The North Korean nuclear issue is the most complex and uncertain security challenge in Northeast Asia. As tensions on the Peninsula continue to mount, the international community is imploring Beijing to deploy its leverage as Pyongyang’s paramount ally to curb a nuclear crisis. Although Beijing and Washington share the objectives of maintaining stability and ultimately of a non-nuclear Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK), their tact and priorities in handling the rogue regime have differed greatly.
Once ‘as close as lips and teeth’ (唇齿相依), with a bond underpinned by communist ideology and shared history, the thorny reality of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) alliance with the Kim regime today is complicated and strained. China’s support is integral to the DPRK’s survival, yet the Kim regime represents a major strategic, economic and diplomatic liability for the CCP.
The CCP favours diplomatic talks over sanctions, and prioritises stability over denuclearisation. It has consistently urged both the US and North Korea to exercise restraint and avoid escalating tensions in the region. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in April, ‘Once a war really happens, the result will be nothing but multiple loss. No one can become a winner’.
Whilst the Chinese are just as exasperated and concerned with the DPRK’s actions as the US and other neighbouring states, maintaining the Kim regime is still in China’s interest. The collapse of the DPRK would mean an inevitable refugee crisis over the shared 1400 km border. Another unacceptable cost for the CCP is the prospect of a pro-US unified Korea on its doorstep.
Last year, the US and South Korea announced the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea, which China perceives as a direct threat to its national security. Beijing reacted with forceful official statements and economic coercion, attempting to compel Seoul to abandon the program. Notwithstanding Xi Jinping’s recent declaration that he will ‘make a concerted effort’ to improve relations with South Korea, Chinese experts attest the THAAD program confirms deep rooted fears of US containment and weakens China’s own nuclear deterrent.
Richard Haass from the Council on Foreign Relations says: ‘Chinese leaders have no love for Kim Jong-un’s regime or its nuclear weapons, but it dislikes even more the prospect of North Korea’s collapse and the unification of the Korean Peninsula with Seoul as the capital’. It is therefore in the CCP’s interest that the status quo of a divided Korean Peninsula remains steadfast, with Pyongyang serving as a buffer to the democratic South.
This interest in keeping the regime afloat explains China’s aversion to sanctions, maintaining dialogue is the right route to address the issue. Beijing accounts for 90% of Pyongyang’s trade, and is the state’s main source of energy and food. Whilst punitive steps have been restrained to date, Beijing has now enforced UN sanctions on coal, iron, iron ore and seafood to the tune of a minimum US$1 billion annual loss for the DPRK.
Although China’s previous efforts to rein in Kim have not succeeded, it has continued economic and diplomatic exchanges with the state regardless. Pyongyang was invited to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) forum in May this year despite grumblings from other world leaders. Further, the Chinese-DPRK border city of Hunchun is already a manufacturing hotspot relying on North Korean labour, forecast to be a launch point for BRI initiatives and trade routes to Russia and the Sea of Japan.
Recent tension and disciplinary actions have seen PRC-DPRK ties sink to a low. In May, North Korean state media issued a rare direct criticism of China, ‘China had better ponder over the grave consequences to be entailed by its reckless act of chopping down the pillar of the DPRK-China relations’. Given the level of secrecy shrouding both governments, it’s unclear what levers Beijing has left to pull, and experts broadly agree that it’s difficult to see a path towards denuclearisation without conflict. Why would Kim’s regime choose suicide over giving up its only international bargaining tool?
As China enters the Wild West-esque unknowns of the Trump era, it’s trying harder than ever to mould a reputation as a responsible international citizen returning peacefully to its rightful power. China’s economic support for the DPRK alone thus represents a major credibility cost. What’s more, China has obstructed UN reports detailing human rights abuses in North Korea. The CCP is not motivated by denuclearisation and the rights of the North Korean people, but by stability and self-preservation.
The CCP views North Korea’s nuclear program as much as a defiance of its wishes as the West does. But for Beijing, the cure is worse than the disease. With stability as its primary objective, Beijing will not be motivated by the West’s continual calls to exert greater financial and diplomatic leverage over the DPRK should there be any risk of the Kim regime’s collapse.
Clare O’Meara is the China Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.