Beijing’s North Korean Gambit

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 21

Beijing is flashing the North Korean (DPRK) card at a time when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership feels increasingly threatened by an anti-China “containment policy” that Washington is supposedly spearheading with the help of Japan, Taiwan and other Asian countries and regions.

Despite Beijing’s avowed intention until early this year to rein in and even discipline its Stalinist North Korean neighbor, there are growing signs of a substantial restoration of the traditional “lips-and-teeth” relationship between the two uneasy allies. And while the CCP leadership has earned widespread applause for facilitating the six-nation talks on the North Korean nuclear crisis, it has become clear that Beijing has practically stopped putting pressure on Pyongyang to cooperate with the U.S. and Japan. This explains the frustration shown by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was in Beijing last Monday to seek Chinese help in obliging the Kim Jong-il regime to return to the negotiation table. Chinese leaders who met Powell, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, instead played up the fact that Washington should be “more flexible” in its policy toward the DPRK.

Beijing’s apparent change of heart toward its neighbor was demonstrated by the warm treatment it accorded the DPRK’s second in command, Parliamentary head Kim Yong-nam, who visited the Chinese capital earlier this month. Official Chinese news agencies said Kim’s counterpart, National People’s Congress Chairman Wu Bangguo, had extended North Korea another round of assistance. While the Chinese Foreign Ministry refused to say whether there was a military or hi-tech component in the assistance package, diplomatic analysts said it most likely consisted of food and fuel aid. By contrast, in early 2003, Beijing had shown its unhappiness with Dear Leader Kim’s policy of nuclear brinksmanship by cutting off oil supplies to North Korea for three days.

Equally important, in his meeting with Kim Yong-nam, President Hu vowed to “carry forward the tradition [of Sino-North Korean comradeship]…and to boost cooperation.” This was interpreted as a signal to Pyongyang that it could count on Chinese support – including some form of military assistance in the event of an unprovoked U.S. attack – in the foreseeable future. That the Chinese leadership, which had until last year deeply distrusted the mercurial Kim Jong-il, had changed its assessment of a revived Beijing-Pyongyang alliance was evident in April, when Kim paid a three-day visit to Beijing. In an unprecedented move, all nine members of the ruling CCP Politburo Standing Committee showed up in a welcoming ceremony.

According to a Chinese source familiar with Beijing’s Korean policy, the CCP Leading Group on Foreign Affairs (LGFA), which is headed by Hu, had in the spring decided to upgrade economic and other assistance to the DPRK. “Hundreds of economic and agricultural advisers, mostly from the northeastern provinces, have since been sent into North Korea,” the source said. He added Beijing hoped to enable the North Koreans to at least achieve self-sufficiency in the production of grain and other staples. While President Kim has continued to resist Beijing’s suggestion that his country follow Chinese-style economic reform, Pyongyang has agreed to let a group of private entrepreneurs from Wenzhou – deemed a quasi-capitalist enclave in Zhejiang Province – to introduce market-oriented retailing and other commercial operations in and around the North Korean capital.

The LGFA has decided to shore up the Kim regime for two main reasons. One is the perception among top civilian and military cadres that the North Korean card could be useful in combating an increasingly aggressive “anti-China containment policy” originating from Washington. Particularly after the large-scale Summer Pulse 2004 sea-and-air maneuvers that the U.S. military held with its allies in various parts of the Pacific last summer, the CCP leadership is convinced that a major goal of the global reorientation of American forces is to “target China.”

The LGFA has been particularly alarmed by reports of enhanced military cooperation between Japan and the U.S., which is encouraging Tokyo to speed up its transformation into a “normal state” that is free to use its armed forces to serve all national interests. As the official China News Service (CNS) put it, the government of Junichiro Koizumi is ready to work with Washington to “extend the Japan-U.S. alliance to the entire world.” This means essentially that the long-standing security arrangement with the U.S. should no longer be confined to areas immediately around Japan. Quoting the Japanese media, CNS noted that Washington wanted to turn Japan into a multiple-use base from which American military units can be deployed to Asia, the Middle East and even Africa. Moreover, should President George W. Bush be re-elected next week, Beijing fears that he would give a further push to the development of a theater missile defense system that would incorporate Japan and Taiwan.

The second reason behind the apparent resuscitation of a Beijing-Pyongyang alliance is Taiwan. Diplomatic analysts in Beijing have pointed out that the Chinese leadership had last year agreed to help the U.S. put pressure on North Korea largely in the hope that Washington would reciprocate by helping to rein in the pro-independence gambit of Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian. Despite the fact that President Bush and other officials have repeatedly warned Taipei not to unilaterally change the status quo of the Taiwan Strait, Beijing believes that Washington is playing a duplicitous game because the latter is also offering Taipei a package of sophisticated armaments.

Indeed, while Bush and Powell have in public praised Beijing’s role vis-à-vis the six-nation talks, U.S. officials have never formally accepted the quid pro quo called “Taiwan in exchange for North Korea.” This position was made clear by senior Bush administration officials who visited China this year: National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Vice-President Dick Cheney, and Powell. During his one-day stopover in Beijing, Powell appeared to have made an effort to please his hosts during short interviews with CNN and Phoenix TV. The Secretary indirectly indicated Washington’s support for China’s peaceful reunification effort by saying that “we want to see both sides not take unilateral action that would prejudice…a reunification that all parties are seeking.” Powell also noted that Taiwan was not a sovereign state. While these remarks caused some concern in Taipei, the State Department was quick to point out that Powell’s statements did not constitute a “departure from our long-standing position” on the Taiwan Strait.

The big question for politicians in the U.S. and Japan, of course, is how the CCP leadership may play its North Korean card. When Vice-President Cheney called on the CCP leadership last April, he briefed the latter on Pyongyang’s uranium-enrichment program. Beijing, however, has stuck to an agnostic position on the issue. Chinese diplomatic sources said while the Hu-Wen leadership had privately urged Kim and his generals to at lease freeze their nuclear armaments program, Beijing had stopped short of threatening to cut off all aid to its quasi-client state. And Beijing’s recent protestations of comradeship with its neighbor is a sure sign that the CCP leadership has rejected the advice of liberal academics that the mutual defense clause between the two countries – which dates from the 1950s – be abrogated in view of Kim’s erratic behavior. The sources added while the Hu-Wen team had refused to promise Kim that the People’s Liberation Army would unconditionally come to Pyongyang’s aid in the event of an American attack, the Kim regime was confident that sufficient help from China would be forthcoming particularly in the wake of an unprovoked, pre-emptive strike by U.S. missiles.

Owing to the fact that it is not in China’s interest to see progress in Pyongyang’s weapons development program, Beijing is unlikely to give Kim even an indirect signal that it would condone, let alone encourage, reckless adventures such as again firing a missile over Japan. However, the message that Beijing is sending to Washington and Tokyo through the resuscitation of some kind of a China-North Korea pact cannot be clearer: should the so-called containment policy against China intensify, particularly via the sale of ever-more advanced U.S. weapons to Taiwan, the CCP leadership would have no qualms about using Pyongyang to pin down substantial American and Japanese forces – and thereby at least partially neutralizing Washington and Tokyo’s “anti-China encirclement conspiracy.”