Hu’s Mishandling of the North Korean Crisis

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 15

Beijing, in particular President Hu Jintao, has emerged as a loser in the latest episode of missile and nuclear brinkmanship orchestrated by Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. In spite of the billions of dollars in aid that Beijing has poured into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), China has again demonstrated that it is incapable of controlling its errant client state. Furthermore, the heavy-handed manner with which Chinese diplomats prevented the UN Security Council from imposing economic and military sanctions on the Hermit Kingdom has almost guaranteed that Pyongyang will only continue to create trouble for the global community.

Beijing’s Foot Dragging

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership’s maladroit handling of the missile crisis has detracted from the international goodwill that Beijing had garnered from hosting the Six Party Talks and in general, reining in Kim’s histrionics. Beijing’s refusal to play hardball with Kim before the July 4 “missile fireworks”—and its failure to castigate Pyongyang afterwards—has confirmed that Beijing is more interested in cementing its “lips-and-teeth” alliance with Pyongyang than in contributing to the worldwide campaign against the development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by rogue regimes. The furthest that Hu had gone in decrying Kim’s missile brinksmanship was when he expressed to a senior visiting DPRK official, Yang Hyong Sop, that China was “seriously concerned” about “some new complicating factors” that had appeared on the Korean Peninsula (Xinhua, July 11). Rather than reigning in Kim’s behavior and calling for an end to the provocative actions, Beijing has placed an emphasis on urging “relevant parties”—implying the United States and Japan—not to “overreact” to Pyongyang’s gimmicks.

Nevertheless, in an apparent effort to prevent the further erosion of its credibility, Beijing’s UN representatives last Saturday acceded to a watered-down Security Council Resolution that did not mention either punitive economic sanctions or military actions, should the DPRK continue with its incendiary behavior. Apart from calling for Pyongyang to freeze all weapons programs, the document merely banned UN member states from participating in the proliferation of missile and WMD technology to and from North Korea. Not surprisingly, just 45 minutes after the resolution’s passage, Pyongyang’s UN representative condemned the toothless document. In what U.S. Ambassador to the UN Joshua Bolton called “a world record” for rejection, the DPRK added that it would continue testing missiles and other deadly weapons (AP, July 15; Xinhua, July 15).

Chinese diplomats have always defended their actions, or lack thereof, by arguing that Beijing’s influence over Pyongyang is limited. This, however, could not be futher from the truth. Observers of North Korea will remember that when Beijing turned off oil supplies to the DPRK for three days in early 2003, Pyongyang took notice and made concessions, if only token ones, that included an agreement to join the Six Party Talks. Beijing’s most recent refusal to even reprimand the DPRK in public has weakened its claim of being a “responsible stakeholder” in the international community. Indeed, more officials and analysts in the West have gravitated to the view that instead of being a crucial broker in solving the DPRK conundrum, Beijing’s duplicitous stance is part of the problem.

Hu’s to Blame

President Hu, who became the director of the CCP Leading Group on Foreign Affairs (LGFA) in early 2003, deserves much of the criticism leveled against Beijing’s DPRK policy. China-North Korean relations cooled perceptibly during the tenure of Hu’s predecessors—ex-president Jiang Zemin and former premier Zhu Rongji—both of whom did not hide their contempt for Kim. High-level visits between the two allies dropped significantly through the 1990s, during which Beijing concentrated on building economic, and later, diplomatic ties with Seoul. Upon assuming the directorship, however, Hu has surprised even the Chinese foreign policy establishment with his enthusiastic “about face” to restore the “lips-and-teeth brotherhood” with the DPRK.

When Kim visited Beijing in April 2004, all nine members of the CCP Politburo Standing Committee members attended an elaborate reception party. During Kim’s trip to China earlier this year, Hu again departed from protocol by accompanying Kim on a tour of the provinces. Moreover, Beijing began banning all media from airing views or running articles that were critical of Kim’s regime. For instance, the respected journal, Strategy and Management, was shutdown in the summer of 2004 after carrying a piece that lambasted Kim’s excesses. A veteran diplomatic source in Beijing remarked to this author that Hu had decided to accord the DPRK strongman unprecedented high-level treatment because the CCP leader was convinced that Pyongyang would contribute to one of Beijing’s main foreign policy objectives: to pin down U.S. and Japanese forces in the Pacific. More generally, having a nuclear Pyongyang would also combat what it perceived as Washington’s “anti-China containment policy” by forcing Washington to engage with Beijing. The source admitted, however, that the massive Chinese aid for Kim as well as Hu’s effusive protestations of China-DPRK comradeship only made sense if Pyongyang were willing to toe the Beijing line. If anything, this past month’s events have demonstrated that Hu’s pro-North Korea zeal has clearly been misplaced.

Long-time Hu watchers in Beijing have attributed Hu’s pro-Pyongyang posture to two related reasons. One is the institutional bias of president and Central Military Commission (CMC) chairman’s tendency to side with military hawks particularly regarding foreign policy toward the U.S., Japan and Korea. This may be due to the CMC chief’s need to secure the backing of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) top brass in the run-up to the crucial CCP 17th Party Congress next year. The other reason is that by temperament, Hu, an unabashed disciple of Chairman Mao Zedong’s, shares the “pro-Russian” and “pro-DPRK” proclivities of the CCP conservatives. After all, Mao’s eldest son, 29-year-old Mao Anying, perished in Pyongyang shortly after the start of the Korean War in 1950. After that, a sizable number of CCP Maoists and generals became convinced that they must uphold the Great Helmsman’s lofty spirit of sacrificing his own son to protect China’s “North Korean brothers.” It was no accident that two months ago, Mao Anying’s widow was given permission for the first time to visit Pyongyang specifically to find the exact spot where her husband died upon being hit by a U.S. bomb (Korean Central News Agency, May 16).

Implications for Sino-Japanese Relations

Apart from undermining China’s status as a diplomatic broker and peacemaker, Kim’s antics have also presented a god-sent excuse for Japan to beef up its defense forces. Foreign Minister Taro Aso, a hard-line minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, indicated soon after July 4 that Tokyo had the right to launch “pre-emptive strikes” against WMD facilities in the DPRK. A long-time critic of Japan’s alleged “re-militaristic” intentions, Beijing has revved up its propaganda machinery to decry Tokyo’s apparent efforts to fish in troubled waters. The official media quoted Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) Japan expert Professor Jin Xide saying that right-wing Japanese politicians were “taking advantage [of the missile crisis] to speed up the establishment of an outward-oriented defense system.” CASS Korean specialist Li Dunqiao noted that Japan was the “biggest beneficiary” of the recent turn of events. Professor Li added that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party might soon be “boosting its army to prepare for war… as well as stirring up [domestic] sentiments of nationalism.” (Xinhua, July 12; Youth Reference News, Beijing, July 14) Moreover, the Korean crisis will make it even more likely that a “hawkish” LDP politician such as Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe would succeed Koizumi in September.

Given the poor state of Sino-Japanese relations, Beijing’s nervousness regarding Tokyo’s reactions to Pyongyang’s antics is understandable. It must be pointed out, however, that since all seven of the DPRK’s missiles landed in the Sea of Japan, Tokyo’s outrage is not unreasonable. Whether Hu’s misjudgment of North Korean dynamics has allowed Tokyo to justify its “re-armament” bid must also be asked.


The Hu-led LGFA can still save the day by engineering an early resumption of the Six Party Talks. Furthermore, Kim might, after reading the reportedly harshly-worded letter that Hu sent him last week, decide to behave himself for a few months. There are also military analysts who think that the PLA reaped a bonanza of intelligence from closely monitoring maneuvers that the U.S. and Japanese militaries had taken in preparation for the July 4 “Pyongyang fireworks.” The fact of the matter, however, remains that at a time when most countries had been overwhelmed by the nuclear crisis in Iran—yet another China ally—Beijing has failed to acquit itself of being a responsible stakeholder in the global community through putting its roguish “blood brother” on a tighter leash.