All Eyes on China in Wake of Cheonan Sinking

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 11

South Korean corvette Cheonan

China’s longstanding relationship with North Korea has come under greater international scrutiny since the March 26 sinking of the 1300-ton South Korean corvette Cheonan near the de facto maritime boundary between North and South Korea. The apparent torpedo attack killed 46 of 104 sailors aboard Cheonan and prompted intense speculation and recrimination in Seoul as South Korea scrambled to investigate. The multinational investigation team reported on May 20 that, “evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine. There is no other plausible explanation” [1]. The team displayed components of the North Korean torpedo discovered on the seabed. While Pyongyang adamantly denied culpability, even China, the North’s key economic benefactor, has not challenged the investigation results.  

Given China’s role as both a permanent member on the UN Security Council and North Korea’s most meaningful diplomatic partner, Beijing will play a pivotal role in any effort to punish the North Korean regime. With the investigation results now public, Seoul is seeking to marshal the international community, particularly China, to take tough action. Faced with compelling evidence, Beijing is under mounting pressure to show that it will support international norms and that it is committed to checking Pyongyang’s provocative behavior. At the same time, Beijing’s interest in protecting the North Korean regime makes it wary of pushing Kim Jong-il into a more precarious position.  

As China attempts to portray itself as a “responsible stakeholder” on a broad range of issues from anti-piracy to counter-proliferation, its historical relationship with North Korea has become a growing liability. Although the Cheonan incident could prompt some Chinese officials to take a harder look at the political costs of this special relationship, policy change is unlikely in the near term. The “Dear Leader’s” recent visit to Beijing underscored the durability of this bilateral relationship (See "Kim Jong Il’s Secret Visit to Beijing," China Brief, May 13). China’s strategic interest in a stable North Korea is likely to trump its desire to demonstrate “responsibility” by backing tough international sanctions.

Capability and Motive

North Korea’s motives for attacking the Cheonan are likely to remain a subject of speculation. Prior to taking office in early 2008, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak made clear his intent to take a harder line toward the North. Much to Pyongyang’s displeasure, Lee reversed the so-called “sunshine policy” of predecessors Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, which had provided North Korea with billions of dollars in aid while extracting few concessions from Pyongyang. Like many critics of the sunshine policy, Lee contended that the aid amounted to "unilateral appeasement" [2]. The sinking of the Cheonan could validate Lee’s charge that unconditioned aid amounted to “peace for tribute.”

North Korea might also have attacked the Cheonan to avenge a November 2009 skirmish between North and South Korean ships in the Yellow Sea. According to South Korean Navy officials, the encounter left a North Korean patrol boat “engulfed in flames” with an uncertain number of North Korean casualties. In contrast, the South Korean ship involved sustained only minor damage (Korea Times, November 16, 2009; New York Times, November 10, 2009). Denying South Korean assertions that the North Korean patrol boat had crossed the Northern Limit Line boundary, Pyongyang called the November incident a “grave armed provocation” and (unsuccessfully) demanded an apology form the South.

Despite Pyongyang’s protestations of innocence over the Cheonan incident, early media reports suggested that North Korean officials were privately touting the attack as a retaliatory victory. According to one South Korean report, a North Korean Worker’s Party Secretary tacitly confirmed North Korean responsibility for the attack to an audience of fellow Party members, proclaiming, “The Korean People’s Army has recently taken merciless revenge on its enemies. After our retaliation, South Korea has been so afraid of our military strength” (Donga Ilbo [South Korea], April 28). While it is difficult to confirm the truth of either the remark or the report, such comments point to a possible North Korean motive for the attack on the Cheonan.

All Roads Pass Through Beijing

Calling for “resolute countermeasures” against North Korea, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak expressed his desire to deal with Pyongyang “through strong international cooperation” (Christian Science Monitor, May 20). Park Hyung-jun, the senior political affairs secretary to President Lee, underscored China’s central role in any international response to the Cheonan incident. Park noted that “we will explain [the investigation results] to China in full, so that we can have China play its role in the issue.” As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, the host of the Six-Party Talks, and North Korea’s principal benefactor, China will exercise immense influence over the type and severity of any punishment meted out against Pyongyang.

In response to the Cheonan report and Seoul’s accompanying call for sanctions, North’s Korea’s Central News Agency insisted this constitutes an “intolerable, grave provocation [and] a declaration of war” (KCNA, May 24). Characterizing the Cheonan incident as a “conspiratorial farce to harm and stifle the DPRK”, Pyongyang pledged to “mete out a thousand-fold punishment to the puppet war thirsty forces” (KCNA, May 26). North Korea later indicated it would fire upon South Korea’s loudspeakers that are slated to resume propaganda messaging along the demilitarized zone (Seoul Hankyoreh, May 26).

Beijing’s vague official commentary and high-level diplomatic contact with North Korea in the wake of the sinking triggered significant concern in South Korea (Yonhap [South Korea], May 24). Beijing’s guarded statements reflect an effort to appear impartial and focused on preventing escalation rather than assigning blame or delivering justice. A PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson called on all parties to “remain cool and exercise restraint” (Xinhua News Agency, May 7). China’s deputy foreign minister characterized the incident as “unfortunate” but refrained from blaming North Korea (Global Times [China], May 21). Meanwhile, the Beijing Review reiterated Beijing’s general opposition to economic sanctions against Pyongyang, suggesting they are politically ineffective and only cause the public to suffer (Beijing Review, May 17).

Of greater significance to South Korean observers, Hu welcomed Kim Jong-Il to Beijing on 20 April, just days after South Korean President Lee consulted with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Shanghai. South Korean commentators suggested that Beijing’s unexpected invitation to the North Korean leader was inappropriate and insulting given the cloud of suspicion hanging over the Kim regime (Yonhap, May 12 and 13; JoongAng Ilbo [South Korea], May 8).

South Korean media expressed concern that China’s strategic interest in North Korean stability will override any pressure to deal firmly with Pyongyang. The moderate Korea Times predicted that even the most damning evidence concerning North Korean involvement in the Cheonan sinking will not lead Beijing to change its stance on North Korea (The Korea Times, May 10). The more conservative JoongAng Ilbo called South Korea’s “strategic partnership” with Beijing “a delusion,” insisting that China will always embrace strategies that enable it to exercise influence over the Korean Peninsula (JoongAng Ilbo, May 8).

China to Shape Response Options

Most analysts downplay the likelihood of South Korea military retaliation, suggesting that the desire to avoid escalation will prompt Seoul to employ diplomatic and economic measures as it has done in the past. Seoul can pursue several punitive options short of military action. The most obvious first step involves further tightening the flow of international aid into North Korea and suspending remaining inter-Korean economic cooperation. China could limit this tactic’s effectiveness, however, by increasing its already-significant bilateral assistance.

Seoul is seeking United Nations action in tandem with economic pressure. Here, too, China will play a critical role as a permanent, veto-wielding member of the Security Council. Although Beijing supported U.N. Resolution 1874, which imposed political and economic sanctions on North Korea following Pyongyang’s 2009 nuclear test, it did so only after significantly weakening the initial language. Equally important, North Korea’s responsibility for the nuclear test was beyond question. Absent an admission of guilt regarding the Cheonan incident, it will be difficult to prove North Korean involvement with absolute certainty. Even a shred of doubt may be used by the Chinese leadership to shape and water down proposed sanctions, regardless of how credible Beijing finds the investigation results.

Finally, Seoul could indefinitely suspend its participation in the stalled Six-Party Talks. Beijing could dilute the effect of this measure by persuading or pressing others of the six to proceed with talks. During meetings with Kim Jong-Il in early May, the Chinese elicited a pledge from Pyongyang to move toward a resumption of the Six-Party Talks (South China Morning Post, May 12; Kyodo World Service, May 13). Should South Korea remain on the sidelines indefinitely, it may run the risk of being marginalized as other participants engage North Korea on substantive issues.

The Growing Cost of Supporting Pyongyang

The economic and ideological divide between China and North Korea has grown exponentially since the late 1970s, when Beijing embarked on its path of “reform and opening.” Where China has become increasingly integrated with the international community and supportive of international norms, the impoverished and isolated North Korean leadership has shunned pressure from China and others to reform.

Beijing’s growing international engagement is motivated in part by a desire to bolster its international image. Over the past decade in particular, Beijing has sought to assure the world of its “peaceful development,” insisting that China will not destabilize the existing order as it becomes more powerful. Beijing has also seemingly embraced the U.S. formulation of becoming a “responsible stakeholder,” implying that it will more actively contribute to the global order from which it benefits. Beijing has curtailed its weapons proliferation, contributed naval forces to the multinational anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden and leveraged its unique relationship with Pyongyang as an asset in the Six-Party Talks. The Cheonan incident illustrates the threat that Pyongyang can pose to Beijing’s desired narrative.

From the standpoint of China’s “image doctors,” it would be logical to conclude that China is paying a high price for its longstanding association with Pyongyang. Beijing’s critics cite the Cheonan incident as evidence of contradictory policies on the Korean Peninsula. A strident editorial in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post stated that Beijing is attempting to play “both sides,” insisting that the Chinese leadership “cannot both run with the hare and hunt with the hounds” (South China Morning Post, May 12).

In recent weeks, mainland Chinese media has expressed unusually candid criticism of North Korea, characterizing the regime’s nuclear ambitions as “proud” and irresponsible. The Global Times asserted that Pyongyang is “playing a dangerous game with Northeastern powers while relying on its comparatively weak national strength” (Global Times, May 13). The Guangming Ribao critically noted that Pyongyang has “inflexibly chosen to tread a military first policy… to develop nuclear weapons, [and] stir up disturbances” while relying on China for foreign assistance (Guangming Wang, May 17). Meanwhile, China Daily, which serves as the official English-language mouthpiece, challenged foreign media assertions that China was “backing Pyongyang” in the wake of the Cheonan attack (China Daily, May 12). Chinese media tactfully referred to Kim Jong-Il’s visit as “unofficial,” adding that Pyongyang—not Beijing—chose the timing of the trip (Xinhua News Agency, May 7; China Daily, May 12).

No Major Shift in the Near Term

While Mao Zedong famously called China and North Korea “as close as lips and teeth,” the ideological language of kinship has long since vanished from China’s official script. In the wake of the Cold War, the two countries have taken starkly different political and economic paths. Beijing values North Korea primarily as a buffer against U.S. forces in the South, sustaining North Korea for strategic rather than ideological reasons [3]. Chinese media characterized Hu’s visit with Kim Jong-Il as part of a longstanding effort to promote and maintain “stability” on the peninsula (Beijing Review, May 17; China Daily, May 12)

Should the North Korean regime implode, Beijing could face several undesirable consequences, including a flood of refugees into China, protracted war or chaos on the peninsula, or a successor regime that is antagonistic toward China. Beijing also worries that “precipitous reunification” with the South could leave U.S. forces stationed north of the 38th parallel [4]. This is particularly important as many Chinese scholars and commentators express the fear that the United States is pursuing a strategy to “encircle” China [5].

As the international community deals with the Cheonan incident, Beijing will be forced to balance its strategic interest in North Korean stability against its desire to project a benign and cooperative international image. If world opinion unifies behind levying serious penalties against Pyongyang, China will find itself in a corner, with pressure not to obstruct the process. At the same time, Beijing sees a regime in Pyongyang that is very vulnerable, particularly given Kim Jong-Il’s failing health and the likelihood of a power transition in the coming years.

Despite the growing political and economic cost of supporting North Korea and the widening ideological divide between the regimes in Beijing and Pyongyang, China shows little sign that it has the appetite for tough sanctions such as those suggested by Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies. In an editorial carried by the Korea Times, Cossa asserted that simply levying additional sanctions is an inadequate response. Conceding that the appropriate penalty is not the likely path, Cossa argued that the U.N. Security Council should restrict North Korean submarines and torpedo boats to port, adding that units underway “should be deemed as legitimate targets for prosecution and destruction by the Seoul-based United Nations Command and ROK-US Combined Forces Command (CFC)” (Korea Times, May 4). Endorsing security sanctions that would almost certainly spark additional conflicts with the North or even precipitate regime instability would represent a strategic shift that China has been unwilling to undertake in the past.  


The Cheonan incident may prompt some Chinese policymakers to reexamine the growing cost of China’s historical commitment to Pyongyang. Treatment of the North as an indispensable buffer zone has emboldened the Kim regime. Left unchecked, North Korea could damage China’s international image, or worse, precipitate a conflict that undermines China’s larger security interests.

China’s foreign policy community, which consistently favors strong U.N. authority, must also weigh the risk that impeding international efforts to punish North Korea may further undermine confidence in the United Nations as an appropriate and effective venue to handle security challenges. Beijing may not want to see the US, Japan, and South Korea resolve to address this problem independently of the United Nations.

In the near term, however, stability in North Korea will remain Beijing’s paramount priority. Given North Korea’s recent currency debacle and the likelihood of a North Korean power transition in the coming years, China will remain wary of any shocks that could undermine the Pyongyang regime. As it has done in the past, China will use its weight and position to water down sanctions, create loopholes for bilateral “humanitarian” aid and refocus international efforts toward resuming dialogue with the North. Beijing’s greatest challenge will be convincing skeptics that dialogue with Pyongyang remains a profitable exercise.

[The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.]


1. Investigation Result on the Sinking of ROKS ‘Cheonan’, The Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group, May 2010.
2. Petrov, Leonid, President Lee Myung-bak’s North Korea Policy: Denuclearization or Disengagement?, The Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development, March 2008.
3. Zhang Liangui, PRC Scholar Analyzes Prospects for DPRK Nuclear Issue, Beijing Shijie Zhishi
4. Liff, Adam, US Policy Toward North Korea: The China Fallacy, Pacific Forum CSIS October 8, 2009.
5. Liu Jingbo, “Chinese National Security Strategy in the Early 21st Century,” Shishi Publishing, 2006.