China’s Headache: Pressure Points on North Korea

By | April 14, 2012 | 2 Comments

Analysts are not cartoonists, nor are they plaintive photographers who can stun us into insight in a single instant. In a media environment where one is often provoked to, in Aidan Foster-Carter’s phrase, “cue the sneer” toward East Asia’s one-party states, the analyst has to plunge ahead anyway with meaningful work.  Thus Nick Miller, SinoNK’s Analyst for Chinese Geostrategy, probes at Chinese options and responses to North Korea’s provocative turn.  Miller, who is currently at Texas A & M University, will be working this summer in the Korea Economic Institute (District of Columbia).  His  colleagues Charles Kraus (Woodrow Wilson Center) and Steven Denney (Yonsei University) are thanked for their extensive comments on this most substantive essay. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

China’s Headache: Pressure Points on North Korea

by Nick Miller

Western analysts and policy makers commonly critique China for not doing enough to assert itself and prevent North Korea from misbehaving. This time around, China’s pressure did not force the North Korean regime to suspend its upcoming satellite launch, a signal element in the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung. The launch, and China’s apparently ineffective response, begs a review of the question of pressure points in Beijing’s relationship with Pyongyang and its neighbors.

Decidedly not the vantage point from which Beijing wants its citizens to consider North Korea | Image via Impact Lab

Considering the Prospect of Panic in Shanghai |  Instead of “turning a blind eye,” President Obama has urged China to use its influence over North Korea to prevent Pyongyang from launching the missile. The President’s call to for more action to deter North Korea was noted by a somewhat ruffled Chinese press, which complained about Obama’s grandstanding without really refuting his central point.[1] But the 38th parallel – not to mention the Chinese press — has long been a site for dramatic posturing.  What if that was all just for show?

According to an unnamed Chinese source with close ties to the Chinese leadership, China was working assiduously behind the scenes to pressure North Korea to forego its planned satellite launch for fear that the launch would only give more justification to the continuation of a strong United States presence in Asia. The Chinese leadership, almost certainly recalling the near-panic that followed the Fukushima disaster, is also concerned that Shanghai and Beijing are in range of North Korea’s ballistic missiles and, according to the source, do not want citizens in these cities to feel threatened by North Korea. [2]

It is probably not at all coincidental that the Japan-ROK-PRC meetings to discuss the missile launch took place in Ningbo, a city near Shanghai that was the closest to the missile’s proscribed path, “threading the needle” between Japan and China.   

Missile tests are just part of the problem.  China is keeping a lid on the topic in the press, but South Korean intelligence agencies are now reporting that North Korea is preparing for a third nuclear test near Punggye-ri, the site of the 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests.   If China talks back to the US leader about its influence over Pyongyang, there are still critical national interests at stake where Chinese and PRC needs are in alignment – the difference being that no American cities are likely to get panicked about a nuclear test next door.

What’s a Stakeholder to Do?  |  Apart from its own domestic concerns, China is far from immune from being influenced by the international discourse on North Korean issues.  Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and current Security Council President, commented that North Korea’s actions were in violation of its international obligations.[3] There is also the fear that with the harsh international condemnation North Korea received for its rocket testing in 2009 it resulted in North Korea walking away the nuclear disarmament talks and conducting a second nuclear test.[4] Victor Cha, senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argued that there is a possible disconnect within the elites over a ballistic missile launch and a satellite launch and will likely use this event to gain more concessions in later negotiations with the United States.[5]

Chinese elites and leaders are reading these signals as well.  Wang Junsheng, an Asian Affairs specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, recently said that Pyongyang’s announcement of its intent to test a satellite following the food deal with the United States is the result of internal pressures as Kim Jong Un seeks to consolidate his power amongst the old guard of North Korean elites.[6] Open discussion of the power configurations in Pyongyang, as well as critiques of North Korean militarism, is now commonplace in the Chinese press.  To varying degrees, China is allowing Western critiques of the DPRK – including those of Victor Cha, when it suits their purpose — to enter into the mainstream of debate in the Chinese press, a field which is increasingly centered upon the image of an internationally responsible Middle Kingdom.

On Contradiction |  China, however, has some difficulty in criticizing North Korea for launching missiles on important commemorative dates. After all, China launched its own satellites in 1982 and 1987 to mark the anniversary of the death of Mao Zedong and again in 1992, 1997, 2002, and 2007 to coincide with the convening of Party Congresses. [7] At the outset, it is difficult for China to make the case that its satellite launches in honor of Mao are any different than what the North Koreans are doing for Kim Il Sung.

Mao Zedong, right, with Qian Xuesen (钱学森 ), the MIT-educated physicist who developed China’s first missile after being detained for the duration of the Korean War in the USA | Image via Xinhua

Nevertheless, China has been a vocal critic of North Korea’s procurement of nuclear material, its nuclear testing, and missile launches. It voted in favor of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, both of which imposed sanctions upon North Korea. For Beijing, a nuclear free Korean peninsula remains one of its key strategic goals, but while the West has continued to presume China has substantial leverage over North Korea, this did not stop Pyongyang from conducting its testing of nuclear weapons on October 9, 2006, and a second test on May 25, 2009.[8]

In the past, China has cut off oil exports to North Korea to mark its displeasure and reassert stronger leverage over Pyongyang. The World Bank estimates that North Korea receives over 90% of its oil from China. China cut off the North’s oil supply in 2003 as an attempt to dissuade Pyongyang’s nuclear ambition, again after its first nuclear test.  When the North shelled Yeonpyeong, China reportedly put the hammer down in private to Pyongyang to prevent further escalation, and then praised North Korea in headlines for its judicious independent decision.[9]

While some might point to China’s undeniably strong historical relationship with North Korea (not least of which included the more or less full control of the Korean People’s Army by a Chinese general from 1951-1953), China will certainly continue to be frustrated in its inability today to stop its unpredictable neighbor.

Hostage to Stability |  Shim Jae Hoon, a South Korean political commentator, has doubts that Beijing can influence the new leader merely through statements of displeasure. Beijing also needs the new regime to remain stable.  Signs that Kim Jong Un is failing to consolidate his power or evidence that the regime faces eminent collapse, while China is seeking to undertake its own leadership transition, would be a worse-case scenario for China.

There is the also the ever present concern over refugees.  If China pushes hard enough, such as by suspending food, oil, and gas to the DPRK for an extended time, it could lead to more refugees flooding Northeast China. The internationalization of the refugee issue is a double-edged sword for the Chinese Communist Party: on the one hand, Beijing has leverage over Pyongyang through the threat of “opening the gates to a prosperous nation” (e.g., China) and allowing North Koreans to flood into camps or transit into Mongolia (with the help of UN workers and South Korean government funds).

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, left, in Ulan Bator, August 23, 2011. Since 2008, Lee has been endeavoring to set up transit camps in Mongolia for North Korean refugees. | Image courtesy Office of the President of Mongolia

On the other hand, John Tkacik has argued that that China has been duplicitous over its handling of North Korea and uses its leverage to ensure North Korea’s nuclear program undermines the U.S. position in Asia. The Heritage Foundation scholar goes so far as to assert that Beijing closely coordinates with North Korea to keep the United States guessing as to what will happen next.[10] While Tkacik represents one of the more hawkish critics of China, if  in fact a third nuclear test is carried out in the coming weeks or months ,it will not take such a critic to indicate to the international community that China is unable to effectively manage North Korea.

China’s relationship with North Korea is better likened to a hostage situation, as there is little room for Beijing to control Pyongyang. As it turns out, the Chinese leadership has no real choice but to continue to support North Korea. Excessively harsh measures levied against North Korea could lead an exodus of refugees heading to its borders – this is not a tipping point the Chinese regime wishes to experiment with.  There is also the possibility the spread of nuclear weapons if the regime collapses. Finally, if conflicting arguments in the Chinese press and among regime intellectuals are any indicator, the Chinese leaders do not want to lose its buffer zone that keeps the U.S. military at bay.

While China will likely continue its policies of maintaining stability in order to prevent collapse, a difficult point may arrive at which the international community – including Japan, China’s long time rival in East Asia —  to seek other ways to bypass China entirely to curb North Korea’s actions.


[1] Mark Landler, “Obama Urges China to Restrain North Korea,” New York Times, 03/26/2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/27/world/asia/president-obama-in-south-korea.html?_r=1, accessed 04/08/2012.

[2] Benjamin Kang Lim, “China, between a rocket and a hard place on North Korea,” Reuters, 04/10/2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/04/10/us-korea-north-china-idUSBRE83902J20120410, accessed 04/10/2012.

[3] Those international obligations Ambassador Rice is referring to was U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874 that was passed after North Korea’s 2009 satellite launch and missile test. http://www.cfr.org/proliferation/un-security-council-resolution-1874-north-korea/p19625

[4] Hyung-Jin Kim, “South Korea says North Preparing for nuclear test,” Associated Press, 04/09/2012, http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/A/AS_NKOREA_NUCLEAR_TEST?SITE=TXBRH&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT, accessed 04/09/2012.

[5] Choe Sang-Hun and Steven Lee Myers, “North Korea Says It Will Launch Satellite Into Orbit,” New York Times, 3/16/2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/17/world/asia/north-korea-satellite-launch-missile-test.html?ref=kimjongun, accessed  04/09/2012.

[6] “ DPRK Satellite launch ‘harmful,” China Daily, 03/19/2012, http://www.china.org.cn/world/2012-03/19/content_24928620.htm, accessed 04/08/2012.

[7] Benjamin Kang Lim, “China, between a rocket and a hard place on North Korea,”

[8] Joseph Kahn, “North’s Test Seen as Failure for Korea Policy China Followed,” New York Times, 10/09/2006, https://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/09/world/asia/09china.html, accessed 4/09/2012; Evan Ramstad, Jay Solomon, and Peter Spiegel, “Korean Blast Draws Outrage,” Wall Street Journal, 05/26/2009, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124322074782250897.html, accessed 04/09/2012.

[9] Joseph Kahn, “China May Be Using Oil to Press North Korea,” New York Times, 10/31/2006, https://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/31/world/asia/31korea.html, accessed 04/09/2012.; Sunny Lee, “China cuts off oil to stop N. Korea from retaliating against South,” Korea Times, 1/19/2011, http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2011/04/117_79966.html, accessed 04/09/2012.

[10] John Tkacik, Jr, “Does Beijing Approve of North Korea’s Nuclear Ambition?,” 04/15/2005, 04/15/2005, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2005/03/does-beijing-approve-of-north-koreas-nuclear-ambitions, accessed 04/09/2012.

2 Comments

  1. Nothing we didn’t know already. China has very little influence or leverage over North Korea, Beijing is in a bind. Interestingly though, Nick Miller suggests there are ways for “the international community” to bypass China entirely to curb North Korea’s actions. I’d like to know how the US and Japan would rein in North Korea by bypassing China. Nothing short of an invasion will work.

  2. The other thing is, I understand that nukes in North Korea are bad, the international community needs to do everything it can to get rid of the nukes in North Korea. But why is everyone, including the Chinese so hellbent on insisting the North Koreans have must not launch a satellite or test a long range missile? Why did the UN pass a resolution limiting North Korea’s sovereign right to do these things while it allows other countries to do the very same thing? Hypocrisy at work, isn’t it?

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