Is Enough Finally Enough for China and North Korea?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 6

Is North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un Breaking the Sino-Korean Relationship?

Bound up in nearly every discussion about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is the question of what role China could, should, and would play. It has been widely written that Beijing’s priority is to maintain a stable Korean Peninsula (albeit one that remains divided) and therefore will continue to serve as Pyongyang’s principal friend, backer, and banker no matter how difficult or frustrating that arrangement might be for Beijing. After all, China’s long-standing policy vis-à-vis North Korea could be explained as “no war, no mess, no nukes (buzhan, buluan, buhe)” (, February 14). This could be why, given the nearly universal condemnation of Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, China’s bilateral trade volume with North Korea in the first half of 2012 was $3.14 billion, up 24.7 percent from the same period the year before (Economic Observer, September 7, 2012). This policy, however, seems to be one that, over time, has chipped away at China’s credibility on the international stage and has brought it little added benefit.

Less clear though is whether North Korea’s three nuclear tests have had a demonstrable impact on Beijing’s strategic calculus. Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, while not China’s top priority, is still a professed goal. Statements coming out of China since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006 seem to imply that while actual policy has not significantly shifted or changed tack, debate within China’s policy circles about the future of that bilateral relationship has been heating up for some time.

Before proceeding, the following table presents a brief overview of the three North Korea nuclear tests discussed in this article.

Table 1: Overview of the DPRK Nuclear Tests

First Nuclear Test – October 9, 2006

Seismic Wave in Scale


Nuclear Material


Explosive Power

1 kiloton

Relationship to Rocket Launch

July 5

North Korea conducts two rounds of missile tests including one long-range Taepodong-2 missile and short-range Scud derived missiles including the enlarged Nodong.

July 15

U.N. passes UNSCR 1695 condemning DPRK’s missile launch.

October 3

North Korea announces plans to test a nuclear weapon in the future, blaming "hostile U.S. policy."

October 14

U.N. Security Council condemned the nuclear test of DPRK and passes UNSC 1718. Calls for it to return immediately to multilateral talks on the issue.

Second Nuclear Test – May 25, 2009

Seismic Wave in Scale


Nuclear Materials


Explosive Power

2~6 kilotons

Relationship to Rocket Launch

April 5

North Korea launches its Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 satellite, intended to broadcast "immortal revolutionary songs." Launch ends in failure

April 12

U.N. agreed to tougher sanctions for DPRK. Passes UNSCR 1874.

April 14

Following a UN resolution denouncing its missile launch, North Korea says that it "will never again take part in such [six party] talks and will not be bound by any agreement reached at the talks." North Korea expelled nuclear inspectors from the country and also informed the IAEA that they would resume their nuclear weapons program.

Third Nuclear Test – February 12, 2013

Seismic Wave in Scale


Nuclear Materials

Uranium or Uranium + Plutonium

Explosive Power

6~7 kilotons

Relationship to Rocket Launch

December 12, 2012

DPRK succeeded in launching a Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 satellite

January 22

U.N. Security Council condemns use of ballistic missile technology in launch by DPRK. Passes UNSCR 2087.

January 22 and 23

DPRK suggested it will have another nuclear test

March 5

North Korea has said it will cancel the 1953 ceasefire that ended the Korean War.

March 7

U.N. Security Council strengthens sanctions against the DPRK and unanimously passes UNSCR 2094.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like…North Korea?

With three nuclear tests under North Korea’s belt—in 2006, in 2009, and in February of this year—one of best ways to observe whether there has been a hardening or softening in language used by Beijing is to look at the official statements by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Granted, the two principal decision-making bodies when it comes to China’s North Korea policy are the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) and the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group (FALSG) (Sino-NK, August 5, 2012). MFA, however, is one of the primary stakeholders—or at least the agency that deals with the foreign implications of China’s relationship with North Korea—so its pronouncements are important to analyze when looking for potential policy adjustments.

First, it is important to note that all three statements—at least on the surface—appear rather similar. For example, each one uses the wording, “The Chinese government is resolutely opposed to the nuclear test by the DPRK.” The most recent statement from February 12, 2013, however, says “we strongly urge the DPRK to abide by its commitments on denuclearization.” The October 9, 2006, and May 25, 2009, versions said “we strongly demand that the DPRK abide by its commitments on denuclearization.” The difference between “strongly urge” (qianglie duncu) and “strongly demand” (qianglie yaoqiu) may not be insignificant. Compared to “yaoqiu,” “duncu” might imply that China recognizes that it does not possess the ability to push or directly ask the other party, in this case North Korea, to do (or not do) something (, February 13).

Second, after both the 2006 and 2009 tests, the statements read that the Chinese government “opposes the proliferation of nuclear weapons” (fandui hekuosan) whereas the 2013 statement used the wording “prevents proliferation of nuclear weapons” (fangzhi hekuosan). This change is a bit more difficult to parse. The use of “prevent” in 2013 seems to connote a more proactive stance against nonproliferation whereas earlier use of “oppose” could be read as a more generalized position that Beijing took on this matter.

Third, both the 2006 and 2009 statements urged North Korea to return to the Six Party Talks (6PTs) while the 2013 statement did not mention this, but instead asked “all parties” to settle the issue via the Six-Party-Talk mechanism. This might indicate that China does not want to purposely antagonize North Korea by calling it out, directly; instead the emphasis is on “all parties.” Moreover, this change could simply be a reflection of the realities of the day. With the death of the 6PTs it may be time to think about dialogue and consultation within a looser framework without explicit calls to restart the 6PTs.

Additionally, after the first nuclear test Beijing admitted that the test had a “negative impact” (fumiande yinxiang) on the bilateral relationship (People’s Daily, October 9, 2006). It was also after this test that Foreign Ministry officials began to use the word hanran which is often translated in English as “flagrant,” but could be translated even more harshly as “stubbornly defiant” (People’s Net, October 10, 2006). To date, this is some of the most severe language Beijing has used to describe North Korean actions. Perhaps this is why some analysts have concluded that China’s 2006 response was indeed the most critical, and the February 2013 statement could be considered less forceful than its previous incarnations.

What Say the Influencers?

Setting aside the official language, the Chinese public and policy community have had considerably more latitude to debate and argue over how China’s future North Korea policy might evolve. This, however, should be kept in perspective; these discussions have been occurring for years and are not a recent phenomenon. For example, immediately following the May 2009 test, the Global Times published a survey of 20 of the country’s top foreign policy experts who were divided evenly between those who supported tougher sanctions against North Korea and those who did not (Global Times, May 26, 2009). This survey became fodder for many Western journalists and analysts who used it as a crucible by which to gauge China’s evolving thinking on Peninsular matters. Yet here we are today, nearly four years later, still intrigued by these same sorts of events. Furthermore, some of the more outspoken Chinese scholars and analysts who follow the North Korea nuclear issue sound rather consistent throughout the years in their antipathy towards their erstwhile neighbor. This could imply that there is a real disconnect between Chinese public discussions (from supposedly “influential” thinkers) and what the Chinese policymaking elite and the party’s International Liaison Department think.

Shi Yinhong, a professor at Renmin University, makes the pragmatic argument that while the present phase of Sino-North Korean relations could be the coldest period in a decade, the tenor of the relationship often experiences highs and lows. Shi writes, “Beijing seems to be returning to the old circle of swings between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’… without any major success to influence Pyongyang” [1]. He also has been consistent in claiming that North Korea makes its decisions based solely on its own interests and does not follow China’s guidance, although the reasons behind the North Korean decision to conduct the tests may shift over time (, May 5, 2009; China Military Online, October 10, 2006).

Zhang Liangui, a North Korea expert at the Central Party School, has long-held the belief that although acquisition of nuclear weapons has been a consistent goal of North Korea’s, this pursuit is simultaneously harmful to China and destabilizes the region. Further, he has made statements that China is “diplomatically cornered” since a nuclear North Korea is not in China’s interests, but “unequivocal opposition from China toward the DPRK is bound to cause vicious reprisal…” (China Security, Autumn 2006). Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Peking University, has gone so far as to declare that China is the biggest victim of the North’s nuclear tests writing (similar to Zhang) that the tests harm Chinese interests and that China should warn North Korea that it is becoming increasingly angry (, February 16).

Nevertheless, anger and disappointment on the part of Chinese analysts does not necessarily translate into Beijing’s development of a new North Korea “playbook.” Moreover, it may be a mistake to “over-interpret” China’s latest Security Council vote on North Korea. On the one hand, it could demonstrate that Beijing’s thinking on the usefulness of sanctions as a possible denuclearization tool is changing. On the other hand, it could be more akin to what people like Joel Wuthnow think, that this is simply a continuation of Beijing’s “dual-track approach” to North Korea (The Diplomat, March 13). Furthermore, though certain analysts write about how the “domestic atmosphere has become unfavorable towards North Korea’s war rhetoric and capricious behavior,” and that “more and more people are inclined to regard North Korea as a liability rather than a strategic asset,” senior officials, such as Cui Tiankai, have been quick to rebut claims of U.S.-China “cooperation” on this issue (China-U.S. Focus, March 12). At the recent Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Cui matter-of-factly stated, “This [decision] is not between China and the United States…it’s very inaccurate to say China and the United States have reached a deal on imposing sanctions on North Korea” (South China Morning Post, March 7).

A Silver Linings Playbook?

China’s policymakers and pundits have long opposed North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and testing of long-range ballistic missiles largely because of what this may portend for China’s neighborhood. It is a long held fear in Beijing that North Korean provocation may encourage other regional actors—Japan, South Korea and Taiwan—to develop nuclear capabilities of their own or cause a further strengthening of missile defense systems, which would have an adverse affect on China’s own security. Su Hao of China Foreign Affairs University, for one, pointed out that North Korea’s nuclear tests may cause a “domino effect” by possibly spurring on Japan’s nuclear aspirations (Phoenix Online, February 1). For every Sheng Dingli who writes, “Let’s Face it: China has reached a point where it needs to cut its losses and cut North Korea loose,” there are those on the opposite side of the coin. For example, an article in the PLA Daily disagreed with the opinion that the 2013 test was “a failure of Chinese policy towards North Korea,” and labeled this opinion as being made based on “ulterior motives (bieyou yongxin)” (PLA Daily, February 18; Foreign Policy, February 13).

Many in the United States are eager to see this latest North Korea nuclear test as a sort of “watershed” moment—one that will show us that China is finally ready to get tough when it comes to North Korea. By extension, this could mean, however, that one of the proverbial thorns in the U.S.-China relationship’s side might be excised. It seems a bit premature to say whether the latest round of UN sanctions against North Korea “represent a bold new step forward by Party General Secretary Xi Jinping and China’s new leadership in signaling to the U.S. that China is now interested in finding new areas of convergence” (ChinaFile, March 6). And while some recent reports assert that during a meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference participants, including senior Communist Party official Qiu Yuanping, openly debated the question: whether to “keep or dump” North Korea, this does not necessarily mean that the “teeth” are truly ready to bite the “lips” (New York Times, March 9).

Perhaps this leads us to one of the most important mysteries yet to be solved. Yes, it is important that increasing numbers of pundits and scholars are articulating their frustration vis-à-vis North Korea. That may be a silver lining of sorts. Yet the question still remains, why is it that the arguments made by Chinese international affairs experts against North Korea are not proving wholly persuasive to policymakers?


  1. This is taken from the abstract of a presentation made by Shi Yinhong on February 19, 2013 at the ASAN Nuclear Forum in Seoul, South Korea.