2012-12-21 by Richard Weitz
As soon as North Korea had announced its plans to launch another nuclear test, Chinese officials had expressed “deep concern” and had dispatched a senior official to lobby against the test on behalf of the new Chinese leadership headed by Xi Jinping.
Although Pyongyang ignored these warnings, the Chinese government has since protected the DPRK from new UN sanctions and other punishment.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei expressed “regret” that the launch occurred “in spite of the extensive concerns of the international community” — the first time the Chinese government had used that word in referring to North Korea’s missile program. He also affirmed the authority of the UN Security Council to restrict the DPRK’s rocket launched.
Yet, Hong added that Beijing “believes U.N. Security Council reaction should be prudent and moderate and conducive to maintaining stability and avoiding escalation of the situation.” Writers in China’s state-controlled media have since called for resuming the 6-Party Talks that have been seeking a negotiated solution to the North Korean problem for almost a decade.
If the timing of the DPRK satellite launch was a surprise, Beijing’s refusal to take any strong measures against it was not.
China-DPRK ties remain strong despite the change in senior political leadership in both countries.
Earlier this year. Jang Song-thaek, director of the central administrative department of the DPRK’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, went on a six-day visit to China designed to revitalize economic relations between the two governments. The PRC Ministry of Commerce issued a statement affirming that Chinese investment in the DPRK and other economic links between the two countries would increase considerably in coming years.
The two governments have reaffirmed their determination to develop two special economic areas–the Rason Economic and Trade Zone and the Hwanggumphyong and Wihwa Islands Economic Zone–created to entice foreign direct investment to the DPRK.
The Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) estimates that Sino-DPRK two-way commerce reached a record $5 billion in 2011. The PRC’s main exports included automobiles, minerals, and machinery to North Korea while importing minerals, timber, and natural resources from the DPRK, including growing quantities of the so-called rare earth metals considered of possible strategic trade significance. China also provides the PRC with unilateral food aid, fuel, and emergency humanitarian assistance.
Some of the PRC’s independently minded state-owned enterprises also supply dual-use assistance to the DPRK that can strengthen the North Korean military. For example, earlier this year, the DPRK paraded new transporter erector launches for its missiles that appear to have been supplied by China’s Wanshan Special Vehicle Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of the politically influential China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. In April 2012, U.S Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told Congress that the U.S. government has evidence that the DPRK missile program continues to receive some PRC help despite UN sanctions against such assistance.
The collapse of the DPRK’s economic relations with South Korea, whose conservative government has cancelled many bilateral commercial projects due to objections regarding North Korea’s obnoxious foreign and domestic policies, has reinforced the PRC’s economic primacy in the DPRK. The two leading candidates to replace President Lee Myung-bak have both said they that they would like to improve relations with the DPRK, while insisting that North Korea must improve its behavior.
Nonetheless, it took several months for high-level meetings to occur between senior PRC policy makers and the new third-generation leadership that has taken charge in Pyongyang following Kim Jong-il’s death last December.
During his last year in power, Kim Jong-il, who disliked travelling, made three visits to China in what appears to have been an effort to secure Beijing’s acceptance of his plans to transfer power to his youngest son, who is thought to have been be in his twenties.
For the past few years, PRC diplomacy has unsuccessfully sought to revive the Six-Party Talks on Korean denuclearization, which have not met since late 2008. Beijing has also proved unable to dissuade North Korea from launching its long-range rocket tests despite UN Security Council resolutions, supported by China, prohibiting North Korea from testing potential ballistic missile technology.
Before the April 13 launch attempt, PRC diplomats held emergency talks with the DPRK Ambassador to the PRC, DPRK Vice Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, and other North Koreans as well as additional foreign representatives. Earlier this month, China sent a high-level official to Pyongyang in an attempt to convince North Korea from conducting another missile test. These efforts failed. Among other problems, the launch became a prestige issue for the North Koreans, who were using it to mark important national anniversaries.
As in similar crises in 2006 and 2009, Chinese representatives criticized Pyongyang’s actions but also those in Washington and Seoul who called for a sterner response. PRC representatives have urged restraint following both launches. The Chinese government signaled its displeasure to Pyongyang at the April launch attempt by, for instance, permitting five DPRK refugees who had been confined to the ROK diplomatic mission to Beijing to finally take up asylum in South Korea.
But Beijing blocked new Security Council sanctions in April and would consent only to the Council’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. Following the failed missile test in April, Beijing accepted only three of the 40 financial, business and other entities that the United States wanted to add to the list of sanctioned DPRK institutions.
Chinese officials may be seeking to avert another DPRK nuclear test. The crises triggered by a long-range DPRK missile test in 2006 and 2009 were soon followed by North Korean tests of nuclear explosive devices. The DPRK may have been preparing for such a test this spring as well as in recent years, but Pyongyang has not conducted a third nuclear test. The DPRK has also not engaged in the kind of violent provocations seen in 2010, allowing Pyongyang to launch its missiles without triggering a sharper international response.
China has only agreed to adopt UN resolutions imposing sanctions on North Korea after Pyongyang tested its nuclear weapons, not its missiles. (Outside analysts do not believe that the PRC has been enforcing the sanctions against selling luxury goods to the DPRK leadership.)
PRC officials 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.
Through the Six-Party Talks and other mechanisms, PRC policy makers have sought to induce the 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. PRC pressure may explain why Pyongyang has not yet tested a nuclear explosive device in 2012.
Yet, Beijing’s willingness to pressure Pyongyang to modify its policies is constrained.
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 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); and 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.
The PRC 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.
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