The main aims of this article are to investigate and explain China’s policy, cooperation and disagreements with Washington and Moscow on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK or North Korea) nuclear issue.
As a permanent member of the UNSC and an important player in international relations, China has the capability and authority to address and solve internationally important problems. In turn, international society is also interested in Beijing continuing its active involvement in the improvements in world security․
China plays a decisive and important role in the negotiations regarding the DPRK’s nuclear issue. The de facto withdrawal from the Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) by the DPRK led to a new political situation in the international community. The DPRK’s nuclear weapons may trigger a decision by other Far East countries to acquire nuclear arsenals. The balance between the DPRK and the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) has already been violated in favor of the former. Whether the ROK will continue to rely on the American nuclear umbrella or develop its own nuclear weapons depends on the final results of negotiations. Japan has previously announced that the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal is a threat to its national security, which means that Japan may consider a possible substitute for the American nuclear guarantee. Tensions regarding the DPRK’s nuclear issues threaten the entire political and economic stability of the Far East. China is the second-largest economy in the world, and Japan and the ROK are extremely well developed economies. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Indian economies continue to grow rapidly. Tension or military actions in the Korean Peninsula can harm economic development throughout the entire region. However, after missiles and nuclear tests, the DPRK seems to be playing its own game, as it has not accepted UNSC resolutions. Officially, Pyongyang announced its withdrawal from the NPT and rejects international norms; this behavior discredits the effectiveness and authority of the UN, as well. In a broader sense, the DPRK continues to attempt to solve its national security problems by developing missile systems and nuclear weapons. However, these projects harm the DPRK’s political relations with the international community, including with allies such as China. When the DPRK began nuclear tests, China was initially surprised and attempted to punish the DPRK for its actions by voting for sanctions against the nation.
The following question therefore arises: Which action is more useful for a state? Developing nuclear weapons would give the opportunity to deter any offensive activity, whereas having allies and expanding economic relations would deter any possible revolutions or economic collapse. Recent world history offers a cogent example. The Soviet Union was one of the most powerful states in the world, but history has nevertheless shown that it is difficult to maintain sovereignty without a modern economy, free trade and open economic relations with the international community. Moreover, if a state’s economy collapses, no nuclear weapon can help. The next hypothesis is that the DPRK’s government understands that the ROK’s economy develops quickly and that they are far from the ROK’s level of economic development. However, they want to show their domestic audience that they are building a modern and strong state. Although the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty and New Start
treaties between Russia and the US might encourage other countries to reduce their nuclear capabilities, the DPRK’s nuclear tests can lead to a new nuclear arms race.
View from Beijing on the DPRK’s Nuclear Issue
In response to the DPRK’s nuclear tests, the UNSC chose sanctions as the appropriate way
of halting the proliferation of Weapons of Mass destruction (WMDs) in the Far East. UNSC sanctions on the DPRK primarily targeted the military, financial and nuclear sectors of this country. China condemned the DPRK’s nuclear test and voted affirmatively for Resolutions․
With these steps, China sent a message to its partners in Pyongyang, stating that Beijing is not interested in a nuclear arms race in the Far East. Chinese decision makers sent another message to Western colleagues stating that they are ready to cooperate within the framework of negotiations and would not accept any attempt to solve the DPRK’s nuclear issue militarily.
Contributions of the Chinese researchers show that the opinions of China’s researchers are divided on this issue. One segment of Chinese researchers believes that the DPRK is not China’s friend and that its behavior and nuclear arsenal is a threat to Chinese security. The second segment of Chinese researchers believes that the DPRK is a buffer between China and Japan and between Chinese and US troops that are based in Japan and the ROK and that China must help the DPRK for this reason.
In turn, the second segment of Chinese researchers can be further divided into two groups. The first group believes that China should help the people of the DPRK because of the longstanding Sino-Korean relationship, but representatives of this group like to add that the Chinese do not like the Kim dynasty. The second group of this segment of Chinese researchers believes that the DPRK is China’s strategic partner, as evidenced by the Sino-
North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance of 1961, and that China must continue to help the DPRK maintain its political system.
If we consider, that the DPRK is still China’s ally due to the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, Mutual Assistance, that was signed by China and DPRK in 1961, which obligated each party to come to the aid of the other if attacked, so the following question arises: Why did China accept sanctions against its so-called ally?
China is disappointed by the fact that nuclear weapons technology is being spread to neighboring states, which may be a reason for the possible nuclear arms race in the Far East.
Thus, if the international community could not find the ways to urge the DPRK’s government to completely, verifiably, irreversibly dismantle its nuclear arsenal, it is possible that other countries in the region such as Japan and ROK, which have the capability to build nuclear weapons, would strive to repair the balance and would start their own nuclear programs. They can announce that the DPRK’s nuclear weapons threaten their security and that they need to build their own to deter the DPRK. It is worth mentioning, that before the first nuclear test of the DPRK, China was the only legal owner of nuclear weapons among its eastern neighbors. Nuclear weapons give China an advantage against its perpetual opponent, Japan. This fact provided an impetus to China to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons in NEA.
The Chinese nuclear arsenal deters Japan, but what will happen if Japan creates nuclear weapons as well?
China would lose its coercive deterrent against its historical opponent.
I believe that China will continue to press the DPRK and urge it to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, but Beijing will never entirely turn to the US and leave the DPRK in complete isolation. It appears that if China agrees with the US’s wishes to isolate the DPRK that such an event would mean the beginning of the collapse of the DPRK. I believe that after this step, the US would reach a separate agreement with Pyongyang. The history of international relations features several examples designed and implemented by the US as follows: the first event was when the US improved its ties with China without discussing this step with Japan, and the second event was when the US improved its relations with Vietnam – a country that the US had struggled with in the past. Currently, the US serves as a reliable patron for the guarantee of security in Vietnam. The US-Vietnam strategic partnership is surely in opposition to China’s interests. From my point of view, China would continue to support the DPRK in building its economy, which would give Beijing a chance to maintain its influence over the DPRK. Further, Beijing will continue to improve its ties with the ROK, as the ROK is the third-leading economic partner of China. China will attempt to find ways to demilitarize and denuclearize the Korean Peninsula with the ROK. From Beijing’s perspective, these steps will provide an opportunity to reduce the US’s influence in the Far East. We can conclude that from China’s perspective, “no problems in the region will eliminate US interference in regional affairs.” In sum, during the negotiations for preventing further nuclear proliferation in the Korean Peninsula, China is in the most difficult position because it attempts to push the DPRK to continue the negotiation process and to stop developing new nuclear weapons. China also makes an effort to ease sanctions on the whole. Beijing cannot allow an unstable situation in the DPRK, which would cause thousands of refugees to flee from the DPRK to China; thus, China is interested in the DPRK’s stability. Additionally, the government of China believes that if a communist regime is maintained in Pyongyang, China would be able to use the DPRK’s massive army in a possible “West-East” confrontation.
China-US Disagreements and Cooperation on the DPRK’s Nuclear Issue
China-US competition for political influence on the Korean Peninsula began following the Second World War and escalated during the Korean War, as China was struggling with the DPRK against the US and its allies. The DPRK’s nuclear arsenal and tense relations between the DPRK and the ROK remain threats to the security and stability of the entire Far East. The conflicting parties have powerful military allies. On July 11, 1961, China and the DPRK signed the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, and in 1953, the ROK and US signed Mutual Defense Treaty. Due to this treaty, the US maintains troops in the Korean peninsula.
In fact, the US has a military presence near China’s eastern borders (in Japan and in the ROK), and the DPRK’s nuclear issue has given the US an excuse to relocate more troops to the region and to relocate its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) advance missile defense system to deter the DPRK.
From Beijing’s perspective, a concentration of US troops or relocation of the US missile defense system near its borders are also a real threat to China. China helps maintain Pyongyang’s regime so that its army can keep away and deter US ground troops from Beijing and Eastern China, which are located south of the Korean Peninsula.
From previous experience, the Chinese people also know that the No.1 US ally in the Far East, Japan, might attack China if it strengthened its position in the Korean Peninsula.
In sum, China and the US have different visions for the future political development of the Korean Peninsula. China would like to maintain the DPRK’s stability, whereas the US attempts to weaken it by sanctions. If it finally crashes, the US wishes to change the regime and unite it with the ROK. By contrast, China attempts to limit its disagreements with the US and maintain peace in the Korean peninsula; however, China’s strategy is also to develop high-level political and economic relations with the ROK, connect the ROK’s economy with China’s economy and, as a result, weaken the US in the Korean Peninsula. This strategy may yield results, but the main obstacle is that the DPRK periodically takes provocative actions, including nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches. Thus, ROK leaders continue to see the US as the main guarantor of ROK security. As a result, the US maintains a military base in the Korean peninsula.
However, China and the US also have one common goal: to remove nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula and prevent a possible nuclear arms race in the Far East. The main reason for cooperation between the US and China is that the two superpowers oppose nuclear proliferation in the Korean Peninsula.
China-Russia Cooperation Regarding the DPRK’s Nuclear Issue
In a broader sense, in the UNSC, Russian diplomacy regarding the DPRK’s nuclear issue entails finding solutions with China and subsequently negotiating with other partners. Russia attempts to use its influence on the DPRK to support the negotiation process. The main positions of Russia and China on the Korean nuclear issue match as both sides want to see the Korean Peninsula without nuclear weapons and the peaceful development of the DPRK.
The following question arises: What is uniting Beijing’s and Moscow’s positions on the DPRK nuclear issue in the UNSC?
- China and Russia are responsible powers that are interested in dismantling the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal. China is not interested in seeing its neighbors become new members of the “nuclear club”. Russia is also interested in maintaining the balance of power in the Korean Peninsula and Far East.
- The second reason for the Russian-Chinese united resistance against the DPRK’s nuclear tests is that that after the DPRK’s nuclear tests and missile launches, the US increased its military involvement in the Far East, arguing that it must protect the ROK and Japan from the DPRK threat, but in fact it is against China and Russia as well. The ROK and Japan subsequently began increasing their military potential in the Far East.
III. China and Russia are against the rhetoric of US politicians who emphasize the importance of changing the DPRK’s political regime. Any type of political instability in the Korean peninsula would deepen – not solve – the political crisis in the Far East. Russian and Chinese decision makers understand that if the US leads political changes in the DPRK, it would completely change the direction of Pyongyang’s foreign policy and that the country would move into the Western camp. These types of possible developments in the DPRK would limit Russia’s and China’s ability to maneuver in the Far East.
- In the UNSC, China and Russia have attempted to maintain stability and the balance of power in the Korean Peninsula. Concurrently, along with the other main players of the international community that were involved in the negotiations on the DPRK’s nuclear issue, they continue to press the DPRK to return to the negotiating table to discuss dismantling its nuclear arsenal. In the UNSC, Moscow and Beijing maintain pressure on the DPRK but only to the extent that its economic and political systems do not collapse.
- China and Russia continue to develop their economic relations with the DPRK, given the limitations of the UNSC sanctions. These economic relations provide an opportunity for the DPRK regime to maintain its political and economic systems. China’s investments and economic aid are the DPRK’s main guaranties of stability. As developments have shown, China and Russia can exert influence on the DPRK; however, regarding its nuclear policy, the DPRK has independently chosen its steps and listened to neither Beijing nor Moscow.
- China and Russia cooperate regarding the DPRK’s nuclear issue and do not let the US and its allies isolate and destroy the DPRK; on the other hand, when the Russian bear returned to Korean Peninsula, a hidden struggle would develop between Russia and China for influence in the DPRK. This would provide more room for the DPRK’s diplomats to maneuver between Russian and Chinese disagreements, as was the case during the Cold War, when the DPRK’s leaders were playing on disagreements between China and Russia.
VII. China and Russia are against US and ROK’s use of the DPRK actions as an excuse for deploying the THAAD missile defense system, as it could become a real security threat for both China and Russia.
From my perspective, the DPRK’s nuclear issue can be solved if the US, China, Russia, the ROK, and Japan can come to a united conclusion.
What type of policies do these 5 countries have?
The US has long attempted to find ways to change the DPRK’s political system or to disrupt the DPRK’s weak economy and receive concessions from Pyongyang. Japan, with some exceptions, has attempted to follow US policies. The ROK has tried to maintain economic relations with the DPRK, but at a low level. China, by contrast, continues its economic relations with the DPRK, given the limitations of the UNSC sanctions. Beijing has urged the DPRK leaders to implement Chinese-style economic reforms and continues to provide the DPRK with food aid. China therefore attempts to maintain influence in the DPRK to prevent unpredictable or dangerous steps by Pyongyang, but as past developments have shown, the
DPRK tries to play its own chess game and make decisions by itself. Russia has attempted to reestablish its influence in the DPRK, which was lost when the USSR collapsed. For this reason, Moscow wrote off the DPRK’s debt. Therefore, we have 5 players+ the DPRK, and every player attempts to play its own game. I believe that the DPRK also tries to gain from the disagreements of the above-mentioned global and regional powers (China, Russia, the US, the ROK and Japan). I believe these powers can agree from their side that nobody should separately or secretly sign an agreement with the DPRK. The powers can offer the DPRK support for developing its north regions, which border China, to prevent further immigration to China from the DPRK’s poorest regions. The 5 powers must announce that they have no intentions of changing the DPRK’s political system so that the DPRK does not need nuclear bombs to prevent such developments. I believe it is important to maintain an arms embargo and control the import and export of nuclear dual-use materials to the DPRK, but it is nonetheless possible to suspend heavy economic sanctions. These steps will provide the opportunity to build confidence among the negotiating parties and improve the DPRK’s economic situation, which in turn will give added impetus to stop the immigration of the DPRK’s citizens into China, which Beijing would like to prevent. The 5 powers can offer the DPRK a new roadmap for a final solution to its nuclear issue. The main idea can apply to that if the 5 powers help the DPRK join the global economic order, as a result it will be much easier to urge the DPRK’s decision makers to dismantle their nuclear arsenal. In this hypothetical scenario, the DPRK would have something to lose.
(*)Mher D. Sahakyan- Ph.D. 2016 (International Relations), School of International Studies, Nanjing University, China. Director of the “‘China-Eurasia’ Council for Political and Strategic Research” Foundation, Armenia and the author of the article CHINA’S POLICY ON THE DPRK’S NUCLEAR ISSUE: COOPERATION AND DISAGREEMENTS WITH THE US AND RUSSIA, (Moscow University Bulletin. Series 13. Oriental Studies, No. 1, 2017, pp. 39-55), from which this essay is adapted. Used by permission. All rights reserved.