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China and North Korea: A Puzzle of Sorts?

Dr. Raviprasad Narayanan was Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • June 29, 2005

    With its repeated admissions of an ongoing nuclear weapons development programme utilising highly enriched uranium, and with an alarmingly advanced missile launching capability, North Korea is at the fulcrum of a crisis that while raising the spectre of nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula also impacts the very foundations of security in northeast Asia. Despite this brinkmanship, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman assured on May 8, 2005, "our will to denuclearise the Korean peninsula and seek a negotiated solution to it still remains unchanged."

    Background to the Crisis

    The current crisis owes its origin to the unilateral withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by North Korea on January 10, 2003. Earlier, in 1993, Pyongyang had withdrawn from the NPT, setting the stage for the Agreed Framework of 1994. If the past is any indicator, the current impasse should give way to a new agreement that for all purposes is being held up by the inconsistent approach on the part of North Korean negotiators. By reneging on its multilateral commitments and increasing the stakes, North Korea has brought to the fore its core concerns vis-à-vis the United States, namely, recognition of North Korea's sovereignty by the U.S., a non-aggression pact, and no obstacles in its path of economic development.

    The DPRK’s formal decision to withdraw from the NPT triggered intensive diplomatic manoeuvres and actions by the US, China, Japan and South Korea to diffuse a nuclear crisis and head off an international disaster. Following the North Korean announcement (which came three days before the Chinese president was scheduled to meet with President Bush in Texas in 2003) China, in its first reaction, offered to work closely with the US to create a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. Beijing, then, publicly stated its position as follows:

    1. maintaining stability and peace in the Korean peninsula;
    2. Keeping the peninsula free from nuclear weapons;
    3. Using diplomatic channels to resolve the conflict and issues; and
    4. calling upon both North Korea and the US, to normalise their relations through constructive and fair dialogue among equals.

    China offered to provide a venue for both states to hold talks. The major Chinese concern focused on the possibility that Japan, South Korea and Taiwan would follow suit and acquire nuclear weapons, causing the nuclearisation of North-East Asia and the consequences that would follow.

    Despite the all-too-visible indications of public diplomacy involving, on the one hand, South Korea, Japan and the U.S., and, on the other, the subtle and not so subtle influence of Russia and China, the significant aspect that needs to be highlighted is the special equation China has with North Korea, and why any mechanism or framework to settle the crisis will have a dominant Chinese perspective.

    “Lips and Teeth”

    A relationship that in the 1960s and 1970s was described as “as close as lips and teeth” is going through a very severe test, with the strain most revelatory in China's official statements since the crisis unfolded in October 2002. To recall Beijing’s pique, a clear indication of China's official position on North Korea's nuclear programme was articulated by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesman during the summit of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders in Los Cabos, Mexico in late October 2002 that said "(We) emphasise that the Korean peninsula should be nuclear-free, and we hope peace and stability can be maintained on the Korean peninsula. We will use various means to express our position. This includes exchanges with North Korea where we will make clear our position," the spokesman, Kong Quan, said. Mr. Kong had made these remarks after the then Chinese President, Jiang Zemin, met his South Korean counterpart, Kim Dae-Jung, for talks where Pyongyang's secret nuclear programme topped the agenda. As far as China is concerned, the statement was unusual, as Beijing usually prefers not to criticise North Korea by name in order not to anger the unpredictable regime in Pyongyang. Mr. Kong added: "(As) a neighbour of the Korean peninsula, our view is that the problem should be solved through peaceful means and dialogue in order to protect the peace and stability of the area."

    The China – North Korea Relationship

    There is probably no aspect of China's external relations where the actual policy diverges from the declaratory policy as in the case of North Korea. The difference in large measure is due to the difficult character of the North Korean leadership and the strategic importance of the Korean peninsula. Conservative sections make out a case that in the event of the Sino-Soviet relationship becoming tense again, it would be very important for Beijing that Pyongyang does not "tilt" towards Moscow. The actual Chinese policy, clearly perceived as such by the North Korean leadership, is that Pyongyang should neither move militarily against Seoul, nor politically gravitate towards Moscow. Ironically, for the maintenance of these conditions, Beijing relies on the U.S. commitment to, and military presence in, South Korea. Also, in a doomsday scenario, were North Korea to attack South Korea, a contingency the Chinese regard as unlikely, Beijing would "oppose" such a move: whatever that means, it clearly does not mean support.

    On the other hand, Beijing plays an important role in "sustaining" North Korea economically with regular supplies of fuel, grain and other goods that in part redress the chronic shortages. Recent reports indicate the introduction of limited economic reforms in North Korea that have seen a dramatic rise in wages and in the price of essentials. Politically, China endorses Pyongyang's demand for an American withdrawal from South Korea and for a tripartite conference between the two Koreas and the U.S., on the question of unification of the peninsula.

    China's policy on the North Korean nuclear issue has been torn between its desire to support an ally and its desire for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. As one of its few allies during the Cold War, China traditionally supported North Korea in its ongoing confrontation with South Korea and the U.S. However, with the changed realities after the Cold War, China has shown a reluctance to come to North Korea's aid especially when it challenges international norms, particularly on nuclear proliferation. Some analysts believe this reluctance is based not only on China's desire to be perceived as a responsible international power, but also on the greater importance it now attaches to good relations with the U.S. and South Korea. Yet another reason is China's concern over the instability on the Korean peninsula, which might threaten its security interests.

    While the U.S. has continued to push China on North Korea, China has publicly stated that it is "genuinely committed to denuclearisation" on the Korean peninsula, and appears to be pursuing a policy of preventing North Korea from testing a nuclear weapon, while at the same time allowing North Korea to keep this threat active. This ensures that as long as ambiguity over its nuclear weapon program exists, outside states (read: U.S.) will be less willing to take military action against Pyongyang due to concern over its possible nuclear weapon capability. When asked by Washington to apply pressure on Pyongyang by cutting off energy and food supplies, China rejected the request, stating on May 10, 2005 that: "[T]he normal trade flow should not be linked up with the nuclear issue. We oppose trying to address the problem through strong-arm tactics." Washington was also told not to bring the issue before the U.N. Security Council, with the statement by Liu Zhaoxing that "[T]he six-party talks, and not the United Nations Security Council, are the right channel for addressing this issue." Liu also argued at one point that no country involved in the six-party talks should "say or do anything that is not in favour of continuing the six-party talks."

    China's dilemma on the current crisis is further revealed by its starkly divergent views on Iraq and North Korea. On Iraq, China has laid stress on the importance of the U.N. Security Council, while in the case of North Korea it has repeatedly called for direct dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington. While China and North Korea have engaged in some nuclear cooperation, its nature and comprehensiveness remain shrouded in secrecy. Even as early as the 1960s, China had refused to assist North Korea in developing a nuclear weapon. In 1987, it pulled out its nuclear technicians from North Korea when it discovered that Pyongyang was aggressively pursuing a nuclear weapons programme. In 1989, both China and the Soviet Union refused to assist the North Koreans in developing a nuclear reprocessing facility. During the 1993-94 North Korean nuclear crisis, in which North Korea refused to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections of its reactors and moved to withdraw from the NPT, China initially opposed the use of sanctions or other coercive measures to bring Pyongyang back in line with its NPT obligations However, Beijing soon changed its position from stating that it "would oppose" sanctions to saying it "would not support" sanctions — meaning that it would abstain rather than veto a U.N. Security Council resolution against North Korea.

    This shift is widely believed to have been instrumental in bringing North Korea around to accept the 1994 U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework, in which Pyongyang agreed to suspend its nuclear programme, shut down its graphite moderated reactors and related facilities, allow IAEA inspections, and abide by the NPT in exchange for light water reactors and heavy fuel oil from the U.S., Japan and South Korea. Of interest is the detail that China was not directly involved in the Agreed Framework, nor was it a member of the Korean Energy Development Organisation, the multilateral body created to implement the Agreed Framework.

    Beijing is also concerned that if the US-North Korea hard line policies escalate, a military showdown would become a possibility. Such a conflict would cause a massive flight of North Korean refugees into China, thus causing great economic burdens and disruption, especially at a time when China emphasises the need for a stable international environment to expand its trade, develop its technology and attract foreign investment. Furthermore, a post-war unified Korea under US military power would create a threat to China’s security itself, especially if the new Korea would inherit the North Korean nuclear facilities and weapons and become a nuclear power. This, coupled with rising Korean nationalism, could also threaten Chinese control over the Korean ethnic minority in Jilin Province of northeast China that borders North Korea.

    Although Beijing has many interests in diffusing the current nuclear crisis, it has yet to take a leading role instead of limiting itself to calling for dialogue and peaceful resolution of the conflict. The Chinese posses great economic leverage over North Korea and could help convince Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear military programme. Privately, however, the Chinese blame, in great part, the US for designating North Korea as a member of the ‘axis of evil’, consequently turning it into a potential target for US and international sanctions and possibly military action. Beijing also considers that Pyongyang aims at getting the US’s attention and to obtain security guarantees from Washington. China calls upon both, the US and North Korea, to return to the 1994 Agreed Framework and sit on the negotiating table to mutually save face. In addition, China hinted that if the North Korean nuclear issue was brought before the UN it could foresee serious dilemmas. It cannot remain indifferent, and not use its veto, nor comply with the imposed economic sanctions, even if North Korea remains intransigent and defiant. As a result, it is unlikely that China would, under these circumstances, apply any strong pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear policy.

    While China has reason to be concerned at the current tensions on the Korean peninsula, its position on the issue can be inferred from a comment made by its ambassador for Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs, Sha Zukang, in 1999: "Dialogue and consultation is the best way to reach consensus on problem matters. In the case of North Korea, which is a very proud country, sanctions can only prove counterproductive. We should recognise that North Korea has legitimate security concerns. We need to continue the dialogue and practice more patience... But as for initiatives on the part of China, we can't go into the kitchen and do the cooking when we don't know how to cook."