Gong Keyu

Deputy Director, Shanghai Institute for Int'l Studies

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by Gong Keyu

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Jun 08, 2011

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Il paid an unofficial visit to China from May 20 to 26 at the invitation of China’s president Hu Jintao. It was the third visit for Kim in about a year and the seventh since he became top leader of the DPRK in 1997.

This visiting frequency is rare not only in the history of China-DPRK relations but also in international relations.

There are a number of reasons why Kim visited China so often in such a short period of time.

The DPRK is facing a huge gap between its ideals and reality.

Politically, the DPRK aims to maintain political stability to smoothly transfer power from Kim Jong Il to his son and to pave the way to developing a strong and prosperous nation in 2012, the centennial of the birth of Kim Il Sung, who founded the country. However, although Kim Jong Un, the third son of Kim Jong Il, has been appointed as a four-star army general and vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, uncertainties remain about the pattern of power succession from generation to generation.

Economically, the DPRK is facing several problems, like a lack of mechanized equipment and chemical fertilizer and, because of last summer’s flood, food. Compounding the problems are inflation and confusion in the aftermath of a shock currency reform.

In matters of security, the DPRK has been under tremendous pressure from the ROK and the United States after deadlocked six-party talks on the DPRK’s nuclear issues. Concerns were already growing, however, especially after the Cheonan Incident and Yeonpyeong Island issue. The DPRK holds that the Cheonan Incident was contrived, which explains why the ROK and U.S. refuse to accept the DPRK’s investigation results. What is more, by using the Cheonan Incident as an excuse, the two have strengthened their military cooperation, as recent frequent joint military exercises indicate.

The DPRK believes that its efforts to develop bilateral relations with the U.S. have failed because of ideological reasons and the impending “regime change”. Also, by exercising restraint and patience, the U.S. means to wait for subsequent changes, namely domestic turmoil in the DPRK.

Kim Jong Il believes that by enhancing relations with China, he can use its support to establish Kim Jong Un’s status as his successor. He also wants China’s assistance with the DPRK’s  economic development challenges and believes stronger relations will convert to improved security protection against the ROK and U.S. China can also help the DPRK gradually break out of its isolation in the international community.

While China seems to be the DPRK’s only ally, the DPRK cannot only depend on China and cannot get all that it wants from China.
In China-DPRK relations and peninsular issues, I think that China’s approach includes the following five positions:
(1) Emphasizing national interest rather than ideological similarities.
(2) Seeking a network of interests rather than security alone.
(3) Caring about both DPRK and ROK, instead of leaning towards DPRK.
(4) Forsaking the Cold War mentality of a zero-sum game and friend-or-enemy dichotomy.
(5) Avoiding self-orientation and imposing its own values onto others.

It’s always been China’s belief that cooperation with the DPRK will be conducive to facilitating socialist development in both countries, will better protect and enhance their common interests, and will promote peace, stability and prosperity.

The objective of China’s peninsular policy is to create a favorable and stable environment for its own domestic economic development. Itss approach can be generalized as support for any policy that delivers peace and stability on the Peninsular, and opposition to any that might cause instability.

There used to be varied opinions about the DPRK’s status in China’s international strategy. Some argued that the DPRK is China’s strategic resource and others held that the DPRK is China’s strategic burden. Some believed that the DPRK is a strategic trap. Whatever the status, a, consensus seems to have been reached that the nuclear issue should be considered separately from the DPRK problem and China-DPRK relations.
China regards the DPRK as a friendly neighbor, close comrade and sincere friend. However, the West believes that China can meditating in solving the DPRK nuclear issue, or to at least put pressure on the DPRK. They think that as a senior ally, China is the DPRK’s largest assistance provider and can play a vital role.

As the Korean people take “face” seriously and hate being manipulated, China is especially careful not to impose its will on the DPRK, expecting it to maintain independence and self-determination and voluntarily abandon its nuclear weapons. I believe China is trying to persuade the DPRK that nuclear blackmail means more danger than safety and that possessing nuclear deterrence capacity is not in the long-term interest of the country or its people. In the meantime, China should convince the U.S. that blockades and containment do not solve problems and could only push the DPRK closer to its nuclear weapons out of insecurity and perceived unfairness.

China’s reform and opening-up policy is in line with its national situation, and thus has produced abundant fruits. Chinese leaders have advised the DPRK on many occasions it should reform and open-up, insisting that economic development should be based not only on self-reliance but also external cooperation. China respects and supports the DPRK for its efforts to safeguard security, develop the economy and improve people’s living situation and has provided much assistance and investment to help achieve these aims.

The rise and fall of China-U.S. relations has also effected China-DPRK relations. After the Cheonan Incident and Yeonpyeong Island issue, the U.S. not only wooed the ROK with frequent joint military exercise but also brought into the Yellow Sea for naval exercises the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, the symbol of its military hegemony. The U.S.’s Cold War mentality and hegemonic behavior has sharpened China’s vigilance: it has to mitigate pressure from the U.S.-ROK alliance by enhancing its relations with the DPRK.

I think the U.S.’s shift from “strategic ambiguity” to written assurance is aimed at three goals:
(1) To strengthen ties with the ROK and other allies.
(2) To stop the ROK from developing nuclear weapons and prevent proliferation.
(3) To increase its bargaining power against the DPRK in future DPRK-U.S. negotiations, as the DPRK has insisted on denuclearization of the whole peninsula.

I am worried that the US-ROK military alliance will be upgraded to an all-inclusive arrangement to cover military, security, political, economic, social and cultural aspects. If so, this will serve the U.S.’s strategic goal of maintaining its leading role in regional and global affairs. It would certainly be damaging to peace and stability in Northeast Asia and would bring uncertainty to the region. Now that countries in the region greatly differ from each other through various multi-lateral security mechanisms, an “extended deterrence” and “nuclear umbrella” would drive them into a deeper “security dilemma.”

China has a special interest in the Korean Peninsula and will always play a special and constructive role in safeguarding its peace and stability. It would not like to return to the Cold War era.

Just as the U.S.-China Joint Statement said: “Both sides expressed concern over heightened tensions on the Peninsula triggered by recent developments. The two sides noted their continuing efforts to cooperate closely on matters concerning the Peninsula.” We hope the United States and China can cooperate further to maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

Gong Keyu is Deputy Director of Center for Asia-Pacific Studies, Shanghai Institute for International Studies