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Recognizing Beijing’s Limited Influence in Pyongyang

Mar 26 , 2012

Chinese officials have joined other foreign governments in opposing North Korea’s plans to test a long-range rocket that could also serve as a delivery vehicle for a nuclear warhead. The Chinese outspokenness on this issue is unusual since, during past provocations by the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK), Beijing adopted a much lower profile.

The position of the People’s Republic of China is complex but understandable. China’s leaders fear that these ostentatious displays of North Korea’s improving missile and nuclear capacities will further encourage the United States, Japan, Taiwan and other states to develop missile defenses that in turn will weaken the effectiveness of China’s own ballistic missile arsenal.
China’s increasingly sophisticated missiles represent a core element of its national security strategy. It has deployed over one thousand intermediate-range missiles within distance of Taiwan to deter, and if necessary punish, Taipei from pursuing policies objectionable to Beijing. In addition, PRC strategists see their strengthening missile capabilities as a decisive instrument in implementing China’s anti-access/area-denial strategy against the United States. The Chinese military seeks the ability to target any American military forces, including aircraft carriers, which attempt to defend Taiwan or otherwise confront Chinese forces. As a last resort, the PRC relies on its long-range strategic ballistic missiles to deter the United States from employing its own nuclear forces against China.
Several U.S. officials have warned their PRC counterparts in January 2011 that the United States would deploy additional forces in East Asia, on both short-term exercises and long-term deployments, if North Korea continued to develop its capacity to threaten the United States.
For similar reasons, PRC policy makers have long opposed North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, if for no other reason than that its advent might induce the Republic of Korea (ROK), Japan, and even Taiwan to pursue their own nuclear forces, which under some contingencies might be used against Beijing as well as Pyongyang. Some Chinese, recalling their problems with Russia and Vietnam, worry that the DPRK might even threaten to use nuclear weapons against China in some future dispute.
PRC decision makers presumably also would like to avoid the negative reaction in Washington and other capitals that would arise if it became evident that Pyongyang had retransferred materials and technologies originally provided by China to third countries. There is evidence that North Korea has exchanged technologies useful for developing WMD and ballistic missiles with Pakistan, another Chinese ally, as well as with Syria and other countries of proliferation concern.
Yet, Beijing’s willingness to pressure Pyongyang to modify its policies is constrained by a fundamental consideration. PRC policy makers have found themselves cross-pressured in the case of North Korea. Although they would prefer that Pyongyang refrain from provocative actions, and would welcome a denuclearization and Korean peace agreement, they are not willing to impose substantial pressure on the DPRK regime for fear that it would collapse. The DPRK’s sudden demise could lead to mass refugee problems, the end of a buffer state separating PRC territory from the American military, and the redirection of ROK investment flows from the PRC to North Korea, which would require a massive socioeconomic upgrading to reach ROK-levels as part of reunification.
Unlike most policy makers in Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington, PRC policy makers want to change Pyongyang’s behavior, not its regime. Chinese officials remain more concerned about the potential collapse of the DPRK than about its government’s intransigence on the nuclear issue or other questions. The Chinese government has accordingly been willing to take only limited steps to achieve its objectives. These measures have included exerting some pressure (criticizing DPRK behavior and temporarily reducing economic assistance), but mostly have aimed to entice Pyongyang through economic bribes and other inducements.  Along with South Korea and Russia, China has resisted imposing sanctions that could inflict severe harm on the fragile North Korean economy.
To limit external threats to the DPRK, Chinese government representatives have also consistently striven to downplay concerns about the extent of North Korea’s missile program as well as its nuclear activities, including evidence of the DPRK’s involvement in the proliferation of nuclear and other WMD technologies to third parties. They depict Pyongyang less as a nuclear-armed rogue regime than as a potential failed state and humanitarian disaster in the making.  PRC representatives genuinely believe that some DPRK security concerns are valid and not a negotiating ploy. For example, they defend North Korea’s right to security guarantees.
The Chinese government has never committed to the demanding U.S. goal of “complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament,” at least as a near-term goal. PRC officials generally depict ending the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program as a long-term objective that may require accepting a North Korean ability to continue some nuclear activities, despite such activities their giving the DPRK at least a limited inherent nuclear weapons capacity. They also argued that the United States and other countries would need to make some concessions to Pyongyang to secure North Korea’s denuclearization, rather than expect North Korea to disarm first before discussing the provision of any possible rewards.
Despite their frustrations with Kim Jong-Il, PRC policy makers appear to have resigned themselves to dealing with his regime for now while hoping a more accommodating leadership will eventually emerge in Pyongyang and that the United States and its allies will moderate its own demands.
Seoul, Tokyo and Washington are hoping China exert more pressure on North Korea,” writes a March 19 commentary in The People’s Daily. “They are counting on the fact that China can eventually bring Pyongyang to its knees.” But the article counters that “As long as South Korea, Japan and the US do not give North Korea a sense of security, it will not stop lashing back at them.”
Given this context, the United States would do best not to rely excessively on Beijing to force Pyongyang to moderate its policies. Instead, American diplomats cannot escape engaging in difficult, painful, but essential direct negotiations with their DPRK counterparts.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia, and East Asia as well as U.S. foreign, defense, homeland security, and WMD nonproliferation policies.
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