China and the North Korean Succession

The North Korean Challenge is a Looming Threat to Global Stability (Credit image: Bigstock)
Dr. Richard Weitz (Credit: The Hudson Institute)

By Dr. Richard Weitz

01/07/2011 – The international community has looked to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to influence the North Korean succession process in ways that help end the protracted dispute over Pyongyang’s nuclear program and other threatening behavior.

The PRC is North Korea’s most important foreign diplomatic, economic, and security partner. Through the Six-Party Talks and other mechanisms, PRC policy makers have sought optimal outcome would be for the regime of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to relinquish its nuclear weapons and moderate its other foreign and defense policies in return for security assurances, economic assistance, and diplomatic acceptance by the rest of the international community.

Such a benign outcome would avoid the feared consequences of precipitous regime change—humanitarian emergencies, economic reconstruction, arms races, and military conflicts.

The Chinese have long opposed North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, if for no other reason than that its advent might induce South Korea, Japan, and even Taiwan to pursue their own nuclear forces, which under some contingencies might be used against Beijing as well as Pyongyang. Some Chinese, recalling their problems with Russia and Vietnam, worry that the DPRK might even threaten to use nuclear weapons against China in some future dispute.

The North Korean Challenge is a Looming Threat to Global Stability (Credit image: Bigstock)
The North Korean Challenge is a Looming Threat to Global Stability (Credit image: Bigstock)

PRC decision makers presumably also would like to avoid the negative reaction in Washington and other capitals that would arise if it became evident that Pyongyang had retransferred materials and technologies originally provided by China to third countries. There is evidence that North Korea has exchanged technologies useful for developing WMD and ballistic missiles with Pakistan, another Chinese ally, as well as with Syria and other countries of proliferation concern.

China’s leaders also fear that these ostentatious displays of North Korea’s improving missile and nuclear capacities will further encourage the United States, Japan, Taiwan and other states to develop missile defenses that in turn will weaken the effectiveness of Beijing’s cherished ballistic missile arsenal.

China’s increasingly sophisticated missiles represent a core element of its national security strategy. It has deployed over one thousand intermediate-range missiles within distance of Taiwan to deter, and if necessary punish, Taipei from pursuing policies objectionable to Beijing.

In addition, PRC strategists see their strengthening missile capabilities as a decisive instrument in implementing China’s anti-access/area-denial strategy against the United States. The Chinese military seeks the ability to target any American military forces, including aircraft carriers, which attempt to defend Taiwan or otherwise confront Chinese forces.

As a last resort, the PRC relies on its long-range strategic ballistic missiles to deter the United States from employing its own nuclear forces against China.

Despite their irritation with the DPRK regime, most Chinese officials appear more concerned about the potential collapse of the North Korean state than about its leader’s intransigence on the nuclear and missile questions.

PRC policy makers fear that the North Korea’s disintegration could lead to several negyative consequences.

  • Induce widespread economic disruptions in East Asia;
  • Generate large refugee flows across their borders;
  • Weaken China’s influence in the Koreas by ending their unique status as interlocutors with Pyongyang;
  • Allow the U.S. military to concentrate its military potential in other theaters (e.g., Taiwan);
  • Potentially remove a buffer separating their borders from American ground forces (i.e., should the U.S. Army redeploy into northern Korea).

At worst, the DPRK’s collapse could precipitate military conflict and civil strife on the peninsula—which could spill across into Chinese territory.  PRC policy makers have therefore consistently resisted military action, severe economic sanctions, and other developments that could threaten instability on the Korean peninsula.

To prevent these adverse outcomes, PRC policy makers continue to take steps to avert state failure in North Korea and counter other possible sources of chaos on the Korean peninsula.

China still provides the DPRK with essential supplies of food, weapons, and other economic and political support. According to one estimate, North Korea receives about half its food and almost all its oil imports from China. In 2008, trade between the PRC and the DPRK reached $2.79 billion, up 41.3 percent since 2007, making China the DPRK’s most important trading partner.  Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans reside and often work in China.  PRC enterprises also own substantial investment in North Korea.

Although China provides much economic and technological aid to the DPRK, presumably some economic transactions occur due to commercial considerations that provide some benefits to the Chinese partner.  These growing economic ties with the DPRK, as well as the PRC’s security and other interests in North Korea, give many Chinese a major stake in averting additional economic sanctions, not antagonizing the DPRK leadership to such an extent that North Korea might retaliate against Chinese economic interests, and above all avoiding regime change in Pyongyang.

This desire to avoid antagonizing Pyongyang partly explains why Chinese authorities continue their controversial policy of forcefully repatriating political and religious refugees from the DPRK. Official PRC policy treats all North Koreans who enter Chinese policy without permission as economic migrants. A bilateral treaty requires Chinese authorities to repatriate them to the DPRK. Fear of antagonizing North Korean leaders, along with a natural desire to avoid thinking about unpleasant outcomes, also explains why Chinese officials have declined U.S. proposals to discuss how their two countries might respond should Kim Jong Il be replaced.  Even PRC scholars are reluctant to engage in informal or track II talks with Americans or other foreigners about how the international community might respond to state failure in the DPRK for fear that the North Koreans would learn of the talks and respond provocatively.  American policy makers worry that, without such contingency planning, Chinese, U.S., and South Korean forces could inadvertently clash if they independently intervened in the DPRK following abrupt regime change there.

To limit external threats to the DPRK, Chinese government representatives have also consistently striven to downplay concerns about the extent of North Korea’s missile program as well as its nuclear activities, including evidence of the DPRK’s involvement in the proliferation of nuclear and other WMD technologies to third parties.

They depict Pyongyang less as a nuclear-armed rogue regime than as a potential failed state and humanitarian disaster.

They also argued that the United States and other countries would need to make some concessions to Pyongyang to secure North Korea’s denuclearization, rather than expect North Korea to disarm first before discussing the provision of any possible rewards. Along with South Korea and Russia, China has resisted imposing sanctions that could inflict severe harm on the fragile North Korean economy.

From Beijing’s perspective, an enduring and comprehensive agreement within the Six-Party process would serve many interests. These include:

  • Eliminating the problems that a North Korean nuclear arsenal would present for China; decreasing the threat of U.S. military intervention in a PRC border state;
  • Securing economic and other assistance for Pyongyang that could help avert DPRK state failure on China’s doorstep;
  • Helping to reinforce perceptions of Beijing as a committed and influential regional security stakeholder.

Although Chinese policy makers are comfortable working through the Six-Party Talks, they have also regularly encouraged direct dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang—the approach favored by North Korea—in pursuit of this goal. They have pressed U.S. and DPRK officials to make reasonable compromises and have criticized American and North Korean policies they consider overly confrontational or provocative.

The U.S. government has had only limited success in exploiting one of Beijing’s worst nightmares regarding North Korea—that Pyongyang’s nuclear detonations and missile launches would trigger an American military response that could threaten the PRC.

Several U.S. officials warned their PRC counterparts in January 2011, most notably before and during President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington, that the United States would deploy additional forces in East Asia, on both short-term exercises and long-term deployments, if North Korea continued to develop its capacity to threaten the United States.

During his trip to Beijing a few weeks before the Hu-Obama summit, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had explained that North Korea’s ability to produce nuclear weapons using its longstanding plutonium reprocessing and its newly unveiled uranium enrichment capacities, combined with continued progress in developing long-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching the continental United States, would soon expose Americans to the danger of nuclear missile strikes from North Korea.

The DPRK exploded nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009 launched long-range missile tests in 1998, 2006 and 2009, with each launch traveling farther than the previous one. If current trends continue, the DPRK will eventually be able to place a nuclear warhead on a functional intercontinental ballistic missile. Although the United States officially tolerates a mutual deterrence relationship with the PRC, along with Russia, such a relationship has always been excluded with North Korea. If the United States were to be vulnerable to a North Korean nuclear strike, then the credibility of its extended deterrence guarantees to its Asian allies would be called into question. South Koreans and Japanese could legitimately doubt that the U.S. officials would defend them against a DPRK attack if North Korea could destroy Los Angeles in retaliation. They could decide to acquire their own nuclear deterrent, whose use in response to an attack against them would be much more credible than that of a third party.

As Beijing well understands, a strengthening of the U.S. military alliances in East Asia would also enhance their capacity to counter China.

For example, the deployment of additional U.S. missile defenses, warships, and warplanes in the western Pacific region would also bolster the U.S. capacity to defend Taiwan and Japan from Chinese threats. Perhaps for this reason, the joint China-U.S. statement signed during Hu’s last visit to the United States expressed concern about the DPRK’s new uranium enrichment capacity, a subject the Chinese had previously avoided. But Beijing’s change of course has been limited. PRC officials have still not blamed the DPRK for the Cheonan attack, criticized the artillery barrage against Yeonpyeong Island, or demanded an end to its uranium enrichment program.

Beijing’s willingness to pressure Pyongyang to modify its policies is constrained by a fundamental consideration. PRC policy makers have found themselves cross-pressured in the case of North Korea. Although they would prefer that Pyongyang refrain from provocative actions, and would welcome a denuclearization and Korean peace agreement, they are not willing to impose substantial pressure on the DPRK regime for fear that it would collapse.

The DPRK’s sudden demise could lead to mass refugee problems, the end of a buffer state separating PRC territory from the American military, and the redirection of ROK investment flows from the PRC to North Korea, which would require a massive socioeconomic upgrading to reach ROK-levels as part of reunification.

Unlike most policy makers in Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington, PRC policy makers want to change Pyongyang’s behavior, not its regime.

Chinese officials remain more concerned about the potential collapse of the DPRK than about its government’s intransigence on the nuclear issue or other questions.

The Chinese government has accordingly been willing to take only limited steps to achieve its objectives.

These measures have included exerting some pressure (criticizing DPRK behavior and temporarily reducing economic assistance), but mostly have aimed to entice Pyongyang through economic bribes and other inducements.

Despite their frustrations with Kim Jong-Il, PRC policy makers appear to have resigned themselves to dealing with his son for now while hoping a more accommodating leadership will eventually emerge in Pyongyang. The PRC representatives flocking to Pyongyang are not trying to induce him to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons. They are seeking to ingratiate Kim Jong Un towards China for supporting him in a period of very difficult transition.