Firm Warning, Light Consequences: China’s DPRK Policy Upholds Status Quo

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 23

The belief that China has shifted its foreign policy on North Korea has been unusually robust during this year’s Korean crisis. China is said to have responded with unprecedented toughness to its intractable neighbor’s recent nuclear test. However, further scrutiny of the available body of facts and information that have shaped such views finds little support for this interpretation.

China was genuinely angered by North Korea’s provocations, but it imposed only pro forma economic sanctions in response, with little real impact on North Korea’s economy. In fact, China-North Korea trade continued to increase at the height of China’s purported punishments. Nor was Beijing’s anger felt in the Chinese cities bordering North Korea, where informal cross-border trade continued.

Beijing’s bedrock North Korea policy remains unchanged: It views Pyongyang as a strategic net asset in regional politics, and is not about to abandon its Cold War ally. At the end of the day, China’s reaction to the nuclear test was about maintaining its credibility and saving face after being defied by a client state, rather than changing the regional dynamics in accordance with Washington and Seoul’s hopes (correspondence with Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, U.S. Institute of Peace, November 2013).

China is widely seen as the only country with any leverage over the North, and also virtually its sole aid supplier. China has long been blamed by the international community for “shielding” the North from international criticism despite the latter’s various belligerent acts. Beijing perceives Pyongyang as a useful “buffer zone” against the United States and its allies—a mentality that goes back to the Cold War period. However, both leading up to and following North Korea’s most recent test, China spoke out much more openly than it has against most similar actions in the past, and supported UN sanctions in response to the test.

China’s baseline policy toward the Korean Peninsula has long been characterized by the “Three No’s”: “no war, no instability, no nukes” (buzhan, buluan, wuhe), in descending order of importance (Ta Kung Pao, April 10;, April 10; Global Times Online, June 27). Beijing does not support the DPRK’s nuclear brinksmanship, but it is much more concerned about the risks of regime instability and fundamentally seeks to preserve the status quo. China’s leaders have made it clear that they would prefer to a less aggressive Pyongyang, but their goal is regional stability and they are not interested in a strategy that might weaken the regime.

Yet this time around, China’s attitude was seen very differently. Viewing China’s response as unusually harsh, many analysts perceived a reordering of Chinese priorities on the Korean Peninsula (38 North, July 2). China, they wrote, was now signaling that it would make denuclearization its first order of priority in dealing with North Korea, supporting U.S. goals (CSIS paper: “Reordering Chinese Priorities on the Korean Peninsula,” November 2012).

Firm Warnings

In the days leading up to the recent nuclear test, the Chinese government engaged in considerable efforts to dissuade Pyongyang from the move. China’s then-deputy Foreign Minister, Cui Tiankai, reaffirmed Beijing’s disapproval of Pyongyang’s third nuclear test when he said that China “resolutely opposes” the move (news video seen on, February 5). Diplomatic sources in Beijing told the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo that the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned North Korean Ambassador Ji Jae-ryong twice to demand that his country cancel the test (February 7).

China’s state-run Global Times also warned Pyongyang in an unsigned editorial that there would be a “heavy price” if the imminent nuclear test went ahead. It also threatened that China would cut off aid (February 7).

“China Rebukes North Korea”

When, despite all these efforts, North Korea went ahead with a nuclear test on February 12, China was visibly upset. China made a show of getting tough on North Korea by implementing UN sanctions. Some Chinese people even staged protests in front of the North Korean embassy, and the government allowed media to criticize the country. Furthermore, Deng Yuwen, the deputy editor of the Central Party School’s Study Times, published an Op-Ed in the Financial Times titled “China should abandon North Korea,” which drew worldwide attention, sparking speculation that China had finally lost patience with its neighbor (February 27).

China’s anger appeared to reach a climax in April, when Communist Party chief Xi Jinping said in a speech at the Boao Forum, “No one should be allowed to throw a region, and even the whole world, into chaos for selfish gain” (Xinhua, April 7).  It instantly made international headlines. Given its context, it was taken as a veiled rebuke. Dramatic headlines appeared in the wake of Xi’s speech, such as: “China rebukes North Korea, says no state should sow chaos” (Reuters, April 7),  “China signals North Korea to stop throwing the ‘world into chaos’” (Los Angeles Times, April 7), “Chinese President Xi Jinping expresses concern over North Korea’s rhetoric” (Washington Post, April 7).

Even U.S. President Barack Obama publicly said that China was “recalculating” its North Korea policy (AFP, March 13). But interviews with members of the Chinese security community reveal that the reality was quite different. Obama’s remark was seen in China as a politically calculated statement, designed to publicly pressure China to conform to the American “responsible stakeholder” framework (Author’s interview, April 17).

Re-examining the Evidence:

Deng Yuwen’s Editorial

Deng’s article, coming from a senior official in an important organization, was cited as a major piece of evidence about private debates about the DPRK alliance among the Communist Party leadership. Otherwise, the logic went, Deng would not have dared to risk his career by writing such a bold piece. Some also believed that the Chinese foreign ministry had been involved in “pre-consultation” before granting Deng a green light to publish.

However, in an interview with the author, Deng said that he did not consult the foreign ministry (March 27). The article, he said represented only his personal views. Deng’s article had in fact been rejected for publication by several Chinese media outlets before he translated it into English and tried his luck with the foreign media. When the foreign ministry saw the article, it lodged a protest with the Central Party School. In a clear indication that the piece did not represent an official position of the Chinese government, Deng was eventually fired (Chosun Ilbo, April 1).

Xi’s Condemnation of “Selfish Gain”

Deng was not the most senior figure in China who raised false hopes in the outside world about Beijing’s policy toward Pyongyang. Xi’s statement about “throwing the world into chaos for selfish gain” was read as further evidence.

Xi’s veiled language was confusing enough to even a Chinese audience that some Chinese academics confirmed to their Western counterparts that Xi was referring to North Korea. However, this interpretation was rejected by the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily a few days later (April 9). It stated: “The Chinese and foreign media have speculated, who harbors ‘selfish gain’?” It went on to catalogue turmoil in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, noting that “Western countries” are responsible for them, referring to the United States and its allies.

The Communist Party’s English-language mouthpiece, China Daily, was even more blunt. In an editorial titled “Xi’s Security Outlook,” it again listed global hot spots from the Syrian crisis to territorial disputes in the South China Sea (April 10). It argued that many of the world’s security woes today can, in one way or another, be traced back to the pursuit of “selfish gains in disregard of regional and global security needs.” Again, this editorial from China Daily, meant to clarify Xi’s comment, explicitly mentions a “global” security crisis. A state with global outreach, subject to Xi’s criticism and which has involvement in different global hotspots ranging from the Middle East to the South China Sea, is clearly the United States and not North Korea.

Economic Sanctions

Many members of the U.S. policy community argue that China’s seemingly stringent implementation of UN-mandated sanctions prove that it is moving to support the U.S. effort to increase economic pressure on the DPRK. After the UN adopted a punitive resolution against the nuclear test, Li Baodong, the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters: “We want to see the resolution completely enforced,” a stark departure from China’s previous grudging attitude toward sanctions (Hankyoreh, March 7). International media also reported that China had stopped providing oil to North Korea in February (Reuters, March 21). Coming in the same month as the nuclear test, this was read as sign of anger. In April, China’s Ministry of Transportation (MoT) sent out a directive to relevant government agencies, including the Customs Office, to “strictly enforce the UN resolution” on North Korea (MoT, April 17). Then, in May, China’s state-owned Bank of China reportedly cut off its dealings with North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank (Financial Times, May 7).

Yet China’s punitive actions were more symbolic than substantive. China made it clear that it was clamping down only on “illegal” trade activities. That meant that “legal” trade behaviors would be left intact, including the annual Chinese shipment of 500,000 tons of oil to North Korea. In an interview with the author, a Chinese security expert based near the border dismissed reports that oil shipments had been interrupted (May 2013). During the author’s own field study in Dandong in May, local business people reported that Sino-North Korean border trade there remained largely intact.

It was also not clear whether the restrictions on trade between the Bank of China and North Korea’s Korea Trade Bank had any impact. These exchanges had been very limited from the start. Furthermore, after the 2007 Banco Delta Asia incident, in which the United States froze many of North Korea’s international bank accounts, North Koreans who regularly conduct business in China switched to cash dealings, or borrowed Chinese-name accounts. Doubts about the effectiveness of the UN sanctions and the Chinese cooperation were confirmed when trade between China and North Korea hit a record high of $4.69 billon during January–September 2013, a 4.5 percent increase over the same period last year (Donga Ilbo, November 6).

Nor was it a departure from past practice for China to agree to punitive UN resolutions: North Korea has so far conducted three nuclear tests; China agreed to punitive resolutions after all three of them. While China prefers lesser measures in response to North Korea’s conventional missile tests, a nuclear test is China’s threshold for accepting UN resolutions against North Korea, according to a Chinese security expert with a government think tank (Author’s interview, February 2013).

Most recently, China issued a list of goods banned for export to North Korea. Yet Hong Lei, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, drew a clear line, stating that “punishment is not the goal,” “It is to encourage denuclearization on the Korean peninsula” (Reuters, September 24).


China’s plans hardly matched the hopes of the United States and its allies. As the Global Times wrote a week before the nuclear test: “It is unlikely that China will punish North Korea as harshly as countries like the United States, Japan and South Korea would prefer, and the friendship between the two sides is not going to end. The West should understand this clearly” (February 6). Around the same time, a Chinese expert predicted that “China will join the UN to condemn North Korea and we will have a cooling-off period. But after some time passes, ties will be back on a normal track. We need each other strategically in East Asia” (Author’s interview, February 2013).

China has clearly not joined with the international community to place the Kim regime under long-term pressure. Instead, Beijing seeks to get the attention of North Korean leaders without destabilizing the country, aiming to preserve the existing situation. 

UPDATES: This article was updated on November 26 to correct the amount of oil China annual supplies to North Korea. It is 500,000 tons of oil, not 50 tons.