In modern China, a fairly wide range of opinions may be observed about what the policy towards Pyongyang should be, including on the nuclear issue. This is perhaps why one should not accept statements made by experts of various political orientations as clear political signals, indicating that Beijing has changed its position on North Korea. Rather, this is a sign that there exists in China a certain pluralism of opinions on the issue, and people may express their views on it even if they differ significantly from the official line.
We should likewise not exaggerate diplomatic statements made by Chinese leadership. When Xi Jinping says that China supports Korean integration, this does not mean that China supports integration in the near future or on South Korea’s terms.
It must be taken into account that in general anti-North Korean publications are reprinted by Western and Russian media, creating an additional aberration of information.
The most famous materials criticizing North Korea in terms of “hegemony” are published in “Huanqiu Shibao” (Eng. Global Times), a subsidiary of “People’s Daily” Holding and an official organ of the Communist Party of China. It possesses a certain independence as well as great authority, not only when speaking about Korea, but also in relation to other regional issues, whether territorial disputes involving China or the pro-American policy of South Korea.
In general, the newspaper’s position can be boiled down to the view point that North Korea should not expose or damage China through its actions, and if such a thing happens, Beijing should show Pyongyang its place in a more firm and decisive manner than is being done today. For example, if Pyongyang refuses to stop conducting regular nuclear testing a reduction in humanitarian aid may be possible as an extension of existing sanctions against North Korea. In the case of yet another nuclear test, Pyongyang must be made to clearly understand what price will be paid. Another article even hinted that disputes between the two socialist countries might lead to a military conflict (as happened between China and the USSR over Damanskii Island, or between China and Vietnam in 1979).
As one of the most interesting publications states, “North Korea is China’s strategic barrier. This statement has not lost its relevance, but its need is questionable. North Korea directly borders our country, and the direction of its hostility – towards China or in the opposite direction – has direct influence on the security of China’s own strategic space…North Korea’s actions sometimes put us in a more difficult position than they do the U.S.”
China’s current policy towards North Korea must take as its starting point the current geopolitical situation and Chinese national interests. In this context, “further strengthening of relations between North Korea and China is the most realistic prediction. In this case, North Korea must promise to abandon any new [political] stunts, and China, in its turn, would provide it with the necessary security guarantees”. However, the exaggeration of actions, towards either one or the other side, is dangerous. The restoration of Sino-North Korean cooperation to the level of a military alliance would mean the return of Cold War conditions and it is uncertain “whether North Korea, as a country with a keen sense of sovereignty, will want such a protector”. Additionally, a radically new Chinese position on North Korea is practically impossible.
China is in a very difficult position. Neither North Korea nor South Korea and the USA wish to listen to Chinese remonstrances. Both sides, moreover, complain about China. Pyongyang demands that Beijing demonstrate “real friendship”, meaning that we should voluntarily finance its erroneous nuclear course. South Korea and the U.S. expect the demonstration of a “real consciousness” from China, meaning that we should fully join their sanction union against North Korea. Thus, China should use this opportunity to compensate the damage caused by necessitated involvement in the situation. This would prove a realistic approach.
Note that the Huanqiu Shibao criticizes not only the North, but the South as well. The following is a characteristic article “South Korea should not value the U.S. more than China”. There, in particular, it is stated that “the bottleneck in the development of Sino-Korean relations is the American paradigm of thinking, spread in Korean political, diplomatic and even academic societies. As if, as long as the relationship between South Korea and the U.S. is strong, all other problems will resolve themselves. Even now, South Korea continues to view its relations with China, as something additional to the US-Korean alliance, and not as separate bilateral relations, equivalent in importance to South Korea’s relations with the United States.”
South Korea must show China that its alliance with the U.S. is not directed against China, which is already a major trading partner of South Korea (trade volume between the two countries has even overtaken the total trade of South Korea with the USA and Japan). Relations between China and South Korea should no longer remain on a “lower level” and the newspaper expresses the hope that “a new generation of South Korean politicians will depart from the American way of thinking”, which will provide China-North Korean relations with a more independent and a broader space for development.
However, we must recall that other government newspapers take a more cautious tone; following is an example of an article, published on February 16, 2013 by the Xinhua agency. It presents the comments of a number of authoritative Chinese experts in response to statements by “Western media” that China’s policy in relation to North Korea has “failed”.
Thus, the Deputy Director of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University, Professor Liu Tszyanyun stated that: “The U.S., South Korea and Japan should be blamed for this issue.” Chinese People’s University professor and director of the Center for American Studies at the same university, Inhun Shi, stressed that North Korea conducted nuclear tests on the basis of its own interests and not at Beijing’s direction, and that all stakeholders should fulfil their obligations.
Deputy Director of the Chinese Institute of International Studies Ruan Tszuntsze sees the causes for North Korea’s development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the “imbalance” in the regional situation, determined by the fact that South Korea and Japan are covered by the American “nuclear umbrella”. Tao Venchzhao, a researcher at the Institute of American Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, points out that the complicated nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula is tied to the 60-year-old feud between North Korea and the United States.
Concerning the quest for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, Shi Inhuna believes that relevant UN Security Council resolutions and sanctions must be enforced, preventing the developing of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Liu Tszyanyun supports the development of the negotiation process: when Washington and Seoul conducted the so-called “Sunshine Policy”, tensions on the Korean peninsula decreased. Ruan Tszuntsze also believes that “the problem of mistrust and hostility between the U.S. and North Korea must be resolved through a multilateral negotiation mechanism, such as the six-party talks. The Chinese side must continue to play the role of peacemaker and mediator”.
Shen Dingli subscribes to the same position. In his opinion, since North Korea is interested first and foremost in its national security, then lack of self-confidence in its security will make exhortations or other actions by China ineffective in forcing it to abandon its nuclear program; this should be accepted as fact.
Different, more liberal, views held by Western experts were announced on February 27, 2013 in the Financial Times by Deng Yuwen, in an article entitled “China should leave North Korea”. The author believes that the nuclear testing conducted by North Korea provides a good opportunity to review relations between the two countries, based on a series of reasons:
1. It is dangerous to base relations on formal ideology. Although both countries are socialist, the differences between them are greater than between China and Western countries.
2. Perception of North Korea as an ally is no longer valid. If during the Cold War North Korea proved useful, its necessity is now doubtful. If the U.S. decides in favor of a preventive attack on North Korea, will China aid North Korea at its own risk?
3. Reforming of the North Korean regime is impossible: why support a regime that is sooner or later doomed to failure?
4. North Korea has interests aside from Beijing. People prefer to consider relations with North Korea through the prism of joint victims of the Korean War, rather than through the realities of today.
5. Finally, the possibility cannot be discounted that North Korea will turn its nuclear blackmail on China.
Deng believes that the best strategy seems to be promotion of Korean unification. Another solution could be China using its influence for the realization of a pro-Peking-minded government coming to power in Pyongyang.
Despite the fact that Deng Yuwen was dismissed from his post as Deputy Chief Editor of the Study Times, (an organ of the Party School of Communist Party of China Central Committee) for this text, we paid much attention to the article because the Central Party School, to which he belongs, was the domain of the current Chairman of China. Moreover, this point of view may be wide-spread among young pragmatists.
In any case, a professor at the Institute for International Strategic Studies of the same Party School of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, Zhang Liango, also supports the position that member countries of the 6-party talks aimed at denclearization of North Korea should force Pyongyang to abandon its “illusions” of nuclear status. According to him, North Korea’s nuclear policy is not changing, despite verbal assurances of readiness to resume negotiations. Moreover, after the third nuclear test, North Korea amended its constitution to include mention of itself as a nuclear power . In this regard, the main task of the Six-Party Talks is to show Pyongyang their firm determination to achieve a common goal – the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. “Successful missile launches and the conducting of nuclear tests will allow Pyongyang to aggravate a confrontation with the U.S. and the South Korea”, thus exacerbating the situation.
These sentiments were contained in a report recently released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences titled “On the developing situation in the Asia-Pacific Region”. This report was closer to a collection of articles by various authors, each expressing their own opinion. Media attention was drawn by conclusions that “in 10-15 years, the main issue on the Korean Peninsula will be the topic of unification”, and by “the need to eliminate the misconception that in the process of maintaining peace and security, China will in no way abandon North Korea.”
A similar tone reflects the reaction to the spring 2012 inter-Korean crisis, although an official position on the issue was most clearly expressed in an article in the “People’s Daily”, written by the international relations expert Hua Yiwen. It was clearly stated there that, “North Korea should not make a mistake in assessing the situation on the Korean peninsula.” According to the author, North Korea has reasons to be concerned with its own security, but there is no reason to conduct nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches. Of course, the country “has its own political needs, choice and style of speech, which refer to the internal affairs of the country, and which cannot interfere with foreign states. However, if the choice of Pyongyang’s speech and actions exacerbate the conflict on the peninsula, then they have an impact on peace and stability in the region. Thus, these issues have an international character. The situation on the Korean peninsula will not necessarily develop according to the ideas and expectations of Pyongyang.”
However, evaluations and recommendations were given to all. The U.S. should not pour oil on the fire, because unilateral U.S. sanctions against North Korea and the resulting pressure on the country produce negative results and become themselves a cause for conflict. South Korea should not miss the essence of the problem: it (as one of the parties involved in the conflict on the Korean Peninsula) should play the role of “fire extinguisher”, and should support neither North Korea nor the United States. Japan should not benefit from another’s misfortune by exacerbating the situation in the region.
Any parties concerned with tensions on the Korean peninsula should not shirk their responsibilities. “It is inadmissible to inflame a conflict near China, deterioration of the situation on the Korean Peninsula must be prevented and any dissenting party be opposed, however, a tense situation should not be artificially created, and all need to resist military methods of solving problems. Any words or actions that increase tensions on the Korean peninsula should be criticized.”
In this context, Chinese experts do not believe in either North Korea’s desire or its ability to “threaten the world”. Thus, during the Spring 2013 crisis, they cited the opinion of an expert on the Korean Peninsula, professor of Tongji University, Chzhiina Tsui: “Statements made by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea do not pose a real threat. North Korean missiles will not be able to reach U.S. military bases in the Pacific, and studies show that Pyongyang has not yet succeeded in creating a nuclear warhead.”
Experts from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences also consider the possibility of a full-scale conflict on the Korean peninsula unlikely. The report notes that the North Korean National Army is inferior to the South Korean army and that the whole world would oppose North Korea in the case of nuclear weapons usage.
The change of regime will be no less unpleasant. Note the interview of the afore-mentioned Shi Inhuna with the New York Times, where he argues that Chinese officials do not dare use economic leverage against North Korea because in the case of a government collapse a united Korea may be formed, which will enter into an alliance with the United States. This would be a nightmare scenario for China.
In conclusion, a word on mass reaction. In contemporary China, the attitude towards North Korea is about the same as in the latter years of the Soviet Union. Yes, it seems to be our ally and a member of the Soviet bloc, but relations between the two countries are not lacking, and the average user of the Chinese internet looks at Pyongyang with a mixture of irony and some irritation. Not by chance, one of the leading online satirists of China is Pyongyang Choi Seongho, pretending to be a loyal citizen of North Korea and occasionally posting “news from over there” with a greater or lesser proportion of the grotesque.
Nevertheless, although the attitude towards North Korea is largely tinged with irony, and the incident with the Xiyang Group caused some anti-North Korean sentiment, the Chinese people support the North in conflicts between the South and North. So much so, that the South Korean intelligence agencies typically attempt to attribute this to North Korean agents “deliberately spreading defamatory rumors about South Korea.”
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD, Senior Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.