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China's North Korea Policy - Backtracking from Sunnylands?

By Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt

8 July 2013

In recent months, China has affected a sterner disposition toward North Korea, reflecting growing frustration with its errant neighbor. But despite Chinese President Xi Jinping’s stronger rhetoric on denuclearization during his summit discussions with US President Barack Obama at Sunnylands, Beijing’s policy is still based upon the strategic priorities of, in descending order, “no war, no instability, no nukes” (不战、不乱、无核). As soon as Xi made his statement, Chinese experts began to backpedal.[1] Chinese government analysts insist that Beijing has not changed its priorities with regard to North Korea and are surprised that outsiders believe otherwise.

To understand China’s policies towards North Korea and their potential for change, it is crucial not to mistake bolder rhetoric and the public debate—online, in the media, and in academia—for a lasting shift in state policy.[2]

Outwardly, Chinese policy towards the DPRK appears to be in a state of deepening uncertainty. Since the DPRK conducted its third nuclear test in February 2013 and issued belligerent statements throughout the spring, Beijing has used bolder rhetoric, allowed a vibrant domestic debate about North Korea, and supported a UN sanctions resolution.[3] Last week, Xi Jinping and the leader of North Korea’s archrival, South Korea, discussed the importance of denuclearizing the North.[4] Satirical jokes about Kim Jong Un abound on the Chinese Internet, uncensored. Chinese strategists have expressed the need to dilute the ideological and sentimental factors in PRC-DPRK bilateral relations to achieve “normal state-to-state relations.” Many Chinese policy experts agree that China should recalibrate its North Korea policy to better serve its own national interests. In the words of one analyst, “China should righteously say ‘no’ to North Korea’s irresponsible behavior that threatens regional peace and stability.”[5]

These developments, however, do not signal a fundamental change in China’s North Korea policy. Its primary concern on the Korean peninsula remains preventing armed conflict, with avoiding large-scale unrest and/or regime collapse as a close second. Although still nominally unacceptable, a de facto nuclear North Korea strategically aligned with China is easier for Beijing to stomach.

China’s moves have been tactical and short-term, not strategic and lasting; they have not altered that array of priorities. While a fundamental adjustment of Chinese policy on North Korea remains possible in the long term, such a shift is not likely in the near future. Although North Korea’s nuclear tests and repeated provocations have damaged Chinese national interests, Beijing still feels that it benefits by keeping the Kim regime afloat. For all its rhetoric about denuclearization, Beijing is still not willing—nor does it feel able—to implement punitive measures that might push North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons. The consensus view in Beijing is that even if it took punitive measures, they would not succeed in forcing North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons.[6]


You can read the full article on 38North where it was first published.