China Debates North Korean Policy
By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI — During the Cold War, China shed blood to keep North Korea out of the grip of the West. But now that Beijing is a global economic and diplomatic power, it finds itself confused and frustrated by Pyongyang’s saber-rattling and other antics.
Take North Korea’s nuclear efforts. Beijing remains unwilling to push Pyongyang to shut down its nuclear program, and if anything, has obstructed United Nations efforts.
That “undermines Beijing’s image as a ‘responsible stakeholder,’” said Bruce Klingner, a specialist on North Korea at the Washingtonbased Heritage Foundation. But, he said, Beijing “fears firmer Chinese action would exhaust its limited leverage over North Korea.” And Beijing has other things to worry about on the peninsula.
“It fears instigating instability in North Korea that could bring a flood of refugees into China’s northeast provinces and set in motion a chaotic process that leads to the demise of the DPRK [North Korea] with no certainty that Chinese interests would be protected under a reunified Korean government,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington.
But, says Glaser, North Korea’s recent nuclear test and ballistic missile launches have triggered a new debate over policy in China on North Korea.
“Although the debate is nowhere near closure, it is apparent that those who view North Korea as a strategic liability rather than a strategic asset have gained the upper hand,” Glaser said. “Yet it remains to be seen whether substantial adjustments are made in China’s policy toward North Korea.”
To compound the problem, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il appears to be dying. Reports that Kim suffered a stroke and now has pancreatic cancer have escalated fears in China and elsewhere that the window of opportunity for influence could be closing.
Who takes charge after Kim? A belligerent general with little or no diplomatic experience? Kim’s 26year-old third son, Kim Jong Un?
The recent nuclear test and missile launches clearly had political and technical motives, said Kenneth Quinones, who served as the U.S. State Department’s North Korean affairs officer from 1992 to 1994.
“Politically, the North Korea army again demonstrated that it is asserting strong influence on Pyongyang’s policy toward the outside world and continuing its previous claim that first North Korea will ‘bolster is military muscle’ before returning to negotiations,” Quinones said.
He said the missile tests could also have been attempts to solidify support in the military for his son as heir.
In April, Kim Jong Un was appointed to the National Defense Commission, which positioned him for eventual control of the military. However, it is unclear whether the military would accept a young, inexperienced head of state. Some fear that North Korea could break apart upon Kim Jong Il’s death.
That would place China in a difficult position — yet Beijing has been “extremely reticent to discuss North Korea contingency planning with the U.S. or South Korea due to concerns that Pyongyang will hear of it,” Klingner said.
China’s four primary objectives on the Korean peninsula are peace, stability, no hostile foreign presence, and no nuclear weapons, Glaser said.
“Maintaining a nuclear-free peninsula is important to Chinese interests, but at least so far has been deemed less critical than the three [other issues] discussed above,” she said. A nuclear-armed North Korea is not an “existential threat to China, but it threatens to result in a significant deterioration in China’s strategic environment.”
Beijing believes the worst-case scenario is that North Korea’s antics lead Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear arms and strengthen anti-missile programs that could later challenge Chinese hegemony.
Glaser said the recent nuclear and missile tests have drawn some reaction from China. After the first nuclear test in 2006, Beijing sent a special envoy to North Korea who elicited a promise from Kim Jong Il not to perform further nuclear tests.
“After the second nuclear test, Beijing not only refrained from sending a special envoy to get negotiations back on track, it canceled a visit by vice chairwoman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee Chen Zhili to Pyongyang,” and plans to send State Councilor Dai Bingguo to North Korea also were canceled, she said.
China could be deliberately sending a signal to Pyongyang that it intends to work closer with the U.S., Russia, Japan and South Korea..