China’s Evolving Relationship with North Korea: Talks at IISS and RUSI, London

By | July 31, 2013 | No Comments

International Institute for Strategic Studies, London | Image via MercoPress

International Institute for Strategic Studies, London | Image via MercoPress

What are China’s options when it comes to North Korea? And how should the United States and the international community look at the Sino-North Korean relationship? This past month, two Sino-NK writers formed the core of a panel exploring these issues at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, one of Great Britain’s top think-tanks.

The panel (“China’s Evolving Relationship with North Korea“) featured Sino-NK’s editor-in-chief Adam Cathcart and Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, a research associate at IISS. Sino-NK’s analysts were joined on the panel by Lora Salmaan of Carnegie-Tsinghua in Beijing, and Adam Ward, the Director of Research at IISS.

Cathcart’s discussion wove together the origins, progress, and prospectus for the Special Economic Zones near Dandong/Sinuiju, arguing that the North Korean leadership continues to drag its feet in creating tangible conditions for the zone’s success for a diverse range of reasons that span from traditional distrust of Sinuiju citizens to Kim Il-song’s directives on food production in North Pyong’an, and the inability to engage in flood control on the Yalu.  Cathcart also argues that the Special Economic Zones need to be located within a matrix of discussion of Kim Jong-il’s legacy, as neither Kim Il-song nor Kim Jong-un showed any enthusiasm toward the projects, seeing the northwest instead as a strategic rear, not as an economic engine. Finally, Cathcart argued that China’s approach to the border region with North Korea needs to be put in the broad context of PRC policies that outstrip the “special relationship” with Pyongyang. When it comes to drug controls, transportation linkages, and frontier defense, sometimes a border is just a border.

Audio of their prepared remarks, and the Q & A that followed, is available via IISS and can be found below. Cathcart’s discussion of Dandong begins at 14:45. The conversation runs just over one hour. (If listening on headphones, it’s best to turn down the volume before starting the recording, as the beginning is a bit loud.)

Shifting the analysis from the borderlands to Beijing, Beauchamp-Mustafaga approaches China’s relationship with North Korea by looking at the Chinese policy management structure. Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga’s remarks on China’s approach to North Korean policy making start at approximately 26:30.

Beauchamp-Mustafaga argues that the most important actors in China’s decision-making on North Korea policy have little incentive to advocate for a more aggressive policy of denuclearization if such a policy would threaten the stability of the Kim regime. New President Xi Jinping is busy with much-needed domestic reforms and is unlikely to expend political capital to gamble on experimenting with such a complicated foreign policy issue. The International Liaison Department seeks economic reforms in North Korea and greater sanctions enforcement and other economic leverage would threaten nascent reforms enacted under Kim Jong-un, and this sentiment is echoed by other actors with a significant stake in North Korea’s economic development – the Ministry of Commerce and the Jilin and Liaoning provincial governments. Although the People’s Liberation Army likely has an internally divided view of North Korea’s continued value as a strategic buffer, the lingering dominance of the Army likely delays any overall shift in policy. Lastly, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the weakest actor of this top tier and has been losing influence over North Korea policy since 2009, although it is the actor most likely to support a change in policy.

Exploring further the implications of China’s response to the North Korea nuclear program, on June 27, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga presented on at the UK Project on Nuclear Issues, a forum sponsored by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), in London:

As Beauchamp-Mustafaga argues, China’s policy responsiveness is greatest for issues related to the North’s nuclear program not only because of China’s opposition to the program, but also because the US government exerts the most pressure on China’s policy around the time of a nuclear test or related events in North Korea. This policy responsiveness means that while China’s policy may appear to be shifting now, we need to look to two indicators for more concrete evidence of a significant shift in policy—Chinese willingness to exert influence over North Korea and Chinese sanctions enforcement. While there are positive steps for both of these indicators since the February nuclear test, China needs to demonstrate a continued commitment to these two indicators before this shift can be considered long-lasting, if not representing a major shift in policy.

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