Hauling in the U.S.-DPRK Rebound: Two Opposing Chinese Perspectives

By | March 03, 2013 | No Comments

The hand keeping the lid on North Korea can also set it free.  Whose hand?  Picture via Military China.com a Singaporean company with offices in China and Hong Kong.

The hand keeping the lid on North Korea can also set it free. Whose hand? Picture via Military China.com, a Singaporean company with offices in China and Hong Kong.

Hauling in the U.S.-DPRK Rebound: Two Chinese Perspectives

by Adam Cathcart and Roger Cavazos

The visit of a certain American basketball personality to Pyongyang and his piercing proximity to the sacred body of the “Respected General” ought to bring with it some justified speculation about North Korean intentions toward the United States. Is North Korea in fact pivoting toward the United States, and inviting a new round of nuclear discussions?

Nowhere is speculation of such a pivot higher than in Beijing, where, the recent basketball courtside tete-a-tete of two strangely-dressed Rabelaisians notwithstanding, North Korea seems to be actively turning away from its huge northern neighbour and reluctant patron. Attempting to run a full-court press on the sources, we bring you two Chinese perspectives on US-DPRK relations, both recently published in the sundry tabloid for foreign affairs, the Huanqiu Shibao.

The Chinese “New Cold Warrior” Skeptic  | The first op-ed is by Ren Weidong, a research associate at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (or CICIR). The author is a kind of all-purpose international-relations pundit who in the last year has written about, among other topics, China’s relationship with Bashar al-Assad, and, for People’s Daily overseas edition on January 10, the possibility of “the US starting a new Cold War with China.” In other words, like any good Chinese state academic, he is attempting to wed together a strange orthodoxy with areas of excitement and possible change.  Stated more critically, the North Korea issue is an area where the scholar can push his hobbyhorse of “a new Beijing-Washington Cold War” towards new heights. While the phraseology and the dismissal of North Korean capabilities is new, the author adheres to more or less “traditional” views of the core strategic benefits that alliance with North Korea brings to China.

The article is infused with what we might call Chinese “mirror imaging,” that is to say, assumptions that the US is taking certain actions because that is what China would do under the same circumstances. In Ren’s worldview, North Korea is not really significant in its own right, and the discussion of reform in the DPRK is completely irrelevant. What we do see, rather, is an obsession with the Korean peninsula as a proving ground where the US can cause problems for China.

Ren Weidong [卫东], “US-North Korea relations could suddenly get warm [朝美关系可能突然缓和],” Huanqiu Shibao, February 19, 2013. Translated by Adam Cathcart and Roger Cavazos.

North Korea’s third nuclear test has managed to put the world in an uproar [哗然]. North Korea’s “superb” (高超,pun on “high-level”) solution operates as a dare, using the most intense means of confrontation with the big powers that dominate and maintain international order. At the same time, the test was meant not only to prevent North Korea from suffering an Iraq-type of destruction, but also as a means of continually improving the DPRK’s ability to resist external threats.

North Korea can do this much, not because the DPRK has sufficient power to counterbalance the United States, but because the United States, burdened by security around the world —  and especially so by the needs of the Asia-Pacific strategic situation — does not even want to contemplate bringing down the DPRK [不能甚至不想搞垮朝鲜]. At present, global strategic conditions simply do not allow the United States to open up a new battlefield on the Korean peninsula. If the United States will not be easily drawn into a war over the Diaoyu [Senkaku] Islands, then one cannot assert that the same isn’t true for the US on the Korean peninsula.

North Korea plays an absolutely subtle and sensitive role in geopolitics. In the last century, the Korean War stopped at the 38th parallel, in part because both the US and the Chinese sides had no more will to resume fighting [无力再打]. But even more so, the Korean War Armistice came about because China had achieved strategic balance with the United States, and told the Americans that they could not lean too closely toward China, using their position in Korea as a prologue or foothold [to attacks on northeast China]. Therefore, in order to maintain a foothold on a larger East Asian hegemony, and especially given [the desire for] a new Cold War [对华新冷战] rather than a direct collision with China, the United States cannot allow the Korean peninsula to be unified, but will instead maintain North Korea’s current regime and maintain the stance of North-South mutual antagonism on the peninsula.

The North Koreans can clearly see as much: The situation does not cause them to fear for their lives, but they do want to throw off the status of being controlled, to achieve full independence and peaceful development, achieving this purpose through the tools that are rockets, satellites, missiles, and nuclear weapons. The United States of course, does not want to see the DPRK possess these things. However, the United States does not reject these things to get more benefit [by using the weapons as an excuse to increase tension and justify US involvement thereby]. Rather, the United States wants to obtain the greatest strategic benefit by dividing China and the DPRK, enabling North Korea to become China’s new strategic frontier of the Cold War. Within this milieu, we can see the strategic significance of the North Korean nuclear issue.

So, the United States used North Korea’s third nuclear test to not only create mass hysteria (舆论恐慌), but also [as a pretext] to send a large number of ships to South Korea for war exercises, and even went so far as to released information that it might carry out a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea. This is mainly done by the United States as signaling for China to see.

The United States believes that given China’s preference for stability, and because of the overall situation of U.S.-Chinese relations and the international order, China will find it hard to break away from the DPRK. So it becomes necessary for the United States to create a regional situation which will create instability in the Sino-US relationship [对中美关系大局难以割舍] and make China lose its strategic convictions.  America pushes responsibility onto China to pressure North Korea into obeying the existing world order which manufactures differences and even conflict between China and the DPRK.  To this end, U.S. officials and the media repeatedly emphasize that China has the largest influence on North Korea.

Now, North Korea’s strategic trend has reached an important node. This time, the United States “carrots and sticks” will inevitably make North Korea move further away from China. Although North Korea used the most violent language to criticize the United States, however both the US and North Korea have the same burning expectations that their relations will improve, because the greatest external factor impacting security and development in North Korea is the United States rather than China. It is definitely conceivable that while China is worried about North Korea’s nuclear test, relations between the DPRK and the United States may suddenly ease [突然缓和]. Against these trends, we must steadfastly maintain sobriety.

Through repeated cycles which alternate tension with relaxation [紧张与缓和的反复交替], North Korea continually enhances its strength and bargaining chips with the United States. During this process about the North Korean nuclear issue, China must avoid being passive and talking just for talking’s sake. If one wants to completely denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, all foreign troops must be removed and all external interference in Korean) peninsular affairs must stop in order to create the conditions for a North-South independent and peaceful resolution.  Otherwise, the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula will never be solved, and peace and stability in Northeast Asia will be nothing more than a rootless tree [无本之木].

Even though a nuclear test can bring earthquakes, what really matters are the strategic gambles taken in the nuclear fog [核迷雾中的战略博弈]. On the North Korean nuclear issue, some countries such as the United States have made sophisticated strategic designs to politicize the Asia-Pacific region and establish the broadest possible international “united front” against China.  Therefore North Korea is an important target of the United States’ efforts to create this “united front” [朝鲜是美国重要的统战对象].

Some countries see this situation as an opportunity for trading priorities. For example, using limited cooperation with the US on the North Korean nuclear issue, Russia is attempting to alleviate strategic pressure coming from Europe.  There are also countries which just beat the drum and make noise about pacifism. Facing what appears to be a tense and complex situation, China has enough reason and superior conditions to ride out this storm, leave the nuclear issue to the two parties [presumably the U.S. and North Korea] without exception. Using inaction or courageous convictions at the decisive moment [用无为的定力赢得无不为的先机] can win friendly China-DPRK relations and cooperation and grasp the pattern of an evolving  regional strategic initiative.

Analysis  | The editorial shows clearly that not every Chinese pundit, much less every scholar, has jumped on the bus of abandoning North Korea posthaste. When it comes to the most bruising critiques of North Korea from establishment academics, these have been published in English – and largely not been run in Chinese versions at all, Shen Dingli’s much-cited jeremiad in Foreign Policy being Exhibit A. Deng Yuwen published a piece in the Chinese-language version of the Financial Times arguing it was time to cut the strings to North Korea, but the actual Party journal he runs carried not so much as a whiff of criticism of the DPRK.

If the Party-controlled, and therefore official, press is any indication, there is still very much a debate about the future outlines of China’s North Korea policy. Or, to paraphrase Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt’s characterization of the Beijing view of a few dunks in Pyongyang, Chinese paranoia of a North Korean turn towards the US knows no limits.

Placed in the context of recent activities and contrasted with other recent arguments being made in Chinese media, three main points stand out from an otherwise flat Party line:

1) North Korea’s third nuclear test isn’t a big deal.  Some Chinese feel no need to lecture North Korea harshly on a nuclear test, and for them, the government’s obsession with the Six-Party Talks is easily discarded;

2) China and countless other countries mirror image and assume others have similar decision-making structures, processes and value sets.  Finding common ground and clearing up misperceptions is hard – but not impossible which leads to:

3) The idea that the whole aproach of China’s government toward to North Korea could in fact change, and that North Korea’s approach to foreign policy could likewise pivot with extreme rapidity.

However, the last-listed assumption of Chinese re-balancing their role in US-DPRK-PRC relations is continually eroded by misperceptions stemming from mirror-imaging and a real lack of even what Yan Xuetong calls “cooperation without trust” between Washington and Beijing.

Finally, as we were completing the above translation, it came to our attention that Global Times just released their own English-language version of Ren Hedong’s op-ed.  However, the GT version is significantly shorter, in part because it completely strips out discussion of the drive toward US “hegemony,” the author’s view of a “new US Cold War aimed at China” and the author’s acceptance of North Korea’s military build-up. Here it might be worth asking how American and Chinese policy makers are supposed to achieve trust on the North Korean issue if the Chinese state media can’t convey its actual content to Western readers without radical alterations.

Huanqiu US DPRK exchange

An opposing to the above piece view came down via Cao Shigong, who is a member of China’s Asia-Pacific Institute of Korean Peninsula Studies [中国亚太学会朝鲜半岛研究会].

Cao Shigong [曹世功], “The ‘Theory of US-North Korean Exchange’ is Not Plausible [“朝美交易是不靠谱的]”, Huanqiu Shibao, February 28, 2013.  Translated by Adam Cathcart and Roger Cavazos.

A few days ago, the Huanqiu Shibao  published a commentary entitled “The relations between the DPRK and the United States may suddenly ease,” and the essay stirred a substantial amount of attention. The author core’s argument was a theory of “DPRK-US exchange” which held that, through a method of private transactions, the DPRK and the United States could solve the Korean nuclear issue by themselves.

Within this exchange, North Korea was depicted as an “important object of the [anti-China] united front.” Moreover, the article described how North Korea could be recognized by the United States as “a nuclear state” in exchange for North Korea agreeing to join together with the US to contain China [共同遏制中国].  On February 26, the American basketball delegation arrived in Pyongyang, and would appear to provide the latest evidence for this argument.

China's Worst Nightmare? | Image via Uriminzokkiri

China’s Worst Nightmare? | Image via Uriminzokkiri

But I believe that, at best, the “sustained  contact [保持接触]” and easing of tensions between the United States and North Korea is just an image.  The very real contradictions between the two sides have not improved at all, making any “transaction” with North Korea well beyond the ability of a basketball team to solve.

The Americans cannot rely upon denuclearization to make a deal that would split the DPRK from China.  At the core of the U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific is the strengthening and consolidation of America’s hegemonic position [巩固霸权地位]. Within this strategy, the containment of China is certainly the most important issue. This is not to exclude other factors: For example, strengthening alliance ties and non-proliferation should not be underestimated as two major priorities of the United States, as problems to either one of these would endanger the implementation of the “return to Asia” strategy.

The remainder of the article goes on to make the following points:

– U.S. acceptance of a nuclear North Korea would leave American international credibility (and possibly its security) in shreds.

– U.S. acceptance of a nuclear North Korea would cause South Korea to go nuclear and move away from the ROK-US alliance.

– The U.S. would need to carefully consider China’s response — and the risk of conflict with the PRC — over any changes in regional configurations. As Cao notes, “In today’s world, China has been one of North Korea’s few friends, serving for decades as an important force to support North Korea through the economic crisis and political isolation [支撑朝鲜度过经济危机和政治孤立], so North Korea can not but seriously consider China’s possible responses.”

– Implying that the mutual history between PRC and DPRK will not be forgotten by Pyongyang, Cao says that “a grand bargain with the US is not one of North Korea’s policy options.”

Conclusion | The Dennis Rodman colloquy with Kim Jong-un might be seen as a garish joke in many quarters, but as a symbolic gesture of a possible policy shift from Pyongyang, it has clearly jolted a few observers in China. Chinese scholars — and likely PRC leaders — seem to be thinking with particular clarity about a future where the DPRK becomes increasingly overtly hostile toward Beijing and begins to accept overtures, both openly and secretly, from Washington. An actual rebound in the existential opposition between North Korea and the United States remains highly unlikely, but its prospect will continue to rattle away at the periphery of China’s day-to-day intercourse with the DPRK.

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  1. Just received a note from a colleague as regards how much of the “get rid of the Sino-North Korean alliance” school is making it into Chinese.

    He writes:

    I decided to follow-up on Shen’s FP article and see if anyone took the time to translate it into Chinese. Turns out, someone did: http://article.yeeyan.org/view/340117/348520. However, their translation never went viral (except for a couple tweets on Twitter) and I haven’t seen it carried in full anywhere else (no BBS, etc). Plus, their translation isn’t very faithful, since they translate Shen’s killer line of “China should cut North Korea lose” to “China should get tougher on North Korea,” which really misses the point.

    When I tried to see if any quotes got picked up, somehow Shen is quoted as saying the U.S. (and thus South Korea and Japan) will accept a nuclear North Korea: http://politics.people.com.cn/n/2013/0213/c70731-20483175-2.html. The interesting twist is that this quote comes out the same day as the FP article, but it not at all from the FP article and I can’t find where it’s actually from, it just shows up on blog posts. So who knows what happened, but one thing for sure is that Shen’s article isn’t getting any coverage in China, and it’s possible someone invented the quote about the US accepting a nuclear North Korea (motives unknown).

    Yet, Shen hasn’t gotten banned from the TV scene yet, as he did an interview on Phoenix TV on February 23rd: http://v.ifeng.com/mil/arms/201302/8696efbe-4e4f-4461-83c0-3ac9f14ed936.shtml

  2. Another article to add to the string of articles to appear exclusively in Anglophone media is Deng Yuwen’s article in Financial Times. (http://koreajoongangdaily.joinsmsn.com/news/article/Article.aspx?aid=2967922 since the original is behind a paywall) His FT article was translated by DuoWei news but like Shen’s article never found any traction in Chinese-language media.

    Deng was most likely floating a trial balloon and possibly buying China some time and good will on the international stage while UN diplomats argue over more “sharp warnings” and edentulous writs that will “hurt the North Koreans feelings and sovereignty”.

    However, Deng is mus-characterized. He’s in a place (The Central Party School) where they develop and define the “party line” but he’s NOT a key architect.

    It’s good for China and Chinese to have these thoughts about their relationship to North Korea. There will likely be several US and a couple of Western think tanks claiming to have been the ones to lead to the change in thought. At least a few of them will be right. But ultimately, change will only come about when China perceives the cost of supporting DPRK to outweigh the benefits. However, China’s accounting methods to sum up the costs and benefits is a proprietary formula and is likely still being concocted during the 两会 (two meetings) which will provide the final imprimatur upon leadership changes announced last year.

  3. Chinese expressions of dismay with DPRK in English-language media but NOT in Chinese is now a trend. Jia Qingguo’s recent article in East Asia Forum (an Australian publication http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2013/03/03/shifting-emphasis-beijings-reactions-to-north-korea-nuclear-test/) is one of the very few to explicitly state that “…if Pyongyang collapses — which is not unfeasible given the mounting political and economic problems in North Korea”. Using the words “North Korea” and “collapse” in the same article let alone the same clause would have been unthinkable even before North Korea’s third nuclear test.

    Those familiar with Chinese writings know they love numerology, so Jia lists two Chinese objectives and four practical reasons to work against a nuclear North Korea.

    However, the leading indicator of just how exasperated the Chinese are is this: “the debate in China has changed from one about whether China should work with other countries to impose sanctions against North Korea to one about the kind of sanctions China should endorse”.

    In the end, he offers an ablution common in statecraft: claim the (basket)ball is in the other player’s court. The saying is meant to transfer blame (something DPRK is very familiar with since this is the way they most often use it) however, it also cedes the initiative.

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