China’s North Korea dilemma

The U.N. Security Council is set to vote this week on a new round of sanctions on North Korea in response to Pyongyang’s February nuclear test, and with China’s backing, it is likely to pass.

Beijing was “strongly dissatisfied and resolutely opposed” to the nuclear test, as Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said. However, Beijing must walk a fine line in deciding how far it will go to press Pyongyang to change course.

North Korea’s nuclear test has again shaken regional stability and undermines China’s national interests. China’s strategic plan through 2020 is focused on economic development, which requires a stable international environment, particularly among neighboring countries.

Beijing fears that a nuclear-armed North Korea could stimulate South Korea to develop its own nuclear weapons or induce the United States to redeploy U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea. Japan might also pursue an independent nuclear capability.

Beijing also fears that a nuclear North Korea would provide a pretext for the U.S. to boost its missile defense efforts in East Asia, potentially weakening China’s nuclear deterrent, and to strengthen its military presence and ties with allies in the region, increasing a feeling of encirclement in China.

Domestically, North Korea’s actions have angered Chinese citizens, with many seeing the policy of indulging North Korea as a failure. They want their leaders to impose stricter sanctions to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, including cutting economic aid and more effectively enforcing U.N. sanctions. The Chinese public fears that an accident from a nuclear test or weapon could cause heavy radioactive contamination in their own nation.

They also consider North Korea a liability that, if unchecked, could hurt China’s economic and security interests. More and more Chinese believe that the concepts of North Korea as a buffer zone and the “lips to China’s teeth” are no longer relevant.

Chinese policymakers, however, face a dilemma. Amid growing tensions with other nations over disputed islands in the East and South China seas, they are suspicious of Washington’s long-term strategic intentions in the region, particularly its rebalancing toward the Asia Pacific. They are concerned that, if freed from the North Korean nuclear crisis, Washington will turn its focus to containing China instead.

Moreover, to the extent leaders in Beijing are interested in solving the North Korean crisis, they believe their strategic influence on Pyongyang is limited. From China’s perspective, the crisis is driven by Washington and Pyongyang. North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear ambitions until it gets from the U.S. what it covets most: a reliable security assurance. This would mean an end to Washington’s pursuit of regime change. If Washington does not move in this direction, Pyongyang will continue to escalate the crisis. Any resolution of the impasse has to address the reasonable security concerns of North Korea.

Beijing’s position toward Pyongyang is unlikely to change significantly in the near future. Beijing’s bottom line is that war on the Korean peninsula and an abrupt collapse of the Kim Jong Un regime must be avoided. Both could create massive refugee flows into China and possibly put U.S. troops at China’s border.

If Beijing makes any changes, they will be cautious and gradual. It reportedly supports the latest proposed sanctions, as it did in response to previous nuclear tests, but it likely will not go as far as the U.S., Japan and South Korea would hope.

As it continues with this balancing act, Beijing should deliver a clear message to Pyongyang: Beijing will maintain its position — no nukes; no transfer of nuclear weapons, materials or technology to other nations or non-state actors; a stabilization of the Korean peninsula. And Beijing’s political support and supplies of oil and food will be conditioned on Pyongyang’s cooperation on it.

But China should also make clear to the U.S. that while China is prepared to support larger sticks, a resolution to the crisis must also include larger carrots to North Korea: a package deal that includes reliable security guarantees. An “all-stick” approach is too risky and is in no nation’s best interest.

Hui Zhang, a physicist, is leading a research initiative on China’s nuclear policies for Harvard University’s Project on Managing the Atom.

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