The View From Beijing: North Korea as a Path for U.S.-China Cooperation

By | January 27, 2013 | No Comments

North Korea's theater state antics play out near Beijing's opera house.  Yin, yang, ebb, flow; constant pain.  Photo via DVYang

The yin/yang and ebb/flow of North Korea’s theater state antics play out near Beijing’s opera house.  But it can be painful when the water freezes | photo via DVYang

Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga was in Beijing when the United Nations voted to sanction North Korea on January 23, and has gathered a number of very interesting points of view from his interviews with Chinese scholars. In keeping with our “Red Glare” theme we have chosen to supplement Nathan’s report from Beijing with a few of the more notable Chinese press voices for translation. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

The View From Beijing: North Korea as a Path for U.S.-China Cooperation

by Adam Cathcart, Roger Cavazos and Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga

Beijing, China —  Conversations with several well-placed academics in Beijing, citing their anonymity to speak freely, reveal doubts over the prospects for a third North Korean nuclear test in the immediate near future, and hope that China’s policy towards the North might shift towards a harder-line stance less tolerant of Pyongyang’s transgressions.

One scholar discounted the recent discussion of an impending North Korean nuclear test, despite mounting evidence that the North is making preparations.[1] The scholar asserted that Kim Jong-un can and will wait before conducting another nuclear test in order to engage with South Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye. He noted that a nuclear test at the beginning of Park’s five year term would “kill” any chance for engagement with South Korea before there is even an opportunity to discuss options. He also thinks it will lead to a drop-off in Chinese support for North Korea, so Kim Jong-un is best served by further postponing a third test. Explaining the December 2012 missile test, he said that the test was a demonstration of loyalty to the leader’s father, Kim Jong-il, as well as a show of strength and influence over the North Korean military. He also added that Kim Jong-un was a less emotional leader than Kim Jong-il, suggesting greater rationality and thus possibly predictability in North Korean policy-making.

North Korea’s worst nightmare? Chinese scholars see cooperation over North Korea as one venue for US-China harmonization of foreign policy objectives. | photo via Politica

DPRK nuke sites

The site of North Korea’s previous tests (and likely site of future tests). Every site on this map represents a possible cooperation venue between the U.S. and China. | image via

Turning to North Korea’s role in the greater Northeast Asian region, the scholar declared that North Korea was the only path forward for greater U.S.-China cooperation and China would thus follow a more hardline stance on North Korea to demonstrate willing cooperation on issues of importance to the United States. This comes against the backdrop of a tense strategic situation involving territorial disputes; the kind in which absolute positions are extremely difficult to reconcile. Specifically, China is embroiled in territorial disputes with Japan over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands.  China is also locked in the South China Sea legal battle with seven other claimants, as though watery boundaries were an impassable mountain boundary.  Since China, in this scholar’s view, cannot, and will not, take tangible steps to downgrade tensions over the Diaoyu Islands and South China Sea, North Korea is the only significant policy issue left for China on which to positively engage with the United States. Xi Jinping’s incoming administration will endeavor to approach Obama’s second term as a new and clean slate for constructive U.S.-China relations and North Korea provides a convenient issue for concrete progress and a sign of goodwill. Creating a more stable foreign security environment provides the Chinese government some breathing room to address pressing domestic issues.

These comments reflect but one leading opinion in the increasingly dialectic domestic debate over China’s North Korea policy and may not prove a decisive indication of future policy trends. Nevertheless, this perspective appears in step with China’s recent agreement to pass a new UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) condemning the North’s December 2012 missile test and reinforcing existing sanctions.[2] It was the first time in four years that China allowed a UNSCR on North Korea. Furthermore, North Korea’s possible role as an avenue forward for U.S.-China expressions of goodwill and cooperation reminds observers that the China-North Korea relationship does not exist in a vacuum but rather is leveraged strategically by China towards larger ends within Beijing’s overall foreign policy goals.

Previous DPRK nuclear tests. Via CRI

Previous DPRK nuclear tests | image via CRI

Second-Rank Bloggers and Netizen Chatter | Those foreign policy goals increasingly need to be articulated within the context of a sometimes volatile realm of Chinese popular nationalism and internet connectivity.  Men like Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times/Huanqiu Shibao, are thus important channels through which often-exaggerated neo-Mahanian versions of China’s national interests are conveyed. (We analyzed Hu’s Weibo feed in-depth after Kim Jong-il’s death and provide more context about his North Korea views in this detailed dossier.)  Given that certain types of reports from China can enrage the DPRK (as seen in this story we covered a year ago), netizen commentary bears following, not least because it is often negative toward North Korea broadly and Kim Jong-un specifically.

The three blogs that follow were written by men on what might be called the “second tier” of pundits in the PRC, types who have risen along with the internet and whose voices can be awfully useful for the Chinese Communist Party when a divergent idea needs to be expressed for the first time or a particularly naked message sent out. Of the three listed here, one is by a scholar who does not normally write on North Korea, one from a blogger who writes often on various topics and one who writes frequently for various publications.  All three were featured prominently on the Huanqiu Shibao website.

–  Long Xingchun [龙兴春]: It Doesn’t Hurt to Speak Clearly about China’s Nuclear Strategy [中国核政策,不妨讲清楚], FULL TRANSLATION AVAILABLE.  Long is a scholar, but not on DPRK.  However his proposal for PRC to provide a nuclear umbrella was also paired with overturning 50 years of promulgated Chinese nuclear doctrine.

– Tang Ge [唐歌], Why China Clings to North Korea: Finally Clarifying North Korea’s Importance [为什么中国要死守朝鲜:终于明白朝鲜重要性],  FULL TRANSLATION AVAILABLE.  This geographical perspective on North Korea’s importance is straight out of BC 3rd Century Spring and Autumn Period.  The author has some interesting things to say about postwar strategies and very much argues for a more activist Chinese military posture.

-Chen Guangwen [陈光文], China wants to see a North Korean nuclear test stir up confusion in Northeast Asia [中国乐见朝鲜核试验搅动东北亚乱局] Chen writes frequently for various publications with a focus on international affairs and military hardware.  His conflicted view is fairly common to Chinese.  On one hand, they realize that North Korea is “abducting China’s security.”  But on the other hand, they are glad that North Korea brings U.S. focus back to China and allows China to extract concessions on Senkaku/Diaoyu and other issue important to China.  Chinese desire to trade pressure on North Korea for pressure on Japan seems to be on the rise.

More examples of state-sponsored blogs of course exist, but few were more galvanizing than this one, which concluded with a call to “let the Kim family dynasty collapse” in favor of a regime that would be more friendly and cooperative with China, a step that would “be a good thing for the North Korean and Chinese people” both: “依我看,如果需要,是可以让金家王朝崩溃,再扶持一个能和我们友好合作的政权!这对朝鲜人民、中国政府来说,应该是个好事情!”

Netizen commentary on news stories was acutely negative after January 23, with a number of commentators on the Huanqiu board making reference to Vietnam (the implication being that if China turned North Korea into an enemy state, a war with that state would soon become inevitable), a theme seen here, here, and here. The notion of North Korea as “a wolf” was also brought up with some regularity, including here. Weibo feeds from official newspapers in Yanbian, near the North Korean border, ran photo recollections of the earthquake and school evacuations necessitated by the DPRK’s 2009 nuclear test. In general, the theme was one of “falling out.”

An oversized bomb, a tiny an isolated North Korea and a complete absence of the other 24 million North Koreans visually describe current conditions.  Via

Chinese official cartoonists savaged Kim Jong Un after the DPRK announced its belligerent dismissal of the UN sanctions. Moreso than the oversized bomb, the depiction of a tiny and isolated North Korea adrift  is intended as a representation of how it ostensibly feels without China’s support. | cartoon via

The Blue Scholars Returning from the forays into the dark soul of Chinese netizen opinion and its questionable provenance, we conclude this essay with a look at what reliable and long-time Chinese observers of North Korea have had to say on record.  Like the scholars interviewed above, these men take a more dispassionate view. Interestingly enough, none of them call for de-nuclearizing North Korea, so as far as can be discerned. Ding Gang, however, makes it clear that “nuclear weapons won’t bring North Korea security.”

– Shen Dingli, “What’s behind North Korea’s nuclear test?”  Shen Dingli (a nuclear physicist in his own right) says the North Koreans have their reasons for wanting to conduct a test.  He doesn’t say he agrees with them, but he does understand their point – and then makes it for them.  He does express hope that DPRK will slow down testing and at least give dialogue a chance.  In that regard, there is common ground among the scholars.

– Zhang Liangui [张琏瑰], North Korean-Japanese Relations May See Breakthrough [朝日关系可能有大突破], FULL TRANSLATION AVAILABLE.  Zhang, a Communist party heavyweight and avuncular consigliere, tells North Korea to make nice with Japan.  China needs to keep this situation to a low simmer instead of boiling over.

Finally, Zhu Feng at Beijing University went on the record with the Washington Post‘s Chico Harlan, stating that “China has no option but to support the U.N.[…] Under such a situation, Kim Jong Eun should make serious considerations about the consequences. Anther nuclear test by North Korea could heighten the unrest in Northeast Asia.” Among other things, this could be a reference to China’s ability to destabilize the northern regions of the DPRK by opening the border to refugees. But that is a story for another day.

[1] Jack Liu, Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis, “Preparations for a Possible Third Nuclear Test Continue; Complications from Water Buildup?” 38North, December 27, 2012.

[2] Neil MacFarquhar, “Security Council Condemns North Korea Rocket Launching,” New York Times, January 22, 2013.

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