Theresa Lou is a research associate for the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article originally appeared in The Diplomat.
What explains Beijing’s acquiescence to unprecedented sanctions at the UN Security Council?
In response to North Korea’s latest nuclear test and ballistic missile launch, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2270 (UNSCR 2270), which contains some of the strongest sanctions ever adopted against Pyongyang. We have seen this play out before: North Korea provokes the international community with nuclear or missile tests, global leaders condemn the North’s brazen behavior, and the UNSC tightens sanctions. Years or months later, the tests resume. Repeat.
UNSCR 2270 is particularly significant, however, given that China, North Korea’s sole ally, worked with the United States to craft the tough sanctions, following nearly two months of negotiations. Frosty China-North Korea relations, Beijing’s reduced tolerance, and change in North Korea’s weapons capability have all likely contributed to China’s recalibration.
Should the world expect these sanctions to push Kim Jong-un towards denuclearization? No, but Beijing’s acceptance of the strict sanctions is nonetheless a significant step. Importantly, China’s tougher stance against Pyongyang increases the likelihood of future U.S.-China cooperation in taking measures to reign in the Kim regime.
Beijing’s policy shift can first be explained by the deteriorating relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang. By executing his uncle Jang Song-Thaek—a fixture of Pyongyang elite—just two years after assuming power, Kim cut off China’s primary channel to the North Korean leadership. This brash act of avunculicide effectively silenced senior figures in Pyongyang who would have advocated for closer relations with Beijing, thereby reducing the influence China previously wielded. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s unprecedented decision to meet South Korean President Park Geun-hye in Seoul without having first visited Pyongyang further exemplified Xi’s displeasure with Kim.
As Beijing’s control of North Korea wanes, so too does its patience. Kim has repeatedly embarrassed China in the short amount of time he’s been in power. In October 2015, Beijing reportedly received North Korean assurances from Pyongyang that it would cease nuclear testing. Hardly two months had passed and Pyongyang tested an alleged hydrogen bomb roughly 50 miles from China’s border six days into the New Year. Instead of heeding Beijing’s calls of restraint in November 2012, Kim thumbed his nose at the Chinese leadership and launched a ballistic missile anyway. The same thing happened in February 2016. When Chinese diplomat Wu Dawei urged Kim not to conduct another missile test, the young leader ordered the launch a day earlier than planned so that it fell on the eve of Chinese New Year instead.
China has been cleaning up after North Korea for decades, but past North Korean leaders have not blatantly flouted Beijing’s warnings when in possession of as little political capital as Kim Jong-un. It seems the young leader is close to exhausting what little capital he has remaining. Though the two countries used to be close, support for North Korea among the Chinese public has waned. Each time Pyongyang lashes out, China sustains international pressure to take decisive action. The Chinese Communist Party seems increasingly split on whether Pyongyang is an asset or a liability, and has (uncharacteristically) allowed increased intraparty debate on China’s North Korea policy.
Additionally, North Korean provocations have inspired the United States and South Korea to take unprecedented deterrent action. Discussions between Seoul and Washington regarding the deployment of a U.S. Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery to South Korea has drawn Chinese ire; Beijing argues that such a deployment would jeopardize its national security interests. China has long been wary of foreign involvement in the Asia-Pacific, and additional North Korean provocations will only increase U.S. attention in the area.
Finally, the Chinese are likely realizing the dangers of allowing North Korea to further advance its weapons technology. Though the specifics of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program remain unclear, the technology has progressed at a considerable pace given the sanctions imposed upon the regime. Chinese concerns of a nuclear North Korea are further amplified given Kim’s record as a mercurial, untrustworthy ‘frenemy’ who has not heeded China’s calls for restraint.
To be sure, there is good reason to question Beijing’s sincerity in implementing these new sanctions. Despite having voted in favor of each of the four previous resolutions, China’s track record on sanctions enforcement against North Korea has been spotty. Beijing’s actions underscore a fundamental difference between it and Washington over the intended goal of sanctions. Whereas the United States imposes harsh sanctions to curb North Korea’s nuclear program, Beijing aims to push Pyongyang back to the negotiating table, preferably through the long-defunct Six-Party Talks.
China regards maintaining peace and stability on the Korean peninsula as its primary interest. It fears that crippling sanctions would destabilize the Kim regime and either exacerbate tensions or worse: cause the regime to collapse, sending millions of refugees fleeing across Chinese borders.
Even if these new sanctions were fully enforced by all United Nations member states, they would likely fail to push Pyongyang toward denuclearization. North Korea’s economy may tumble and Kim might find it increasingly difficult to continue financing his weapons program, but these sanctions are not crippling. China would not have agreed if it believed UNSCR 2270 was enough to destabilize North Korea. For example, the resolution does not address Chinese crude oil exports to North Korea or the trading of goods at their mutual border. These allowances are Beijing’s way of ensuring that these sanctions do not trigger a humanitarian crisis and state collapse.
Despite these causes for pessimism about the effectiveness of UNSCR 2270’s implementation and effectiveness, the United States should build upon the momentum of China’s significant step and lay the groundwork for more decisive cooperation in the future. It would be a mistake to assume the sanctions will have a significant impact on Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Rather, the success of the resolution must be assessed by whether Beijing stands by its commitments and enforces the sanctions in earnest. China’s level of follow-through will allow the United States to gauge Beijing’s readiness to engage discussions for longer-term solutions for the North Korean question.
Beijing seems to be slowly realizing that the devil it knows is not better than the alternative. The United States should seize this opportunity to further engage China and discuss mutually acceptable outcomes for the Korean peninsula. It is unlikely that Beijing will fully trust Washington’s intentions in the region, but open communication is an essential step toward getting China to realign its priorities with those of Washington. However, the United States should refrain from action that the Chinese may perceive as further U.S. encirclement. THAAD deployment, for example, may already be pushing Beijing’s tolerance limits. If these trends continue, China could come to accept that maintaining the peace and stability of the region cannot be divorced from efforts to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.