The PRC Plays Both Sides: Condem But Support North Korea


2012-11-09 by Richard Weitz

The PRC has pursed both condemnations of North Korean policies with concerted support for North Korea that effectively undercuts the ability of outside powers to make that condemnation real. 

And the PRC as a major developer and exporter of missiles for the global market, de facto, share common interests with North Korea on keeping that market open.

PRC policy makers have long opposed North Korea’s acquiring nuclear weapons or testing long-range ballistic missiles because these actions encourage other countries to develop nuclear weapons and missile defenses that negatively affect China’s security.

They fear that North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons 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.

(Credit Map: 2010 Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China)
(Credit Map: 2010 Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China)

PRC decision makers presumably would also 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.

Chinese 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 ballistic missile arsenal.

The PRC’s increasingly sophisticated missiles represent a core element of its national security strategy.

Beijing 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.

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. These have included the initial North Korean and Americans decisions to abandon the 1994 Agreed Framework in 2002, U.S. resistance to engaging in direct talks with their DPRK counterparts, North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, and U.S. statements in favor of regime change in Pyongyang.

Yet, 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 like missile testing, 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 would induce widespread economic disruptions in East Asia; generate large refugee flows across their borders; weaken China’s influence in the Koreas by ending Beijing’s unique status as interlocutors with Pyongyang; allow the Pentagon to concentrate its military potential in other theaters (e.g., Taiwan); 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; and potentially remove a buffer separating their borders from U.S. 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.

The Chinese government has 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 unease with the Kim dynasty in Pyongyang, PRC policy makers appear to have resigned themselves to dealing with this regime for now while hoping it will gradually reform over time into a more stable, less troublesome, but still pro-Beijing state.

From the Chines perspective, the Koreas are part of their own close in defense areas and central to their evolving defense strategy. Credit Image: The Economist

As in similar crises in 2006 and 2009, Chinese representatives criticized Pyongyang’s April 2012 launching of a long-range “rocket” in violation of UNSC sanctions but also attacked those in Washington and Seoul calling for a hard-line response.

PRC representatives urged restraint, blocked new Security Council sanctions, and would consent only to the UNSC’s rotating president making a statement that criticized the launch and instructed the Council’s sanctions committee to look for more measures to apply against the DPRK, which Beijing could use initially to pressure the DPRK from engaging in further provocations but later veto as required. PRC representatives may claim credit for having averting a third DPRK nuclear weapons test. The previous two crises triggered by a DPRK missile test, in 2006 and 2009, were soon followed by North Korean nuclear tests. The DPRK seemed to be preparing to conduct a third nuclear test in the summer of 2012, but none occurred.

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 despite their inevitable execution or imprisonment.

Official PRC policy treats all North Koreans who enter Chinese policy without permission as economic migrants. A bilateral treaty requires the PRC authorities to repatriate them to the DPRK, despite this provision being in violation of international law. North Koreans trying to escape must do through the DPRK-PRC border, by crossing the Tumen and Yalu Rivers into China, since the demilitarized zone between the Koreas, even the sea route, is even more tightly sealed. A 2005 Chinese police document cited in the book estimated that more than 400,000 North Korean refugees were then living underground in the PRC. Many probably fled to escape the famine.

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 Chinese scholars are reluctant to engage in Track II or other informal talks with 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 in the making.

The Chinese government has never committed to the demanding U.S. goal of “complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament,” at least as a near-term goal. PRC officials generally depict ending the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program as a long-term objective that may require accepting a North Korean ability to continue some nuclear activities, despite such activities their giving the DPRK at least a limited inherent nuclear weapons capacity. 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.

This line has continued despite the change in government in Pyongyang.

“Seoul, Tokyo and Washington are hoping China exert more pressure on North Korea,” writes a March 2012 commentary in The People’s Daily.

“They are counting on the fact that China can eventually bring Pyongyang to its knees.” But the article counters that, “As long as South Korea, Japan and the US do not give North Korea a sense of security, it will not stop lashing back at them.”  To promote an exclusively peaceful dialogue, Beijing has regularly warned Washington and its allies not to use or threaten to use force and to eschew any provocative actions regarding North Korea.

For example, after Kim Jong-il died, the Chinese government, concerned about the volatility of the new DPRK leadership, summoned the ambassadors of governments involved in the Six Party Talks and told them not to provoke the new Kim Jung-un team at this delicate time.

PRC analysts seem to expect that the DPRK leader will remain inwardly focused during the next few years and that trying to press Pyongyang to make too many concessions too quickly could backfire.