Short- and Long-Term Security Implications of China-DPRK Rapprochement: A View from Seoul

By | November 22, 2022 | No Comments

China-DPRK relations, based more on utility than actual mutual affinity, are in a significantly improved state at what appears will soon be Xi Jinping’s third terms as China’s paramount leader compared to when Xi took the helm in 2012. As Lee Sang-sook of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security argues, while China-US tensions have the Korean Peninsula in a difficult situation in the short term, Beijing must carefully strike a balance between offering support for Pyongyang as a way to counter US influence while not allowing for excessive instability on the Peninsula. This, he argues, is something Seoul should not fail to take advantage of. 

 

“[Review] China to Reduce Support for North Korea if Latter ‘Increases Tensions on the Korean Peninsula’”[1]

 

Amid the Sino-US rivalry, China has been offering its support for North Korea, yet if the DPRK continues to raise tensions, China may reduce its support for Pyongyang and turn more of its efforts toward regulating tensions, according to one expert.

Lee Sang-sook, a research professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security stated as much in a paper published on November 14th titled: “China’s Policies Toward the Korean Peninsula and China-ROK Cooperation in the Era of Sino-US Rivalry: Two Korea Policy at the Center”[2].

According to Professor Lee, “After South Korea officially deployed THAAD in 2016, China believed itself to be facing threats from the United States on three fronts: military, identity and geopolitical. From there, China’s policies toward the Korean Peninsula showed signs of a trajectory aimed at bringing it within Beijing’s sphere of influence.” 

Also, “In 2017, Trump, during in the White House, zeroed in on the trade deficit with China, and as soon as he launched policies aimed at economically containing China, the Sino-US trade war erupted.”

Meanwhile, as he explained “It can be argued that in 2018 during Xi Jinping’s second term, as the state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula changed amid the Sino-American rivalry, China managed to prevent itself from being marginalized from the Korean Peninsula, and in order to strengthen China’s hand in the Peninsula, Beijing revived relations with Pyongyang.” 

Dr. Lee stated “Assuming that the Sino-American rivalry will barely change in the short term, it seems China’s support for and cooperation with North Korea will continue, and as such, China’s essential “two Koreas policy” will continue as well. 

However, “In the long term, if North Korea continues to raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula, Beijing may fear instability on the Korean Peninsula will take The Sino-US rivalry to an extreme, and thus China could reduce its support for North Korea and focus more on reining in the DPRK.” 

In addition, “In the current situation where the Sino-US rivalry has led to China supporting North Korea as part of its strategy toward the Korean Peninsula, it is imperative for South Korea to emphasize the urgency of the stability of the Korean Peninsula to China.” 

Regarding the direction of China-South Korea cooperation, Dr. Lee proposed that “[s]eeing as the stability of the Korean Peninsula remains a priority for China in the era of Sino-US rivalry, South Korea must ask for China’s cooperation in managing North Korean security provocations against the ROK.” 

Furthermore, “For the sake of preventing instability in North Korea, which is among the driving factors in China’s policy toward the Korean Peninsula, China and South Korea should discuss ways to ‘fast track’ the provision of humanitarian aid” he said.  

Lee also suggested that “In the process of forming a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula in the long term, South Korea needs to establish cooperation with China.”

 

[1] Source: “[Review] China To Reduce Support For North Korea if Latter ‘Increases Tensions on the Korean Peninsula’ [[리뷰] “중국, 北 ‘한반도 긴장 확대’ 지속되면 지원 축소할 것”], SPNews, November 20, 2022, https://www.spnews.co.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=58496

[2] Translator’s note: The original text of the work cited “’미중경쟁 시기 중국의 한반도 정책과 한중협력: 두 개의한국정책을 중심으로”) contained the phrase “Two Korea Policy” in paratheses in English after the corresponding phrase in Korean. As such, this translation has kept the “Two Korea” wording, rather than “Two Koreas” to remain faithful to the original text that this translated review cites.

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