On the issues of North Korea and the Korean Peninsula, China has six very enduring core interests, or significant concerns: 1) Basic peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, i.e. “no war”; 2) No severe and abrupt overall loss of control, overall disorder, i.e. “no chaos”; 3) Making sure North Korea retains minimum goodwill to China, preventing or stopping it from becoming permanently hostile to China; 4) Impeding North Korean endeavors to develop nuclear weapons and mid- and long-range missiles, so as to accomplish eventual de-nuclearization of North Korea; 5) Maintaining China’s room to maneuver on North Korea policies and China-DPRK relations; 6) The Korean Peninsula not becoming an American strategic/military fortress against China, and closely related to that, striving for and maintaining the Republic of Korea’s proper goodwill to China. Although there have been constant frictions and conflicts among these core interests or significant concerns over the years, they have at the same time displayed lasting, critical significance. Therefore, they are by and large equally important, with no one being able to take the place of another.
After North Korea conducted new nuclear tests, and, following that, launched long-range rockets using ballistic-missile technologies, the UN Security Council, mainly through the strenuous consultations between China and the United States, finally passed an unprecedentedly extensive, harsh resolution on sanctions against Pyongyang. The aforementioned fourth Chinese core interest has thereby received the best possible boost under present conditions, and the significant interest in striving for and preserving ROK goodwill to China as in item 6 has thus received a timely guarantee. Hence at present and in the following period of time, particular attention must be paid to items 2, 3 and 5, so that the best possible balance can be maneuvered in spite of all difficulties.
Originally, the best scenario for China was, like in the past, to stick to the UN resolution, punish North Korean projects and activities directly related to the development of nuclear weapons and mid- and long-range missiles more forcefully and on a greater scope, and to oppose expanding sanctions to projects and activities indirectly related to such pursuits, so as to ensure China’s maneuvering room in its North Korea policies, prevent Pyongyang from becoming permanently hostile to China, and help prevent overall disorder inside the DPRK as a result of economic failure, or prevent a war resulting from provocation by a desperate Pyongyang. Meanwhile, like it did in the first half of 2013, China may “unilaterally” and spontaneously impose its own sanctions on certain North Korean projects and activities that are indirectly related to its nuclear/missile programs. Such sanctions may be eased, suspended or terminated according to changes in both conditions and needs.
Such an optimum is non-existent now given the latest UN resolution on sanctions against North Korea. Therefore, China has to “opt for the second best” in order that implementation of such unprecedentedly extensive, harsh sanctions not harm significant Chinese interests. From the perspective of its overall, long-term significant strategic interests in the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia, China needs to preserve proper room for improving China-DPRK relations, restoring positive influences (or non-punitive influences) on DPRK foreign policies at a proper time.
On one hand, such room will to a great extent be determined by Pyongyang’s actions. The DPRK Workers’ Party held a national congress in mid-May. After repeated experiments and tests in recent years, Pyongyang is widely believed to have made conspicuous progress in nuclear warhead and long-range carrier rocket technologies. Following that, it is not impossible for North Korea to more or less return to a state of “hibernation”, like in the two years and a half before its new nuclear test in January 2016, during which it conducted no nuclear test or mid- and long-range missile launch, or major provocation against the ROK. If that is the case, it may create fine conditions for improving China-DPRK ties. (Of course, from the end of the Workers’ Party national congress to late June, North Korea twice test-launched Musudan mid-range missiles in defiance of UN sanctions, to some extent embarrassing China for its high-profile reception of Kim Jong-un’s special envoy.)
On the other hand, availability of such room will also be determined by China itself. If China can keep in mind its significant interests in multiple aspects of the North Korea issue, try its best to balance such interests under difficult circumstances, refrain from under- or over-estimating, or neglecting or overstating any of them, and not push any basic things to the extreme, it will find itself in a desirable position once opportunities present themselves.
A quick note on the proposal of parallel and interweaving negotiations China openly put forward in the wake of North Korea’s latest nuclear test – launching negotiations targeted at concluding a US-DPRK peace treaty, and restoring negotiations on peninsula de-nuclearization. The proposal was immediately refused by both the US and ROK, which in part reflected the inappropriateness of “announcing before consulting”, just like it was in the past few instances. More importantly, however, such a proposal was based on several highly doubtful premises: 1) The foremost purpose for North Korea to develop nuclear weapons is to deter traditional security threats, or “conventional” military threats from the US and ROK; 2) North Korea will believe imaginable US commitment to North Korea under a US-DPRK peace treaty; 3) North Korea will not take advantage of negotiations on peninsula de-nuclearization to engage in strategic deception. China must conduct some retrospection on this.