China’s Perspectives Towards the Korean Peninsula

By Yun Sun
in Program

By Yun Sun:

After two decades of efforts to engage China on the North Korea nuclear issue, Western observers are finally coming to terms with the fact that China’s policy towards the Korean Peninsula has its own logic and rationality is fundamentally different from theirs. As presented by the three Chinese experts in the new Stimson Center report released today Chinese Perspectives Toward the Korean Peninsula: In Light of North Korea’s Fourth Nuclear Test, China has and will continue to stand by its conventional wisdom of maintaining friendly ties with Pyongyang. The policy originates from a fundamental judgment about the geopolitical balance of power vis-à-vis the United States on the Korean Peninsula. While China’s rational approach is believed to have protected China’s perceived interests, its policy and goals are not short of inconsistencies, conflicts and a subordination of other countries’ national interests. While the approach is in line with China’s current assertive foreign policy style, it does raise critical questions about the kind of leadership China is developing and projecting.

China’s approach toward South Korea is a clear example at hand. In the aftermath of North Korea’s fourth nuclear test this January, China was so concerned about its own interests that it almost completely ignored South Korea’s legitimate concerns and demands. Despite the strenuous efforts of President Park to improve relations with China during the past three years, the Chinese president refused a direct phone conversation with her for a whole month for fear of creating an impression that China is now working with the ROK against Pyongyang. When South Korea, disappointed with China’s lack of cooperation, turned to the U.S. for consultation on THAAD for its own national security, China was immediately infuriated and began pressuring Seoul rather than blaming Pyongyang’s nuclear belligerence. China sees THAAD as a threat to China’s security. For that reason, it demands that Seoul sacrifice its own security.

While all countries seek to promote their national interests, being that self-centered comes with a cost. If China indeed wishes to turn South Korea into its pivotal state in Northeast Asia, it will have to be more responsive and responsible for Seoul’s legitimate national interests. China’s first instinct of course is to point fingers at the U.S. and the U.S.-ROK alliance for not helping South Korea on North Korea. As Chinese analysts have long argued, South Korea needs to show China a better and acceptable endgame on the Korean Peninsula for China to be on its side. However, by the same token, China has largely failed to give South Korea any endgame Seoul can aspire to. China takes comfort in the belief that South Korea cannot afford to confront China due to geopolitical reality as well as bilateral economic relations. And it does want South Korea to abandon the U.S. and be on China’s side. However, to the extent that there may be a limited opening to create tensions between Seoul and Washington, what Beijing has done only pushes South Korea further into the U.S. arms.

Although China really would like to see Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program eliminated, its position on dealing with the North Korean program is not impartial. Beijing has consistently argued that North Korea is developing nuclear weapons because it is insecure in the face of the hostile policies of the U.S. and the ROK. The position is convenient for China because it can easily turn the tables around and blame Washington and Seoul for Pyongyang’s bad behavior. However, the logic fallacy is that China intentionally ignores all other causal factors in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambition, such as its domestic politics, national pride, and its leader’s personal conviction. Chinese analysts widely acknowledge that Pyongyang very possibly won’t give up its nuclear weapons even with a peace treaty with the U.S. as being a nuclear power is already written into the country’s constitution. However, in official policy deliberations, that fact and how it should be handled are simply and conveniently ignored.

Understanding that Six Party Talks are unlikely to resume, China will prioritize the dual-track approach (parallel dialogues on peace mechanism and denuclearization) as the policy platform on the North Korea issue. This approach, as many observers have commented, is “old wine in a new bottle.” Beyond the fact that the dual-track approach will suffer from the same mistaken assumption about North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization, how it could be realistically implemented has been completely missing from the picture. If peace and denuclearization are intrinsically interlinked, how to handle them on two separate platforms by two different teams is an intellectually intriguing question to say the least.

China supported adoption in early March of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270, which imposed unprecedented sanctions on North Korea. Since then, Chinese government agencies have announced the implementation of the embargos on North Korea. But China has left considerable flexibility in the interpretation of items that will not be subject to the sanctions due to humanitarian reasons. Even more important, implementation of the sanctions, especially via border control, still is very much subject to China’s own discretion. There is no realistic expectation even in China that Beijing will permanently implement these sanctions strictly. Whatever China is willing to do is subject to its determination not to let Pyongyang falter. 

China continues to use North Korea as policy leverage in its grand game with the U.S. Chinese analysts have accused the U.S. and its allies of sending wrong signals by engaging North Korea after the adoption of UNSCR 2094 in March 2013, in response to the North’s third nuclear test. But China has done more this time. The Chinese national basketball team paid a high-profile friendly visit to Pyongyang in late May, followed by President Xi’s meeting with vice chairman of the Korean Workers Party (and former foreign minister) Ri Su-yong in early June. On the same day of this meeting, North Korea launched further missile tests but China said nothing. Also this month, China started to broadcast a TV show on the Korean War, which the People’s Daily hailed as “important and timely”. TV shows of similar themes in the past were taboo. Beijing’s intention is clear — to leverage North Korea against the U.S. (and South Korea for THAAD) in the context of heightened tension with the U.S. in the South China Sea.

All countries are selfish but no country can have it all. China wants South Korea on its side, but is unwilling to abandon North Korea for its strategic utility. It wants to undermine the U.S. alliances in Northeast Asia, but acts as if all countries should simply respect and embrace China’s vision even at the costs of their own national security. China might be right that it did not create the North Korea nuclear problem, but its self-serving approach certainly has hampered its solution. If China’s power and position still prevail in another five to ten years, as Chinese analysts believe, the future of other countries in the region may not be so promising.  After all, being a leader is not about doing only what’s best for oneself, but about doing the right thing even it is not in one’s immediate best interests. No one denies that China’s policy has sound logic based on legitimate interests, yet the belief that all others should succumb to it because it is China is not leadership, but naiveté.

Yun Sun is a Senior Associate with the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center.

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