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An Alliance at Armís Length

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
Updated: October 24, 2006

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At a closed-door meeting between a Chinese envoy and Kim Jong-Il, the reclusive North Korean leader said he would not stage a second nuclear test (BBC). News reports from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) described the mood at the meeting as "friendly," but Beijing has shown increasing signs of irritation with Pyongyang. Should a second test occur, China may take drastic measures and reduce oil exports (NYT), even going beyond recent UN sanctions. This new Backgrounder looks at at Sino-DPRK relations in the wake of the North Korean nuclear test.

The Chinese leadership feels "a great deal of anger personally at Kim and the Korean military" over the tests, says CFR Senior Fellow Adam Segal, in an interview with CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman. Beijing remains cautious about harsh sanctions, fearing regime collapse could lead to a refugee crisis, writes CFR President Richard N. Haass in the Korea Herald. Despite these concerns, Chinese officials called the nuclear blast “brazen” (LAT). Even some Chinese media, which is typically censored, gave surprisingly open coverage of Beijing’s apparent deep dissatisfaction with the tests, as this analysis from UC Berkeley’s China Digital Times explains. The blog North Korea Zone says the October 9 test was a play for Chinese attention; Pyongyang feels wounded over Beijing’s "romance" with South Korea, in which China sees Kim’s regime as “at best an inconvenience and irritant and at worst a dangerous, disruptive force.”

As North Korea’s biggest donor and trading partner (Heritage Foundation), China is viewed by U.S. policymakers as the one country with enough leverage to control the DPRK’s nuclear proliferation and bring it back to the negotiating table. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raised this issue on her recent trip to Beijing. Joshua Kurlantzick of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says Beijing should use its arsenal of diplomats—part of its “soft power” strategy—to rein in North Korea (WashPost). China accepted the Security Council resolution (TIME) citing Chapter Seven of the UN Charter, which allows for sanctions and even military force, and began inspecting trucks near the North Korean border. Many in the United States (Slate) and elsewhere (The Australian) have heaped blame on China for a previously lenient approach to Pyongyang. Power and Interest News Report says China’s North Korea policy may have shifted toward that of the United States and Japan, yet still remains largely unchanged because Beijing “has the most to lose” if Kim’s regime were to collapse.  But, as this Asia Times article notes, Beijing appears ready to cut its military ties with Pyongyang because the North Koreans have been “highly unreliable” in the partnership.

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