The Amulet: Chinese Justification for North Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions

By | April 01, 2013 | No Comments

KPA Soldiers in front of the Unha-3 rocket at Tangachai-ri space centre in North Korea on April 8, 2012 (AFP/File, Pedro Ugarte)

KPA Soldiers in front of the Unha-3 rocket at Tangachai-ri space centre in North Korea via  (AFP/File, Pedro Ugarte)

As discussed in a previous post on SinoNK, North Korea’s third nuclear test spawned an international kerfuffle among pundits worldwide regarding North Korea’s intentions. From Shen Dingli’s punishing essay “Lips and Teeth” published in Foreign Policy to Scott Snyder’s “incalculable” North Korea for the Council for Foreign Relations, to the many questions the rogue state generated by its international deviant behavior via Jennifer Lind in Foreign Affairs, what emerged as a comprehensive conclusion is the very simple fact: North Korea, for its bombastic and grandiloquent bluster, is still shrouded by the same-old opaque and abstruse fog as ever.

Or is it? One particular Chinese author (perhaps thinking of his own job security?) would have China-DPRK watchers believe otherwise.

Mei Xinyu, “Are Nuclear Weapons North Korea’s amulet?”, [核武器是朝鲜的护身符吗] Huanqiu Shibao, February 17, 2013. 

If Chinese-North Korean relations are indeed at a freezing point, we might expect Chinese economic officials and researchers to be lining up with justifications for a clampdown on the DPRK. At the very least, we might expect to see them downplaying the importance of nuclear weapons for the DPRK and raising instead the banner of economic reform.  Mei Xinyu  (梅新育), a researcher at the Institute of International Trade and Economic Cooperation of the Ministry of Commerce, takes neither of these approaches. Rather, in an op-ed published by Huanqiu Shibao (环球时报), he opines as follows:

The fundamental purpose of a nuclear-equipped North Korea possessing a nuclear deterrent is not ‘North Korea possessing weapons of mass destruction’ per se. It is not even attempt to conquer the world; rather, it is an attempt to stabilize the external environment hostile to North Korea so it can develop its domestic economy (其实我们应该看到,朝鲜“拥核”的根本目的不是“拥核”本身,更不是企图借此征服世界,而是“谋和”,是希望借此赢得集中精力发展经济所必需的外部安全环境).”

In contrast to the arresting conclusion presented by SinoNK analyst Chris Green (see hyperlinked text regarding “fog”), Mei identifies a connection, regardless of how far-reaching, between the international or external regional environment in which North Korea is situated and the preservation of its domestic economy. And this is very much in keeping with Chinese rhetoric about “external interference in internal affairs.” Mei continues:

Since the outset of the Cold War, North Korea and its socialist allies have been victim to aggression, stemming from Western countries. The role of the State Party party is to promote domestic economic growth. A peaceful international or regional environment is inextricably linked to internal economic stability (从苏联、中国到朝鲜,后发社会主义国家能否集中精力发展经济,并不完全取决于当事国自己). If the State Party is consistently being undermined by external forces, then ability to focus on internal stability is sabotaged. Muammar al-Gaddafi is the case and point: his demise followed air strikes by the United States, which in turn, jolted his internal stronghold (东欧剧变、苏联解体后,西方和韩国颠覆朝鲜政权的压力更是陡然高涨。卡扎菲放弃核开发计划,结果面对西方空袭无力招架最终惨死,进一步坚定朝鲜领导层的拥核决心). Put simply, an unstable regional environment is not conducive to a vitalized economy.

"Merciless Punishment for the American Imperialists!

“Merciless Punishment for the American Imperialists! via

Many Chinese, the present author included, do not want to see the further development of nuclear weaponry, but North Korea’s explanation for nuclear weapons runs contrary to many Western assumptions; it is only a tool to counteract U.S force (包括笔者在内大多数中国人都不愿意看到邻国开发核武器…但将“先军政治”、航天技术和核开发视为摆脱美国武力威胁的工具,目的是借此为集中精力开展经济建设创造条件,这种认识在朝鲜上下层干部群体中相当普遍). Currently, North Korea is making a shift from “Military-First” policy, a shift in narrative which can be read as an attempt to an investment in its domestic economy (综合各方面因素判断,朝鲜在试图从原来的“先军政治”转向优先发展经济,并积极探索更大范围引进市场机制,推行“改革开放). In other words, once the flaring regional hostilities toward North Korea simmer down, the economy of North Korea will “officially” seek to benefit its people in a reform analogous to China in the 1970s (改革开放).

In essence, the author concludes, North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is rational, as well as strategic (合理性与可行性), and essentially just a viable option for North Korea to secure the interests of its citizens. As Mei notes:

Indeed, it actively places barriers in front of the China-DPRK partnership, but with a little modulated pressure, North Korea can be prevented from sliding into the wrong direction (最大的副作用就是损害中朝关系. 因为“拥核谋和”策略实施过程中的不确定性, 必然会干扰中国极为珍视的和平发展环境…在这种情况下, 中国和其他国家既要适度施加压力, 防止朝鲜滑向错误方向).

Although the author’s perspective is a unique one, it is undergirded with very little tangible evidence. It doesn’t necessarily address the historical precedent of the “Military-First policy,” besides saying that North Korea is making a shift. (Anyone needing a daily dose of skepticism regarding such shift had better to follow International Crisis Group analyst Daniel Pinkston, in Seoul, on Twitter). Additionally, not much is said in the piece about China’s waning influence in preventing its own “German Shepherd” (North Korea) from barking.

In short, North Korea’s nuclear weapon is neither an amulet, a mere item of decoration which presents no threat, nor an attempt to secure the interests of its starving citizens. What is it? Well, as the foregoing emphatically asserted, North Korea, for its bombastic bluster, is still shrouded by the same-old opaque and abstruse fog as ever. Chinese economists, unless they are privy to information that we are not about North Korea’s drive toward economic reform, ought to know better than to suggest otherwise.

Blog by: Mycal Ford

See also: Jenny Jun, “Dealing with a Sore Lip: Parsing China’s ‘Recalculation’ of North Korea Policy,” 38 North, March 29, 2013.

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