Monday, November 2, 2009

Shades of Red: China’s Debate over North Korea


Beijing/Brussels, 2 November 2009: China’s internal debate following North Korea’s most recent provocations was interpreted in some Western capitals as a sign that Beijing is finally getting tough with its neighbour.

Shades of Red: China’s Debate over North Korea,* the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines current Chinese policy toward Pyongyang in the wake of North Korea’s latest round of provocations, including missile launches, the withdrawal from the Six-Party-Talks, and the 25 May nuclear test. These events, together with succession worries, drew out an unusually public, and critical, discussion in China about its ties with North Korea.

The debate took place between those proposing a stronger line against North Korea (“strategists”) and others advocating the continuation of considerable political and economic cover for China’s traditional ally (“traditionalists”). Beijing ultimately supported a strongly worded UN Security Council presidential statement and a resolution mandating a substantial sanctions regime, albeit one focused on missile and defence programs that would not destabilise the North Korean regime.

“Those who read China’s endorsement of UN Security Council Resolution 1874 and its sanctions regime as a signal of a policy shift, underestimate Beijing’s aversion to being diplomatically isolated”, says Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Crisis Group’s North East Asia Project Director. “While Chinese policymakers have adjusted their assessments and prepared the landscape for possible future policy changes, the fundamental calculations underpinning Chinese policy remain the same”.

China prioritises stability over denuclearisation due to a vastly different perception than the U.S. and its allies of the threat posed by a nuclear North Korea. Beijing’s greatest worries are regime implosion, hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees streaming across the border, and the strategic consequences of a precipitous reunification with South Korea. It therefore continues to act in ways that shield Pyongyang from more punitive measures, including stronger economic sanctions.

Beijing’s strong reaction to the 2006 nuclear test taught it that a tough stance on denuclearisation only weakens bilateral relations and jeopardises stability. Beijing now handles the bilateral relationship and the nuclear issue separately. While strengthening its relationship with the DPRK, Beijing leaves the thornier nuclear issue to the U.S. It navigates effectively between the U.S. and DPRK, simultaneously improving relations with both.

“China does not want North Korea to have nuclear weapons”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “But it is willing to go only so far in applying pressure, as it wants instability on its periphery even less”.

To listen to Daniel Pinkston, Crisis Group’s North East Asia Deputy Project Director, discussing the possibility of a breakthrough in the Six-Party-Talks, please click here for the podcast.

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