Submitted by Keridwen François-Merlet

For many decades, North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), has been one of the hot spots of the planet because of its illegal nuclear development program. China, or the People’s Republic of China (PRC), has been the DPRK’s best (and only) ally since the division of the Korean Peninsula in 1945. It has long been perceived as the lifeline of North Korea, undermining the effect of international sanctions intended to punish it for the development of its nuclear program. China has therefore been considered as an obstacle for the purpose of addressing the nuclear issue, possibly reuniting the Korean Peninsula, and thereby getting rid once and for all of this Cold War legacy.

But whose standpoint is this actually?  Are China and North Korea alone against all other countries in their perception and handling of the issue? Why is China always in the way when “reasonable countries” try to solve problems in a reasonable manner? Let’s try on China’s glasses for a moment and think seriously about what we would do if we were in its shoes.

Origins of the North Korean nuclear program and negotiations on denuclearization

Although North Korea started building nuclear facilities in the 1980s, it ratified the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985. On October 21, 1994, North Korea signed the so-called Agreed Framework with the United States, in which it accepted inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN agency in charge of overseeing the enforcement of the NPT, and the freezing of its nuclear program in exchange for aid and oil. However, the discovery of a secret uranium enrichment program by US intelligence services finally caused the Agreed Framework to collapse in 2003. North Korea acknowledged the reactivation of nuclear plants, expelled IAEA inspectors and monitoring equipment and withdrew from the NPT. That same year, the Six-Party Talks started in Beijing, chaired by China, involving the two Koreas, the US, Russia, and Japan, and aimed for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.  Although some progress was made at first, in October 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, resulting in the first out of a total of nine UN Security Council resolutions to condemn its nuclear and ballistic missiles test and implement ever harsher sanctions. North Korea finally walked out of the Six-Party Talks following UNSC sanctions after its second nuclear test in May 2008.

Latest developments: Trump diplomacy and inter-Korean rapprochement

Since then, the parties regularly called for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks without success, and North Korea continued building up its nuclear program. There was a shift in US policy when Trump took office in 2017, in the midst of numerous missile and nuclear tests by North Korea and corresponding additional UNSC resolutions and sanctions. Both leaders engaged in mutual threats of nuclear strike. In 2018 however, diplomatic overtures were made between South and North Korea around their joint participation in the Winter Olympic Games hosted by South Korea in Pyeongchang in February 2018 and inter-Korean relations subsequently began to warm up. After a complete change of tune in Trump’s rhetoric, which gave up the condition of prior denuclearization for dialogue with the DPRK, a meeting between Trump and Kim took place in Singapore on June 12, 2018, where they signed a joint statement pledging denuclearization of the peninsula. However, negotiations are currently in a dead-end after the February 2019 summit in Vietnam because of disagreements over sanctions relief and verifications.

China’s views and interests in the issue

China’s stated policy aims at denuclearization, peace and stability on the peninsula, to be reached through dialogue and negotiation. China condemns the nuclear tests conducted by the DPRK in violation of international sanctions and calls on all parties for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks. Although denuclearization is the ultimate objective, stability comes first for China who fears a destabilizing refugee influx in case of regime collapse in the DPRK. This would foster social instability in the border region and add a social and economic burden on China. 

Moreover, if North Korea were to disappear, so would disappear the buffer between China and the US sphere of influence in Northeast Asia. China wants to avoid a pro-Western unified Korea with US troops at its border. Directly linked to this issue is the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system by the US in South Korea in 2017, to which China repeatedly opposed itself: it considers that this system exceeds ROK security needs and upsets the strategic balance in the region, reducing the Chinese nuclear deterrent by enabling the US to gather more information about its capabilities. It also fears that the military cooperation necessary for the operation of THAAD would strengthen the bilateral and trilateral alliances the US had with Japan and the ROK. In a nutshell, China wants to avoid the situation where  an unstable situation on the Korean Peninsula is used as an excuse by the US to increase its military presence in Northeast Asia  in an attempt to contain China.

China-DPRK relations and China’s role in solving the issue

China and the DPRK are historically allied and bound by a Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance signed in 1961, where China commits to protect North Korea in case of unprovoked aggression. China has for a long time appeared as the backer of the DPRK against US and international pressure and sanctions. It nevertheless took a leading and constructive role in negotiations on denuclearization with the Six-Party Talks. Besides, China voted all UNSC resolutions starting in 2006 condemning successive North Korean nuclear tests and showed goodwill in implementing ever-stricter sanctions, although loopholes were regularly revealed and raised doubts about China’s willingness to cooperate with the international regime. In 2016 and 2017, amidst numerous missile and nuclear tests in North Korea and UNSC condemnations, bilateral relations have become more strained. In China’s leadership internal debate, those seeing North Korea as a burden rather than an asset have gained momentum: there is fear about the DPRK being used as an excuse for stronger US involvement in the region, unwillingness to be dragged into a military conflict, consideration of a nuclear North Korea sparking a nuclear race in Northeast Asia, as well as a negative public perception of North Korea’s repeated violations of international sanctions.

However, given that North Korea’s economic trade happens almost exclusively with China, the impact of strict implementation of economic sanctions by China has a huge potential for destabilization. Once again putting stability first, China refuses to trigger a humanitarian crisis in the DPRK and stops short of cutting off the country’s lifeline. Moreover, China considers North Korea’s security concerns as legitimate and originating in hostile US policies, and it perceives the international sanctions regime as a means for the US to expand its influence in the region and keep China at bay. Bilateral relations have recently warmed up, with both countries’ leaders Kim and Xi meeting five times in 2018 and 2019. Both countries celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK as well as the regime’s strategic shift from the nuclear program to economic development, with Kim affirming its willingness to follow in China’s development footsteps. 

On the importance of looking at the world with different glasses

These recent meetings happened in the context of warming inter-Korean relations, as well as the stalemate in direct US-DPRK dialogue. The US-China trade war and tensions between the US and its Northeast Asian allies because of security burden-sharing also stand in the background. In such a context, it is especially important to consider the point of view of the various stakeholders, and not only the usual US and Western ones. After all, no resolution of the issue is possible without taking into account all of their concerns and interests. 

Japan and South Korea each have their own views and priorities, which are not always aligned with the US, especially at the moment. China, as we have seen, has very good reasons to behave the way it does, namely to refrain from implementing strictly international sanctions and to support the DPRK as a buffer against what it perceives as a threatening US military presence. These recent developments tend to marginalize the US while enabling better relations between Northeast Asian countries, which may give China a new window of opportunity to play a role in the nuclear issue. 

If the US is busy in hotter hot spots or dealing with domestic issues and forthcoming elections, if North Korea genuinely wants to follow in China’s footsteps and emphasize economic development over military build-up, if inter-Korean relations continue to warm up and, in an ideal world, if relations between China, Japan, and South Korea improve.  Admittedly that’s a lot of ‘if,’ but we might then actually see how China’s intervention can bring peace rather than exacerbate conflict in the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia.