Beijing’s Frustrations on the Korean Peninsula

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 4

Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have fluctuated dynamically over the past two decades, beginning in the 1980s when frays first appeared in China’s ties with North Korea. The relationship continued to suffer as China pursued a policy of rapprochement toward South Korea. By the mid-1990s, Beijing was snarling at Pyongyang and smiling at Seoul. Beijing then rebalanced its relations with the two Koreas, brought Pyongyang to join the Six-Party Talks and attempted to justify North Korea’s provocative behavior. Following North Korea’s 2006 ballistic missile and nuclear tests, however, the Chinese became incensed at what they perceived to be Pyongyang’s blatant disrespect toward its benefactor. Such shifts in China’s attitude reflect Beijing’s attempt to balance relations with the two Koreas and at times, also reveals China’s displeasure with U.S. policies toward North Korea.

Stiffing the North; Embracing the South

While serving as the U.S. defense attaché in Beijing from 1990 to 1992, this author sensed apprehension over the potential consequences of China’s snubbing its former comrade-in-arms in order to embrace its erstwhile enemy: South Korea. Pyongyang had to swallow hard in 1991 when Beijing did not veto the dual entry to the UN of the two Koreas and even harder in 1992 when China and South Korea established diplomatic recognition.

Stunning additional events in the next five years received far less attention than warranted. The spokesmen of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in Beijing in 1995, “China does not believe the friendship treaty between Beijing and Pyongyang is a treaty requiring the dispatch of military forces.” While visiting South Korea in 1997, then-Chinese vice foreign minister (and later minister) Tang Jiaxuan publicly described the treaty as a “dead document” and stated that China was not willing to automatically intervene if North Korea were to start a war. The same year, Premier Li Peng openly described North Korea as not an ally, but only a neighbor [1].

That these statements were made only a few years after Beijing’s diplomatic recognition of Seoul is possibly more important than whether the statements are to be taken at face value. Nonetheless, Beijing was not abandoning the North, as it may have seemed. Amidst these disparaging words on treaty obligations, Beijing, in mid-1996, offered substantial food aid, reinstituted “friendship” prices, dropped the demand for cash payments and dispatched Chinese naval ships to North Korea for a port visit (Financial Times, July 16, 1996).

Deterring Military Misadventure

Beijing had calculated that ¬North Korea’s economic, energy and food situation was desperate—conceivably desperate enough to lead it to attack the South. Therefore, even as Beijing engaged Seoul, it also increased its economic and political support of North Korea, while declaring that a Pyongyang decision to initiate war would be tantamount to regime suicide.

If North Korea had acted up, Beijing could assert that it strove to prevent such actions, while Washington would be the culprit, ignoring Pyongyang’s pleas and plights. Moreover, U.S. forces were depicted as the core of a threat that had forced Pyongyang to acquire a military force capable of misadventure. Beijing would then be able to remind the international community that it had urged Washington to follow its example of establishing balanced policies for the Koreas.

Balancing Relations

Although Beijing, in 1998, denied Kim Jong-Il a visit to China, it nevertheless donated 80,000 tons of oil, demonstrating its reliability as a supplier. Beijing, even while unhappy with Kim, was beginning to put a nicer face on things. After the 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the release of the critical Cox Report on China, North Korea joined the torrent of anti-U.S. rhetoric that flowed from the Chinese media. The U.S. is “lost in persecution mania,” charged Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency. China’s ambassador to South Korea disputed evidence that North Korea was constructing an underground nuclear complex and said the United States had no right to inspect the site. He also stated: “It is not fair for only the United States, not other countries like North Korea, to be allowed to launch a rocket for…putting a satellite into orbit.” Beijing had become an apologist for Pyongyang.

Inchoate Concern about a Nuclear North

The South Asian nuclear tests of 1998 were a lesson for China; Beijing awakened to the potential for proliferation from North Korea to non-state actors. Imposing sanctions on North Korea, however, remained unthinkable for Beijing. China was opposed in principle to North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons, but remained passive in practice. In 2000, the official Chinese press wrote: “[T]he United States has deliberately played up the so-called ‘threat’ from North Korea, Iran, Iraq and some other countries. As a matter of fact, the countries mentioned above are still at the primary stage of missile development. By loudly shouting out the ‘threat theory,’ the report hoped to whip up opinion for the United States to implement its NMD and TMD programs and to build a so-called defense shield, which would give it unilateral and absolute superiority in its security and in attacking other countries” (Renmin Ribao, May 30, 2000). Beijing diligently refuted the North Korean threat and asserted U.S. culpability with respect to anxiety in North Korea, Iran and Iraq and resultant tendencies toward proliferation.

As late as July 2001, a well-connected Chinese interlocutor stated that the development of nuclear weapons by North Korea was highly undesirable but understandable (because of the U.S. threat) and not directly threatening to China. In October 2002, after North Korea reportedly admitted to having begun a highly enriched uranium program, Beijing, again shielding Pyongyang, stated that “dialogue and negotiation are the most effective way[s] to settle the North Korean nuclear issue” [2]. China’s opposition to North Korean nuclear weapons remained half-hearted.

Real Concern about a Nuclear North Emerges

This author’s discussions in 2003 with interlocutors at ten foreign policy institutes in Shanghai and Beijing on the North Korean nuclear issue revealed a dramatic shift in China’s stance regarding the North’s possession of nuclear weapons. The prospects of a nuclear Japan and South Korea served as the strongest factors that convinced Beijing to adopt a stern policy of insisting upon a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. Beijing counseled North Korea against the possession of nuclear weapons, arguing that they were unnecessary for regime security and were against its interests, but did not view a nuclear North as a direct threat to China, and even empathized with Pyongyang’s security concerns. At the time, however, China has also grew increasingly concerned with nuclear proliferation from the North and for the first time, became worried that a North Korean nuclear device could be obtained by terrorists and detonated within China.

Yet, in spite of these concerns, China continues to insist upon only peaceful solutions derived from negotiations and has refused to accede to the use of sanctions, fearing that it would significantly destabilize the regime and result in the flood of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of refugees across the border. The talks, the Chinese argue, are indeed capable of producing tangible results that are acceptable to all parties and even leading to a “peace framework” on the Korean Peninsula as well as a regional security framework. In order for these talks to result in fruition, however, the United States must be sincerely dedicated to a peaceful solution to the situation and provide a credible security guarantee that includes assurances against regime change. China, on the other hand, will not abrogate its mutual security treaty with Pyongyang, but it also will not support military provocations by the North. China remains committed to providing aid to the North, but Pyongyang must also remain a participant in the Six-Party Talks.

Washington Seen as Inept in North Korea Policy

Many in China have argued that Washington is significantly to blame for the poor progress in the negotiations, having failed to adopt reasonable policies during the early stages of the Six-Party Talks and continued to stubbornly insist upon upfront North Korean disarmament. Moreover, they argue, the United States has unfairly characterized Beijing’s policies vis-a-vis the Korean Peninsula. Among the assertions made by the Chinese are the following:

– While North Korean nuclear proliferation is a significant concern to Beijing, the root problem in the situation is the threat from the United States. Washington has not recognized the legitimacy of Pyongyang’s concerns and actions, which stem from its fears of regime change as well as demands for human rights, political reform and a cessation of its illicit activities. Rather than demanding concession after concession from the North, as Washington has been doing during the Six-Party Talks, the negotiations should instead focus only upon the nuclear issue.

– The United States has never offered any comprehensive, reasonable proposals, and its demands that North Korea concede to all U.S. demands as a precondition will not work. The United States should refrain from pressuring North Korea and instead, alter its policy and attitudes, and provide concrete security assurances and economic assistance.

– There is no proof of a North Korean nuclear program that is in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework; a HEU program would be even harder to create than a plutonium one.

– A U.S. military strike against North Korea would create many problems, among which would be North Korean retaliation that could result in hundreds of thousands of casualties in Seoul.

– China favors the reunification of the Korean Peninsula, which is not viewed as a threat to the security concerns of China. The belief that China seeks to maintain North Korea as a buffer state is valid only in an economic and political (and not military) context, if at all.

PRC Anger over DPRK Outrages Tempered by Ties and Interests

In addition to its grievances against the United States, China is also upset with Pyongyang over its 2006 missile and nuclear tests. Two well-informed senior PLA officers relayed the following to this author:

– China has replaced its previous embellished descriptions of Sino-North Korean relations—“blood brothers” and “as close as lips to teeth”—with simply the word “friendship.”

– Beijing was angry with the tests primarily because Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons provided Japan with an excuse to develop its own nuclear capabilities. The seemingly contradictory U.S. policies toward “good” (e.g. India) and “bad” (e.g. North Korea) nuclear-weapon states further complicate the matter. Such policy inevitably (though unintentionally) encourages North Korea as well as others to become nuclear-weapon states to protect against attacks by the United States and its allies.

When asked to provide concrete examples that reflected China’s anger, one of the officers pointed to Beijing’s condemnation of North Korean missile and nuclear tests and its public opposition to North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons. Moreover, the officer noted, China supports UN resolution 1718, which includes prohibitions on trading certain items with North Korea. Beijing, he rushed to add, does maintain warm, albeit worsened, relations with Pyongyang despite its anger.

The officer concluded by aptly summarizing China’s strategy toward the Korean Peninsula. Beijing, despite its frustrations with North Korea, continues to strive for good relations and maintenance of its leverage with Pyongyang, while encouraging it to remain in the Six-Party Talks and temper its actions. When reminded that some observers feel China should curtail food and energy shipments to North Korea in order to persuade it to dismantle its nuclear program, the normally soft-spoken officer blurted out that the interruption of food and oil shipments was not among the items he had listed and began to repeat the list, implying that these practices were adequate and there was no need to risk creating chaos in North Korea. He did not recognize that Beijing’s actions in anger remained insufficient for international observers. Beijing, it seems, has chosen to pursue a delicate foreign policy that seeks to appease all six parties—ensuring North Korea’s regime security while peacefully delivering a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula to its regional neighbors. Whether it will succeed in satisfying all six diners at the table will undoubtedly be a daunting challenge, even for the diplomatically adroit Beijing.


1. Eric A. McVadon, “Chinese Military Strategy for the Korean Peninsula” in China’s Military Faces the Future, James R. Lilley and David Shambaugh, eds, p. 280.

2. “Foreign Ministry Spokesman’s Press Conference on October 22, 2002,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China available online at