When the Bomb Goes Boom: Gauging China’s Policy Responses

By | February 13, 2013 | No Comments

North Korea at the center - but China's reaction is key.  Photo via Xinhua

North Korea at the center – but China’s reaction is key. Photo via Xinhua

When the Bomb Goes Boom: Gauging China’s Response

In the interest of reviewing past translations and providing context for China’s policy responses, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga fresh from Beijing, weaves an eminently followable and well-documented narrative of Chinese policy and selected non-official, but well-placed – statements leading up to North Korea’s test.  So what is China’s official fall out?  Even though the response is still evolving, the outlines are clear and much as we called it.  China is more upset with North Korea than last time.  We see Chinese displeasure at being baldly ignored manifested in China’s slightly harsher language and a willingness to lay bare events that are usually not discussed in public such as calling in North Korea’s Ambassador to China.  In the end, until North Korea negatively impacts China’s core interests we’ll likely only see incremental changes in China’s policy toward DPRK.   — Roger Cavazos, Coordinator

Following weeks of threatening statements, North Korea just conducted its third nuclear test at the Punggye-ri site with an estimated yield of 10 kilotons and claims that it was a “miniaturized device.” Kim Jong-un’s first test (his father, Kim Jong-il, conducted the first two in 2006 and 2009) comes despite dire warnings from the international community that a nuclear test will only bring more sanctions, isolation and no benefits to North Korea. This test will undoubtedly be a test for China’s North Korea policy and strain the relationship, as both previous tests brought noticeable changes in policy. Pyongyang’s claim of miniaturization is important since this suggests that it is intended to be placed on a ICBM missile in light of the successful December 2012 test.  North Korea presently has no viable means of delivering a nuclear device.

How does China react to an increasingly armed peninsula on its border? Photo via qq net.

How does China react to an increasingly armed peninsula on its border? Photo via qq net.

Past crises on the Peninsula provide a blueprint for China’s policy options and a roadmap for where China will likely go from here. After North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, China reportedly cut off oil exports to North Korea and also started the Six Party Talks.# Following the first nuclear test in 2006, Chinese President Hu Jintao personally wrote China’s official response (link) and used “brazenly” to describe the test, a word usually reserved rhetorically for China’s enemies, signaling intense Chinese displeasure after Hu personally and publicly told the North not to test. China also adopted an approach much closer in line with the United States and this period was marked by the best U.S.-China cooperation on the North Korea nuclear issue to date. However, the North’s second test in 2009, combined with Kim Jong-il’s failing health, led China to change course and instead move closer to the DPRK, highlighted by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s October 2009 visit to Pyongyang and China’s unwavering support of North Korea in 2010 despite two attacks on South Korea leaving 50 dead.  The most recent missile test in December 2012 saw China agree to sanctions on North Korea last month, and these sanctions were cited as one reason for Pyongyang’s third nuclear test today. Yet this new nuclear test provides a litmus test for China’s intentions towards the Peninsula.

The United Nations is one place China will (barely) react to North Korea's nuclear test. Photo via  New York University Journal of International Law

The United Nations is one place China will (barely) react to North Korea’s nuclear test. Photo via New York University Journal of International Law

China has several policy options, both short and long-term, to address this nuclear test and the underlying issues on the Korean Peninsula.  For the immediate future, China has three general options: carry on like nothing happened, defend the North (like in 2010) or punish the North (like in 2003). China will likely punish the North in a restrained fashion, possibly subtly ending assistance for a period of time and also giving the Chinese media a wider reign to report on North Korea’s uglier side.  China will most likely work with the United States, South Korea and other countries to condemn the North and approve yet another round of UN sanctions, but will also try to weaken the sanctions and will likely enforce them in a lackluster manner, if at all. China allowed sanctions following both the North’s 2006 (UNSCR 1718) and 2009 (UNSCR 1874) nuclear test, and most recently last month in response to the North’s December 2012 missile test (UNSCR 2078). However, China usually attempts to protect the North by refusing to enact the severest sanctions possible. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already released a statement that “the Chinese Government is firmly opposed to this act,” but has no comment yet on future sanctions.

The Chinese bureaucratic politics of China’s response will be provide valuable insight into the current contours of China’s North Korea policy and may be reflected in the public media debate sure to ensue. The explosion would have likely first registered with the Chinese military, as they have a heavy presence along the North Korean border. However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is responsible for presenting China’s public response to the test yet has likely little influence over China’s policy response. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs already told CNN in response to a request for comment that, “What are you talking about? How is this related to Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” The International Liaison Department will likely be the people responsible for communicating China’s displeasure to Kim Jong-un through a visit in the coming weeks, though the Chinese Ambassador in Pyongyang, Liu Hongcai, may also meet with his counterpart for formality. Indeed, within hours of the test, Beijing called in the North Korean ambassador to meet with Minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi, suggesting Beijing is, at least temporarily, forgoing the “special relationship” inherent in party ties and instead treating North Korea as a “normal state-to-state relationship.”  It is very rare for Beijing to publicize meetings, let alone calling in the North Korean ambassador.

The Chinese media serves as one avenue towards understanding the Chinese government’s approach to the test. The Chinese media was very active on the North Korea issue leading up to the test, most importantly featuring an op-ed by the Global Times and one day later picked up by the official voice of the Chinese Communist Party, stating that “If North Korea engages in further nuclear tests, China will not hesitate to reduce its assistance to North Korea.” However, the limited extent of Chinese willingness for cooperation was evident in the next sentence: “If the US, Japan and South Korea promote extreme UN sanctions on North Korea, China will resolutely stop them and force them to amend these draft resolutions.” The typical prognosticators, Zhu Feng, Zhang Liangui, Lv Chao and others all quieted down as China went on holiday for Lunar New Years, but they will undoubtedly be making comments very soon. Hu Xijin, editor of the Global Times, already said that “North Korea has taken the wrong path. Its people are paying the price for their country’s mistakes” (per Chris Buckley’s twitter). The Chinese Netizen reaction has generally been characterized as anti-North Korean by online observers.

There were many signs that the DPRK would conduct a nuclear test, first and foremost their statement on January 24th that they threatened to test nuclear weapons. Chinese commentators, such as Zhu Feng, saw domestic motivations behind the test even as they initially predicted a test was unlikely due to the high political cost. However, U.S. academics, such as Scott Snyder, saw a desire for stronger deterrence capability as driving the test. Dr. Victor Cha guaranteed attendees at his book signing last night in DC that there would be a test before midterms, and he now appears all too prescient.

China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs - much of China's policy promulgated here - but not on North Korea.  Photo via WantChina website.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs – much of China’s policy promulgated here – but not on North Korea. Photo via WantChina website.

The most important question arising from the test is how China will respond and how to gauge its policy response. There are two things China watchers can observe now for the first inklings of China’s response: their statement and media coverage. For the Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement, does China’s quick response mean they had advanced notice as South Korean media have suggested? Does their lack of “brazen” mean they will continue their support of North Korea like after the 2009 test? Is there any indication from the U.S. government that they are cooperating with China? Chinese media coverage leading up to the test had been increasingly vocal but still within confines of acceptable debate, as SinoNK revealed with our analysis of the recent censorship of Zhu Feng’s op-ed in Singapore’s Lianhe Morning Post. There are two things down the road that will provide better insight into China’s policy response: visits to the North and China’s approach to a new round of sanctions. The first visit to the North after the nuclear test by Chinese officials will be important to observe the Chinese official’s department affiliation, seniority as well as the content of discussions with which North Korean counterpart. The most revealing factor in the next month will be China’s approach to sanctions in the UN Security Council. Precedent nearly dictates that China approve more sanctions, but yet to be seen is how enthusiastically China will endorse them, how much China will work behind the scenes to dampen them and how China will implement them (and previous sanctions) going forward.

This nuclear test presents China an opportunity to reconsider the risks and costs of its current passive North Korea policy. History suggests China will begrudgingly work with the international community to attempt a united front against Pyongyang in an effort to dissuade the North from further provocations, but ultimately China’s response will likely return to the same fundamental policy of support for the North in the hopes of postponing the inevitable: a unified Korea under the South Korean government.

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  1. Zhu Feng’s remarks about North Korea casting itself unto the United States and being Japan’s lackey (in 2007) looks unusually explicit to me. The fact that North Korea’s nuclear tests put China under pressure and spoils its image in the region are both expressions of disloyalty – Pyongyang gives a damn on Beijing’s “face”, and it openly distrusts patronage from Beijing.

    The talk about creating a Chinese nuclear umbrella for Pyongyang has probably become obsolete, hasn’t it?

    As for the issue of public opinion, it may be easier for Beijing to ignore it, than for the Obama administration. But a close alliance with a government which starves its own people is risky, too. Too many Chinese people know how it feels to be hungry. Even if the CCP top brushed the international implication of the Sino-North Korean alliance aside (that’s not quite the Global-times message, but it points into that direction), they may be risking a substantial chunk of their own legitimacy at home.

  2. Lots of good points here, especially about China needing to be careful about the grounds upon which they are “rejecting” North Korea or levying critique. The issue of hunger almost never comes up in Chinese media and only rarely is the food problem talked about at length. The general need for aid (of which food is assumed to a part) is acknowledged, but you’re quite right about the CCP not wanting to open that particular pandora’s box of trauma.

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