to Asia” strategy. Since Japan had expected to play a major role in TPP, Trump’s action also pulled the rug from under Abe’s feet.
Rejoicing over this turn of events, Chinese cartoonists depicted Abe futilely trying to woo an unresponsive Trump. Anxious to drive a wedge between Tokyo and Washington, the Chinese leaders seem to have advised Japan to revive trilateral cooperation as an alternative to the now-defunct TPP, and at the same time engaged Trump. By imposing new economic sanctions on the DPRK, they could effectively refute Trump’s charge that China “won’t help with North Korea.” In this respect, Pyongyang’s furious accusations about Sino-U.S. collusion were not entirely off the mark.
The North Korean leaders seem to have become increasingly distrustful of their colossal neighbor
In the last analysis, we may say that the dynamics of Sino-DPRK relations has been considerably influenced by China’s interactions with other powers, of which South Korea was just one. Since the Chinese leaders pursued a multidirectional Northeast Asian strategy, and they flexibly adapted to the changing circumstances, their approach toward the two Koreas was substantially different from Pyongyang’s zero-sum mentality.
That is, the improvement of Chinese-ROK relations was not always accompanied by a deterioration of Sino-North Korean relations, and vice versa.
Such linkages did occur (for instance, in 2013-2014 Beijing embraced Seoul and turned a cold shoulder to Pyongyang), but the Chinese leaders were also capable of engaging both Koreas at the same time (as they did in 2008-2011 and the fall of 2015) or putting simultaneous pressure on North and South (as they have been doing since mid-2016).
Under such circumstances, the Sino-ROK conflict over THAAD might not necessarily induce China to seek rapprochement with the DPRK. Nor is it certain that North Korea’s increasing diplomatic isolation will make Pyongyang more susceptible to Beijing’s advice.
Overshadowed and bypassed by China’s grand strategic plans, the North Korean leaders seem to have become increasingly distrustful of their colossal neighbor. As early as 2003, Alexandre Mansourov pointed out that Pyongyang harbored strong doubts about Beijing’s security commitment to the DPRK, and therefore the North Koreans gave “lip service” to the Sino-DPRK partnership “with an attitude.”
By February 2017, these doubts reached such intensity that the KCNA’s article about China’s “mean behavior” was conspicuously devoid of any lip service – but it definitely copped an attitude.
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Featured Image: Arirang, Pyongyang by D-Stanley on 2010-10-08 16:02:57