North Korea held its Seventh Workers’ Party Congress last week. The primary focus of the Congress was to consolidate Kim Jong-un’s domestic power base and clarify the policy direction for the country’s future development. Based on the statements released from the Congress, North Korea continues to seek nuclear power status, which runs in conflict with the push for its denuclearization by the international community, including China. Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory letter to Kim on gaining his new title of Chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party. Nevertheless, the rifts between China and North Korea do raise questions about the future of the relationship. Although North Korea has grown increasingly defiant and assertive vis-à-vis China, Beijing is unlikely to abandon its unbecoming ally.
When the world takes a hard look at the realistic possibility of the denuclearization of the pariah state, there are not that many options. Regime change or the long-speculated collapse of the North Korean state seems unlikely in the near future, as Kim Jong-Un consolidates his domestic power base and even adopts some economic reform. The military option cannot be taken lightly given the damage Pyongyang can inflict on American allies and the uncertainty of creating a humanitarian crisis. Negotiations are unappealing since North Korea has repeatedly shown little real intention to denuclearize and has simply used negotiations to extract economic benefits, such as aid from international donors.
Given the lack of appeal or practicality of all these options, the international community usually turns to China. China has been the largest economic supporter of North Korea, sending food and energy supplies that are perceived to be the life support of Pyongyang. Beijing has also provided political protection for North Korea, diluting UN sanctions resolutions and undermining the military pressure by the U.S. and its allies. It is believed that if China can be convinced to turn against North Korea, or at the minimum, punish North Korea meaningfully for its provocations. North Korea will either succumb to the international pressure or implode. Either way, it would solve the problem at hand.
Much effort has been made to enlist Chinese support. Arguments have been to make it crystal clear that North Korean nuclear provocation is fundamentally against China’s national interests: North Korea defies China’s preference for regional stability; the danger of a nuclear disaster given the closeness of its test sites to the Chinese border; the enhanced U.S. security presence in the peninsula necessitated by North Korean actions; the deployment of missile defense, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD); a potential North Korean refugee crisis; and the international pressure on Beijing to be “responsible” and not “enable bad behaviors.”
Yet the hoped for change of heart by China has not come through. China continues to support North Korea economically and is unwilling to meaningfully punish North Korea for its nuclear provocations. Although China supported an unprecedentedly harsh U.N. sanction resolution this March due to international pressure, it remains clear that China will not push North Korea over the edge. Instead, Beijing proposed a “dual track” approach, where peace treaty talks with the North would proceed simultaneously with denuclearization negotiations. For many Western observers, the approach is nothing more than a new bottle for the old wine in order to give North Korea the legitimacy and security that it does not deserve without the necessary commitment or action to facilitate its denuclearization.
Despite the ostensibly endless leniency China is willing to extend to North Korea, one thing is for sure: China is displeased, and the displeasure has been growing under President Xi Jinping since his inauguration in 2013. Xi is reported to be annoyed by the “tail wagging the dog” and by North Korea endangering China’s national security in a reckless pursuit of its own security. Despite the still effective Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, which commits China to military and other assistance to North Korea against any foreign attack, Beijing has been trying to portray the bilateral relations as a normal “country-to-country” relationship rather than the military allies that they actually are. Of course, part of the rationale for Beijing is to mitigate the responsibility it has to carry its ally through its self-made tribulations. However, it also raises curious questions about the future outlook of the alliance. Xi and Kim have yet to pay an official visit to each other, which is a rare situation in the history of the alliance.
Anyone who wants to change China’s behavior on North Korea will have to first understand China’s security assessment regarding the Korean Peninsula. From the Chinese perspective, North Korea is not, and probably will never become, China’s largest national security threat. That role is reserved for the United States. The U.S. rebalancing to Asia and the existence of its security alliance in the region make China increasingly anxious and concerned about U.S. strategic intentions toward China. This is of particular concern given President Xi’s ambitious, assertive foreign policy to “rejuvenate the Chinese nation.”
In the Chinese view, if China’s rise will inevitably clash with the U.S. dominance in the West Pacific, helping the U.S. and its allies to resolve the North Korean threat (and facilitate the unification of the Korean Peninsula under South Korean leadership) will not only deprive China of an ally and all the policy leverage it can extract, it will also strengthen the U.S. regional alliance that will potentially “target” or “affect” China in the future. Since the end game of that scenario in the Korean Peninsula creates a bigger threat for China, the question for Beijing is why should China help the U.S. and South Korea on North Korea, if it is against its own security interests?
North Korea is China’s unbecoming ally. Unbecoming, yes, but an ally, nevertheless. In the broader context of U.S.-China structural competition, people might as well understand that North Korea is only a piece in the great game. Without an answer to the strategic question at hand, the North Korea problem may simply have no solution in the foreseeable future.
This article originally appeared in The Cipher Brief, on May 17, 2016.