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Reassessing China's Role in North Korea

Author: Nicole E. Lewis, National Intelligence Fellow
June 22, 2010

Once again, North Korea is playing brinksmanship and escalating tensions by raising questions about its willingness to instigate armed conflict with South Korea. And once again, the United States is trying to persuade China to take a stronger stance toward the North.

During her trip to China in late May, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the Chinese to work with the United States, South Korea, and Japan "to address the serious challenge provoked by the sinking of the South Korean ship [Cheonan]." Predictably, the Chinese leadership has been reluctant to directly condemn North Korea for its actions. Premier Wen Jiabao during a visit to Seoul on May 28 opposed any acts detrimental to peace and stability on the peninsula but said China will make a judgment in an "objective and fair manner" based on the facts surrounding the Cheonan incident. He included the familiar Chinese call for all parties to keep calm and show restraint (Xinhua). Now that the Cheonan incident has been referred to the UN Security Council, Washington is again faced with the likelihood that China will, at the very least, try to water down any UN statement holding North Korea accountable for its actions.

[P]ushing too hard might drive Kim to raise the stakes by provoking armed conflict with South Korea, almost certainly the United States, and possibly Japan, a worst-case scenario for China.

So why can't Washington persuade China to take a tougher position on North Korea? A major deterrent for Beijing is its concern about stability, both on and inside its borders. Beijing may assess that North Korea is closer to collapse than at any time in its history, given its succession crisis, an unhealthy Kim Jong-Il, possible fractures between the military and Kim, a dire economic situation, and international isolation.

Thus, pushing too hard might drive Kim to raise the stakes by provoking armed conflict with South Korea, almost certainly the United States, and possibly Japan, a worst-case scenario for China. It could also alienate and isolate the new leadership-in-waiting in Pyongyang, something Beijing wants to avoid. In addition, pushing too hard might hasten a collapse, which could result in a flood of North Koreans streaming into China. Chinese leaders are likely to worry that these refugees would overstress the economic and social welfare systems of the areas where they settle.

Beijing may also be concerned about being exposed as having very little sway over Kim. Certainly, China is a major supplier of food and fuel to the North, but the "lips and teeth" relationship that the two countries historically enjoyed effectively died with Kim Il-Sung (Kim Jong-Il's father), and the ties between the two militaries are not nearly what they were in the 1950s when China came to North Korea's aid during the Korean War. As China emerges as a major--and possibly the major--regional power in East Asia, it does not want to risk being publicly flouted by Pyongyang and therefore looking like a paper tiger.

The Chinese leadership almost certainly is thinking about how its actions could set uncomfortable precedents that China might be held to in the future. Beijing probably assesses that its approach to North Korea has a bearing on what the international community will demand from China with respect to sanctions or even military action against Iran. Moreover, Chinese leaders do not want to be seen as interfering in the internal affairs of another sovereign country, a long-standing tenet of Chinese foreign policy that reflects its concern about other states meddling in its affairs on issues like Taiwan and Tibet.

Beijing likely relishes playing good cop to Washington's bad cop. Making the United States look like the enforcer or the bullying hegemon only benefits China and enables it to continue to nurture its own status in the region as an alternative to the U.S. power structure.

It is time to recognize that China's reluctance to back U.S. strategy toward North Korea is unlikely to change and that China may be more of a stumbling block than a help in resolving the impasse.

It is possible that China believes it knows North Korea so well that it can judge Kim's true intentions and that there is no way Pyongyang will cross the line. Thus, Beijing assesses that there is no need for a tougher stance because Pyongyang will stop short of completely upsetting the delicate balance on the peninsula and in the region.

We can expect China to quietly urge North Korea to make overtures to the South to try to calm tensions, but overt toughness will be more difficult to coax out of China. It is time to recognize that China's reluctance to back U.S. strategy toward North Korea is unlikely to change and that China may be more of a stumbling block than a help in resolving the impasse. Indeed, China has lived with the current status on the peninsula--with North Korea as a de facto nuclear power and occasional incidents with South Korea--for years and does not see North Korea as a threat to its own territorial integrity.

Unless Washington can convince the Chinese leadership that the current situation is more unstable to China than the consequences of a tougher Chinese position, U.S. officials probably need to reevaluate efforts to get China to play a more forceful role.

U.S. policymakers should consider the following shifts:

* Make the U.S.-South Korea-Japan alliance structure front and center in dealing with North Korea, superseding the current form of the Six Party Talks. U.S. policymakers could perhaps even establish a coalition of the willing by bringing in Australia, the EU, and Russia (though less likely) to assist in the diplomatic process. Such a move could generate the dual benefits of bypassing China and signaling to Beijing that Washington has lost confidence in its ability to keep Pyongyang in check. Exclusion from decisions that affect the security and balance of power in China's neighborhood could prompt the Chinese to act to avoid being left behind on the North Korea issue.

* Focus on brokering an actual peace treaty between the North and the South and engage in direct talks with Pyongyang, beyond what has occurred in the Six Party process. This strategy could include establishing confidence-building measures among the parties--including the United States--and affording North Korea a path toward economic growth and development in exchange for a dialing down of tensions on the peninsula and incremental steps toward denuclearization.

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