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Foreign Policy

What to Do About North Korea?

Aug 24 , 2015

Public space is shrinking in China for discussion of “Western” views. But “contrary to the general crackdown, North Korea policy seems to be an exception,” a U.S. diplomat told me on my recent trip to China. One hears plenty of criticism of Pyongyang.

Even official Beijing’s unhappiness with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is evident, though Beijing continues to bankroll the Kim Jong-un regime. It’s a position some analysts would like to change. I recently met with one outspoken Chinese scholar in Shenyang, a couple hours away from the Yalu by car.

My colleague was careful not to directly criticize Beijing policy but advocated a much different approach. He noted that, “China and North Korea have experienced enormous changes in their relations in the past ten years.” The “basis of that relationship now is about the national interest.” The “two countries still care about each other,” but now there are a “lot of problems between the countries, which have different views on different subjects.”

The most important issue, no surprise, is nuclear weapons. China supports denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. This is the “worst disagreement between them.” Second is economic development. “China insists on reform of the whole economic and political system,” explained my friend, while Beijing’s objective is to “transform North Korea.” Unfortunately, he noted, the DPRK government fears such change. Beijing wants a stable neighbor; Pyongyang wants a stable regime.

Issue number three involves bilateral trade. “China wants to have normal trade with North Korea,” but the North “always is broke.” Pyongyang expects to receive goods even if it does not pay. My colleague noted that, “many of the companies that have contracts with North Korea” did not receive the promised products from the North and “this caused great loss for China and for companies in China.”

The fourth concern is refugees. “Many North Koreans have fled to this part of China,” he said, forcing Beijing to “think about how to deal with the issue.” So far, the People’s Republic of China has essentially come down on the Kim regime’s side, returning refugees. But this has sparked sustained international criticism given the disastrous human rights consequences.


Coming in at fifth is the Six Party Talks. My interlocutor explained that, “China insists on peaceful dialogue among the respective countries. It wants to use this dialogue to solve the nuclear problem.” On this question China “has had some issues with the U.S. and North Korea not cooperating,” which has “stopped the process of discussing the nuclear issue.”

In his view the U.S. and PRC should focus on solving these matters: “China and the USA have a common understanding greater than their disagreement.” He admitted the two governments have some “conflicting interests,” but “also can cooperate” based on a “common understanding that North Korea should not have a nuclear weapon.”

Most important, “if China and America do not go to war then there is no chance that a war will happen” in the region, which is “why cooperation between the U.S. and China is a crucial factor for peace for the region and world.”

He also hoped the PRC and U.S. together would apply pressure on the North. He admitted that, “China has its own interests and cares about its national security.” But a nuclear North would be a major problem: “China would be a direct victim of it.” There’s the obvious risk that Pyongyang would use an atomic bomb in war. There’s also the more mundane danger of an accident, since “the experimental parts of the program are near Liaoning Province,” of which Shenyang is the capital.

What to do?

There should be dialogue “among the three countries.” Beijing and Washington need to prevent the North from playing them against each other, demonstrating that there isn’t “any gap, any room” between them, which would allow Pyongyang to develop nuclear weapons.

More controversially, he wants “to stop giving foreign aid to the North and to impose additional sanctions on North Korea.” Penalties should be imposed if the Kim government “does not listen to the U.S. and China.” He hopes increased penalties would work, but admitted that, “North Korea is an extreme country.”

If these steps don’t work, at that point, “we should know the way.” When asked to explain further, he said, “I wouldn’t say it out loud, but Israel would know how to do it.” That is, military action. He didn’t explain whether he envisioned Chinese cooperation in or merely acquiescence to a U.S. strike. But he believed extreme measures could be justified.

What would the Chinese government think of his idea? He admitted that the perspective was his own, not that of Beijing. However, his idea “reflected the national interest.” If the three steps were followed, beginning with negotiation, then he believed Beijing might “follow his suggestions.” He believed the severity of the threat would drive policy: “development of nuclear weapons by the North would cause unimaginable challenges for the Chinese people and economy. So stopping advances the national interest.”

In the end, he expected Pyongyang either would reform, opening the country, or resist, destroying itself. He hoped for the first: it’s the only way the North can develop, changes in North Korean society will encourage reforms in the government, and the international environment will add pressure for movement in Pyongyang. However, since no one knows what will happen, he urged both the U.S. and China to “prepare for both ways.”

Although there’s no evidence that Beijing government is about to adopt my friend’s proposals, the fact that he holds and expresses such views is significant. There’s obviously no groupthink in Chinese academic and policy circles, as emotional attachment to North Korea steadily drains away.

Moreover, while Beijing continues to prop up the Kim dynasty, it does so without enthusiasm. That creates an opportunity for Washington to persuade the PRC to change policy. But doing so requires making a better argument. My friend’s proposal offers a possible blueprint: talk with Beijing, address its problems, and suggest a common program. Chinese officials still might be unmoved. But it would be better than the strategy being followed today.

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