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An Il Wind in China

Richard Weitz

Chinese officials are indicating that one of the results of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il’s visit to China last week was that he has agreed to rejoin the Six-Party Talks aiming to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Unfortunately, we have heard this before, and one should not expect Beijing to exert itself to achieve this result any more than it has in the past.

It is understandable that the international community has looked to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to influence Pyongyang’s policies and help end the protracted dispute over North Korea’s nuclear program and its other threatening behavior. The PRC is North Korea’s most important foreign diplomatic, economic, and security partner. Through the Six-Party Talks and other mechanisms, PRC policymakers have sought to convince the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to relinquish its nuclear weapons and moderate its other foreign and defense policies in return for security assurances, economic assistance, and diplomatic acceptance by the rest of the international community. Such a benign outcome would avoid the feared consequences of precipitous regime change—humanitarian emergencies, economic reconstruction, arms races, and military conflicts.

Yet, Beijing’s willingness to pressure Pyongyang to modify its policies is constrained by a fundamental consideration. Unlike most policymakers in Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington, PRC policymakers 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 PRC 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 bribe Pyongyang through economic assistance and other inducements. Despite their frustrations with Kim Jong-Il, PRC policymakers appear to have resigned themselves to dealing with his regime for now, while hoping a more accommodating leadership will eventually emerge in Pyongyang.

Chinese policymakers have long opposed North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, if for no other reason than that its advent might induce South Korea, 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 if it became evident that Pyongyang had retransferred materials and technologies originally provided by China to third countries. North Korea readily 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.

Despite their irritation with the DPRK regime, most Chinese officials appear more concerned about the potential collapse of the North Korean state than about its leader’s intransigence on the nuclear question. PRC policymakers fear that the North Korea’s disintegration could induce widespread economic disruptions in East Asia; generate large refugee flows into China; weaken China’s influence in the Koreas by ending its unique status as the interlocutor between Pyongyang and the rest of the world; allow the U.S. military to concentrate its military potential in other theaters (e.g., Taiwan); and potentially remove a buffer separating China from American ground forces (i.e., should the U.S. Army redeploy into northern Korea). At worst, the DPRK’s collapse could precipitate military conflict and civil strife on the peninsula—which could spill across into Chinese territory. PRC policymakers have therefore consistently resisted military action, severe economic sanctions, and other developments that could destabilize the Korean peninsula.

To prevent these adverse outcomes, PRC policymakers continue to take steps to avert state failure in North Korea and counter other possible sources of chaos on the Korean peninsula. China still provides the DPRK with essential supplies of food, weapons, and other economic and political support. According to one estimate, North Korea receives about half its food and almost all its oil imports from China. In 2008, trade between the PRC and the DPRK reached $2.79 billion, up 41.3 percent since 2007, making China the DPRK’s most important trading partner. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans reside and work in China. PRC enterprises also have substantial investments in North Korea. China’s growing economic ties with the DPRK, as well as the PRC’s security and other interests in North Korea, give many Chinese a major stake in averting additional economic sanctions, not antagonizing the DPRK leadership to such an extent that North Korea might retaliate against Chinese economic interests, and above all avoiding regime change in Pyongyang.

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