Assessing North Korea’s Nuclear Gambit: A View from Beijing

By | December 03, 2014 | No Comments

Zhang Lianqui in July 2013; image via Xinhua.

Zhang Liangui in July 2013 | Image: Xinhua.

In October, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ academic journal, Shijie Zhishi, published an article by Central Party School professor Zhang Liangui. Zhang, China’s most outspoken and liberal commentator on North Korea affairs, is not the first Chinese academic to discuss providing a nuclear umbrella to North Korea, but he is probably one of the most significant. Sino-NK covered this debate in January 2013. In the magazine, Zhang stakes out a position counter to those who propose offering of a Chinese nuclear umbrella to North Korea. Zhang’s article, published not long before North Korea finally released its American detainees, is adapted from, and expands upon an earlier article Zhang wrote for state-run Global Times.

The article therefore exists in three versions–the original Chinese version in Huanqiu Shibao, the English translation for the Global Times, and the expanded version in Chinese, in Shijie Zhishi.  This gives us an opportunity to again probe at the fault lines in China’s North Korea discourse.  Shijie Zhishi, the journal associated with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, managed to censor some of Zhang’s more controversial statements in his original Huanqiu article, and Sino-NK has highlighted the significant changes below. The entire second half of the article was added by Zhang, as well as a point on “sadaejuui” (사대주의) and a description of North Korea as “ultra tough” in the first half of the article.

The last time Sino-NK highlighted Chinese censorship on North Korea issues, it was Peking University professor Zhu Feng’s article criticizing China’s policy towards Pyongyang. While Zhu Feng originally published in Singapore’s Lianhe Morning Post and was censored for publication on Global Times, Zhang’s article was originally published on Global Times and censored for publication in the official Shijie Zhishi journal. This demonstrates that, despite the increasingly open debate within China on North Korea issues, varying levels of censorship and acceptable discourse remain for official and non-official publications.

Zhang Liangui, “North Korea: Behind the Nuclear Problem and the Americans in Custody” [朝鲜:核问题和拘押美国人的背后], Shijie Zhishi, October 19, 2014.*

According to recent South Korean media reports, last October one member of the South Korean parliament asked the South Korean Foreign Minister, “if North Korea offered to denuclearize on the condition that China provide a nuclear umbrella, how would South Korea respond?”[1] This member of parliament may have been influenced by the Chinese media to ask this question, as Chinese academics have previously suggested in articles for China to offer a nuclear umbrella and then encourage North Korea to denuclearization.

Actually, under the present circumstances, this question is completely unrealistic. The reason is that North Korea has already clearly announced on numerous occasions it would “never denuclearize” and reject all talks and dialogue related to its denuclearization. North Korea already wrote “possessing nuclear weapons” into its constitution, and created its policy of “simultaneously developing nuclear weapons and economic development.”[2] This proposal of “trading a nuclear umbrella for denuclearization” reflects people’s significant misunderstandings about North Korea.

First, this is a misunderstanding of North Korea’s purpose for possessing nuclear weapons. For a long time North Korea has claimed the reason it is developing a “nuclear deterrent” is for “self-defense” against the United States’ hostile policies and lack of a security guarantee. Actually, the real purpose of North Korea’s nuclear weapons are quite possibly much more complicated than those it publicly declares. For example, Rodong Sinmun published an article on April 30, 2013 publicly stating that one reason for the North’s hardline position on the nuclear question is “to win the unification of the peninsula;” the United States early on had scholars write that North Korean officials had more than once told the United States that its nuclear missiles aren’t targeted at the United States, but another direction, among other things. Therefore, the so-called “self-defense” may, at best, be one of many purposes for its nuclear weapons, and may even merely be a “transitional goal.” Advocating providing North Korea a “nuclear umbrella” in exchange for denuclearization is in reality taking a simple understanding of it as addressing North Korea’s “feeling of insecurity” as the reason for its nuclear weapons. It is also a naïve and simplified understanding of a complicated problem, and completely overlooks North Korea using its nuclear weapons as a tool to pursue its other interests.

Second, it is a misunderstanding of North Korea’s founding principle—Juche. In December 1955, North Korea proposed “establishing independence” (树立主体), which later evolved into Juche. The core value of Juche is “sadaejuui” (see the collected works of North Korean leaders). North Korea especially emphasizes “思想上主体,政治上自主,经济上自立,国防上自卫.” Under the guidance of “Juche thought,” North Korea cannot possibly accept any country’s “protection.” Sadaejuui has a specific context in the history of the Korean peninsula. (Sadaejuui is a foreign policy concept from Confucianism, [namely] a tactic of small countries serving the great powers to preserve itself because of the contrast between the weak and strong, and specifically focuses on Chosun Korea’s policy toward the Chinese Ming and Qing dynasties of “conceding defeat and being a tributary”[3] from 1392 to 1895). Therefore, if China really has people who heed some so-called scholars’ naïve recommendations and propose “protection” to North Korea, North Korea will surely “smite the table and rise to its feet in anger”[4] or even declare war.

Third, it is a misunderstanding of the North Korean leaders’ determination and the logic of their actions for possessing nuclear weapons. North Korean leaders embrace the realism of international politics, adhere to Songun politics and are devout believers in force. North Korean leaders set possessing nuclear weapons as a basic national policy, and over several decades, have invested large amounts of human, material and financial resources, sparing no cost.

[Censored text follows.] North Korean leaders took every risk, never wavered and never hesitated to break a promise or agreement. This March 16, the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that the belief that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are bargaining chips for negotiating is “simply utter nonsense.”

In order to possess nuclear weapons, North Korea has “countered tough with ultra-tough.” Last March 30, the North Korean government released a special statement claiming, “a world without Songun North Korea will never exist” and clearly swore: with a Songun North Korea, nuclear weapons will be there; without a Songun North Korea, there is no value in the whole world’s existence.

From this it is evident that under the present circumstances, hoping for exchanging North Korea’s denuclearization in return for providing a “nuclear umbrella” to guarantee its “security” is an idealistic fantasy.

[Censored text follows.] Likewise, ever since North Korea conducted its third nuclear test and announced it would “never denuclearize,” defeatism has gone mainstream. Some people have advocated that demanding denuclearization from the ruler of North Korea is already unrealistic, that we should abandon the goal of upholding the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and that we should change our demands for North Korea to denuclearize into “managing” its nuclear weapons.

After you’ve already deceived yourself, it’s hard to trick someone else. The entire international community, including the United Nations Security Council, have opposed nuclear proliferation in North Korea; you didn’t take effective actions to stop North Korea from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and then, you publicly admit that your efforts to “uphold the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” have failed — is North Korea now going to allow you to “manage” its nuclear weapons instead? The inevitable outcome is now that you’ve retreated one step, you must retreat 10 more steps.

Whether to Send a Special Envoy to North Korea to Retrieve its People: The United States is Indecisive

There are currently three Americans detained in North Korea’s detention facilities or prisons. They are: 46-year-old ethnic Korean Kenneth Bae, who was detained while leading a tour group in North Korea in November 2012 for reportedly taking a picture he shouldn’t have on the street;[5] 24-year-old [Matthew] Miller, who, after entering North Korea on a tourist visa this April, declared he “wanted to apply for asylum” and tore up the visa on his passport; and 56-year-old [Jeffrey] Fowle[6], who, when leaving North Korea after a tour this May, was discovered to have left a bible in a hotel in Chongjin. These three people were all identified as “carrying out anti-DPRK activities.” Therefore, Bae was already sentenced in April 2013 to 15 years, Miller was sentenced to six years this September, and Fowle is awaiting trial.

This September 1, CNN reporters who were visiting North Korea by invitation were told they would be taken to meet a high-level official, but after arriving were surprised to discover that the three US detainees were in front of them.[7] Just like that, they conducted an “orchestrated” interview with the three detainees. The three detainees faced the cameras bitterly telling of their misfortune[8] and called on the US government to send a senior official to visit North Korea for negotiations to bail them out. The US media believes the move was intended to force the United States to hold direct dialogue with North Korea, in order to open the door for improved North Korea-US relations. Former US representative to the United Nations [Bill] Richardson[9] said, “It’s clear the three Americans are bargaining chips.”[10] On September 18, Kenneth Bae’s mother confirmed North Korea’s intensions. During an interview with the Voice of America, she said that Kenneth Bae’s letters and phone calls her last June said that North Korea proposed that they would only release him if a US presidential envoy visited North Korea.

The United States has long advocated the protection of human rights. Common sense says that with three Americans trapped in a foreign prison, the US government would certainly use all means possible to seek the release of the Americans and return them home. However, this time the US government has been remarkably constrained, as except for the US Department of State spokesperson demanding North Korea release them, there has been no other action.

Not long ago, one US scholar revealed to the author that the US government’s delay over sending a special envoy to North Korea to save the three Americans was primarily due to three concerns.

The first concern is that the United States would be held hostage by North Korea, that it would be forced to enter into official dialogue and negotiations with North Korea and destroy Obama’s “strategic patience” policy towards the North, and be roped into the North’s nuclear strategy.

Since North Korea’s second nuclear test in May 2009, North Korea has believed it already mastered nuclear weapons and became a “nuclear power,” and its nuclear strategy shifted through phased goals, from “breaking through the nuclear tests and becoming a nuclear power” to “developing diplomacy and forcing the international community to recognize its status as a nuclear power,” so the United States naturally became the main focus of North Korea’s nuclear diplomacy. However, not long after taking power the Obama administration learned the lessons from the previous administration’s “accommodation of North Korea”. In order to stop North Korea’s nuclear diplomacy and uphold the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, the Obama administration proclaimed it would “never reward” dishonest or provocative actions, and not enter into official dialogue with—[basically,] hang up on and ignore—North Korea until the North made sincere and practical steps or the North actually acquired the ability to threaten the US mainland. The Obama administration called this “strategic patience.” However, in order to advance its nuclear strategy, North Korea needs to improve relations with the United States and achieve the normalization of relations between “two nuclear countries” while retaining its nuclear weapons, so North Korea must manufacture opportunities to break through the United States’ strategic patience. Clearly, whether or not the United States send a special envoy to negotiate the [detainees’] release has become an important round in the United States and North Korea’s diplomatic battle, so the US government must carefully consider it.

The second concern is that when the US special envoy visits North Korea, the North’s propaganda will engage in luxury consumption (豪华消费) and mislead international public opinion.

In March 2009, North Korea detained two female US reporters and later sentenced them to 12 years. In order to win their release, the United States secretly engaged with North Korea, and the North named [former US president Bill] Clinton and wanted him to visit North Korea before they would be released. In early August of that year, Clinton visited North Korea to retrieve them. In order to indicate that his trip was a purely personal and humanitarian visit without any connection to the US government, Clinton intentionally rode a private plane provided by a friend to visit North Korea. However, after Clinton arrived in Pyongyang, North Korea on the one hand called him a “US special envoy” and said he “arrived in North Korea carrying a white flag to surrender and apologize,” while on the other hand also followed state protocol for the reception. Beyond being hosted by North Korea’s supreme leader for a banquet with a long talk, they also arranged a special performance (which Clinton refused), among other things. Since the North Korean supreme leader ordered the two Americans released on the spot, Clinton brought them back to the United States, but Clinton’s action caused a lot of controversy within the United States. This was because the North Korean media used Clinton’s visit to tell the North Korean people that North Korea was once again the victor in the country’s nuclear confrontation with the United States, and North Korea’s nuclear path was completely correct.

The third concern for dispatching a US special envoy to North Korea for the detainees is that, although it may be possible to free them, this may make North Korea misunderstand that this is an effective method to force the United States to change its current policies toward North Korea, and North Korea may thus detainee more Americans in the future.

Coincidentally, right when Americans were paying attention to the fate of Kenneth Bae and the other detainees and considering whether to dispatch a special envoy to visit North Korea, the Islamic State (ISIS) ruthlessly killed two Americans in the Middle East. According to reports, after these two Americans were detained by the extremist Islamic State forces, the latter proposed to the United States that if the United States would pay a gigantic ransom, they would free the two Americans to return home. The United States carefully considered it, but thought they could not do this exchange. Otherwise, while these two Americans may be freed, however, in the future there would be more Americans taken as hostages, and the ransoms for Americans would flow in an unending stream into the coffers of extremist organizations and become their backer. With the negotiations failed, the extremist organization cut off the two Americans’ heads in front of the video camera. This immensely irritated the American people and their government, and they did a simple analogy to the plight of Kenneth Bae and the others, and were thus even more indecisive about whether or not to send a special envoy to North Korea to negotiate.

The US scholar’s aforementioned points reveal the US government’s predicate with Kenneth Bae and the others. As Chinese scholars, it is difficult to evaluate the initiatives of the two conflicting parties, but we feel sympathy for the tragic ending of those individuals’ fate in the midst of this international dispute.

(The author is a professor at the Central Party School’s Institute for International Strategies)

Source:  Zhang Liangui, “North Korea: Behind the Nuclear Problem and the Americans in Custody” [朝鲜:核问题和拘押美国人的背后], Shijie Zhishi, October 19, 2014. Translation by Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga.


An English translation of the original article by Global Times is available here.

[1] SinoNK cannot independently verify this exchange.

[2] This policy is known in Korean as the “Byungjin Line.” The sentence following the footnote has been censored: “According to North Korea, ‘the North Korea nuclear question does not exist.’”

[3] The original Chinese idiom is 称臣纳贡. Earlier in the paragraph, Zhang’s statement that Sadaejuui “used to be a synonym for Chosun Korea’s policies toward China” has been cut, as has his analysis of December 1955 as marking Kim Il-sung’s “factional struggle against the Yan’an Faction.”

[4] The original Chinese idiom is 拍案而起. The previous sentence has been toned down from an insult at naive individuals “in China’s government” down to the more “s0-called scholars.”

[5] Bae’s official crime, according to KCNA, was “that he committed crimes aimed to topple the DPRK with hostility toward it.” See: “American Citizen to Be Tried,” KCNA, April 27, 2013.

[6] On October 21, 2014 Jeffrey Fowle was released by North Korea and returned home to the United States. Zhang’s article was published before Fowle’s release. See: Peter Baker and Rick Gladstone, “Jeffrey Fowle, American Held by North Korea, Is Freed,” New York Times, October 21, 2014.

[7] For the original CNN interview and report, see: Will Ripley and Holly Yan, “Americans detained in North Korea speak to CNN, ask for U.S. help,” CNN, September 1, 2014.

[8] Zhang appears to have turned a phrase here, writing “bitter” (苦诉其不幸), instead of “crying” (哭诉其不幸).

[9] Richardson’s actual title was U.S. Ambassador to the UN, not “representative.”

[10] Zhang actually misquotes Richardson to a minor degree. From the original CNN article: “But it’s apparent the three men are now being used by North Korea as “bargaining chips,” said Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has traveled to the isolated country. “They’re sending a signal, saying, ‘We’re ready to bargain for the three hostages,’ ” Richardson said. See: Holly Yan, Will Ripley and Brian Todd, “How North Korea may be using U.S. detainees as ‘bargaining chips,’” CNN, September 2, 2014.

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