On February 12, 2013, Chinese citizens in Yanji City, a small town less than 100 miles from the North Korean border, felt the aftershock of North Korea’s third underground nuclear test, which was smaller in scale but more powerful than its two previous tests in 2006 and 2009. Beds shook and dishes rattled in the midst of Chinese New Year festivities, but the tremors were not attributed to lively celebrations. Before this nuclear test, in response to North Korea’s December 2012 long-range missile launch, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2087 on January 22, 2013, expressing determination to take significant action in the event of a future launch or nuclear test. Yet despite such deterrent measures and nudging by closest benefactor China, as proven by the third nuclear underground test, international resolutions will not compel the Kim family regime to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Current Chinese foreign policy towards North Korea has focused on stability and containment, because China’s chief concerns are North Korea’s possession of a nuclear arsenal and possible regime collapse, both of which have serious implications for domestic and Northeast Asian regional security. Because it would better serve Chinese interest, President Xi Jinping should, fully withdraw from the status quo approach and implement a new policy toward North Korea—one that strongly cultivates a China-like economic reform and abandons all foreign aid to North Korea until Kim Jong Un amends or suspends his nuclear weapons program.
At home and abroad, as North Korea’s biggest trade partner and aid supplier, China has long been regarded as its only ally. Historically, China has opposed the majority of harsh international sanctions against North Korea and, has helped sustain the Kim family regime in the hope of staving off state collapse or unification with South Korea, a close American ally. For this reason, China may be the only country in the world capable of compelling North Korea to forsake its nuclear ambitions. However, China has not been eager to use its leverage to deter Kim’s nuclear program. According to Dr. Andrew J. Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University who specializes in Chinese foreign policy, China is “worried about instability and war on its borders and thus favored a gradual and cautious approach to minimize tensions.” In other words, China treats Kim Jong Un and his regime with kid gloves.
The reason that it’s time for China to end its status quo policy towards North Korea is that the alliance no longer holds the same strategic value for China as it did during the Cold War. Simply, China’s modern claim of North Korea as a valuable geopolitical ally is obsolete. First, as evidenced by the massive amount of annual foreign aid, North Korea has done more damage than good to China. Second, North Korea still remains a global threat and could possibly serve as a new breeding ground for terrorists, thereby explaining the increase in American forces in South Korea. Third, the Global War on Terror is a prolonged war and the Korean peninsula could be the next international hot spot if tensions between the United States and North Korea arise and a preemptive strike becomes necessary. Lastly, imagine if the United States launches a preemptive strike against North Korea in order to destroy nuclear weapons and annihilate terrorists. Would China—based on mutual ideology and alliance—be obliged to aid North Korea and fight against the United States? What would China gain from a possible second Korean War?
Due to security issues in the region, similarly, the United States maintains a watchful eye on East Asia from both home and abroad. The United States, as an example, still has 28,500 troops in the Korean peninsula, and announced in January 2014 that it would “send 800 more soldiers and about 40 Abrams main battle tanks and other armored vehicles to South Korea next month” as part of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia. The amount of U.S. armed forces personnel stationed in South Korea undeniably illustrates that Washington does not view North Korea’s actions or threats nonchalantly. This gives merit to the perception of the Kim regime as a global hazard.
China has the power to decide whether it wants to follow the United States’ lead of applying more stringent sanctions against North Korea; however, Chinese policymakers fear that North Korea’s government may collapse in the absence of foreign aid. Indeed, many Chinese policymakers are opposed to the substantial cut-off of assistance to North Korea, arguing that such sanctions could cause instability and potentially undermine the regime. According to Professor Nathan, chaos along the border of northeastern China would be a more significant threat than that of North Korea’s growing nuclear capacity. Nathan continues to argue that for the Chinese, once again “stability and avoidance of war” are the top priorities; therefore, they cannot risk losing an ally on their northeastern border. Nevertheless, without China’s permanent aid, Kim Jong Un will be left without any viable options.
Several Chinese policymakers may argue that such a collapse of a moribund economic country may immediately result in mayhem on the North Korean-Chinese border and the reunification of Korea as an American ally. Complicating matters further, the Chinese do not want “an influx of North Korean refugees across their shared 800 mile border.” Nathan also supports this argument and claims that China wants to keep North Korea as a “buffer zone” between itself and South Korea since there is a combined U.S. and South Korean military presence of over three million troops in this area. China can exploit this massing of troops to its strategic advantage. In short, Nathan extrapolates that this “buffer zone” permits China to reduce its military forces in the northeast region and allows the Chinese government to continue its direct focus on Taiwan, hoping for an eventual “one China.”
Should a second Korean War take place, China could – as in the first Korean War (1950-1953) – regain the trust of North Korea’s leader and North Korea could remain a “buffer zone.” The thought of losing this buffer state is devastating for the Chinese. Though tragic for Koreans on both sides of the border, it seems that China is reluctant in its support for reunification, because it does not want to actively support such a war. For China, the safest course is to allow the peninsula to remain divided as long as possible so that no other superpower, chiefly the United States, can dominate. In this case, North Korea would continue to provide China with an indispensable bulwark against the United States, South Korea, and even Japan. Yet, the practicality of this “buffer zone” would be moot as China’s most reliable defense would be its own strength in numbers and economic might.
China has the most to gain from reunification so President Xi should welcome the possibility, not confront it with trepidation. Presently, North Koreans flee to China—incurring the risk of Chinese repatriation and all but guaranteed imprisonment in one of North Korea’s prison camps—because they fear dying in the notorious gulags and suffering famine. They would rather risk their lives and take a chance at freedom than continue to suffer in inhuman circumstances in North Korea. However, if the regime collapsed, they would not need to abandon their homes. The citizens would not have to flee because there is a strong possibility that most would welcome reunification with South Korea. Along the same vein, in regards to the fate of U.S. troops in South Korea should North Korea fall, Chinese policymakers should realize that these troops merely exist due to the Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and South Korea. Though China may not see it this way, indeed, the United States is present to defend South Korea from the North, not to act as a threat to China. Without a legitimate threat, one may contend that there is no reason for U.S. troops to be stationed in South Korea. What is more, the Obama administration has pledged drastic defense budget cuts throughout 2016 and could save a large amount of money by redeploying personnel and retrieving military equipment back to the United States.
North Korea’s nuclear blackmail plot against the international community should be treated as “an illusion that it can achieve an equal negotiating position” against the United States and China. North Korea’s nuclear brinksmanship is a bluff and Beijing should not bow to such outlandish demands. President Xi must stand firm and avoid falling into the same trap as his predecessors. If Xi were to cut off China’s yearly aid of food and oil, he could eventually force Kim Jong Un to commit to economic reform and possibly to abandon North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. To that extent, one might contend that China advertently is the co-conspirator in maintaining a nuclear ambitious regime through its continuous economic assistance to North Korea.
North Korea would likely never utilize its nuclear weapons because Kim Jong Un and his colleagues recognize that a nuclear war would represent the annihilation of the regime. This outcome is counter to the ultimate goal of Kim and his staff, who want to maintain their supremacy. They will not jeopardize their dictatorship or status by unleashing their nuclear weapons on the world. North Korea will undoubtedly, however, continue its provocative rhetoric by conducting another nuclear test or “a limited but deadly attack against South Korean interests either on the peninsula or in another country.” Pundits like Dr. Sue Mi Terry, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst and a research scholar at Columbia University, projected that North Korea will limit itself to controlled strikes similar to the November 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong-Do or “undertake an act that would be hard to trace to them, making retaliation difficult,” as with the case of sinking the South Korean Navy’s corvette, Cheonan in 2010.
Chinese policymakers such as President Xi Jinping and Vice President Li Yuanchao had hoped that young Kim Jong Un would be more cooperative than his father, disregarding the “Military First Policy” and committing to an economic reform based on the Chinese model. Kim has resisted Chinese advice and incurred a heavy financial burden for his nuclear goals. Chinese policymakers, accordingly, continue to maintain the status quo with North Korea, not because they want to support a reckless and inexperienced Kim, who has yet to personally visit China, but because they do not see another option.
But, President Xi and his staff have an alternative. Evidenced by the 2013 December purge of Jang Song Thaek, surely, North Korea is detaching itself even from China. Jang acted as a key conduit between China and North Korea since the days of Kim Jong Il. Jang showed his avid support for a China-like reform in order to revive the dilapidated North Korean economy; however, on December 8, 2013, Kim Jong Un ordered Jang’s expulsion. Kim Jong Un’s uncooperative and erratic behavior illustrates that North Korea no longer values the “friendship sealed in blood.” Even though they once shared pain and sacrificed lives during the Korean War, North Korea no longer sees China as its “big brother.”
China is wasting time and valuable resources by assisting a failed state that will most certainly never come out of its isolation. The security concerns regarding the Korean peninsula seem to be limiting China’s options and serving as the overriding influence in Chinese foreign policy towards North Korea, both now and in the foreseeable future. President Xi should cut ties with North Korea and support a reunification of the two Koreas. A unified Korea would ease regional tension and undermine the strategic security formed by the United States, South Korea, and Japan. With its attention away from the northeast border, China can refocus on Taiwan and strive for the resolution of the “one China” objective.
Christopher Lee is an active duty Major in the U.S. Army. A graduate of West Point, he has served for eight years as an intelligence officer. He is currently a Foreign Area Officer for the Northeast Asia region and a graduate student at Columbia University.
Photo credit: The Official CTBTO Photostream