The Chinese Public Debates North Korea Policy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 13

Shen Dingli scholar at Fudan has argued that china should "cut its losses and cut North Korea loose." (Image: Fudan)

In April, the killing of three Chinese citizens in April along the North Korean border–possibly at the hands of North Korean soldiers–was confirmed by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). This has once again added fuel to the fire of Chinese debates over Beijing’s policy toward its volatile neighbor (China Net, April 30). While debate in the general public tends to intensify when incidents involve civilians being killed or kidnapped by North Koreans, the parallel debate in the Chinese policy community is more responsive to Pyongyang’s strategic provocations. Even the recent fatal shooting of a North Korean trespasser by Chinese border protection troops and North Korea’s recent drought have garnered the DPRK limited sympathy (China Net, June 11; Global Times, June 24).

A renewed domestic debate between the “abandon” vs “support” North Korea camps has not led to a substantial change in Beijing’s North Korea policy. As of today, “no war, no instability, and no nukes,” China’s traditional stance toward the Korean Peninsula, remains the bedrock of Chinese policy.

Murders Further Reduce Public Support for North Korea

The latest murders are the third publicized instance in the past eight months in which Chinese civilians have been killed by North Koreans illegally crossing the border. The April incident follows the killing of four Chinese by a North Korean civilian in September last year and another four by a North Korean soldier in December (Sina, April 29). Each of these deadly episodes occurred in Helong, a city in Jilin Province near the border, aggravating the Chinese public’s concerns about border protection. In the latest Global Times investigative report on these incidents, Jin Qiangyi, the director of the Center for International Studies at Yanbian University in Yanji City, said that killings of Chinese residents in the border region by North Koreans have occurred frequently since the mid-1990s, as it is particularly difficult for China’s border protection forces to prevent North Koreans from crossing the frontier in remote areas. Local residents interviewed by Global Times admitted that they have complied with North Koreans entering their homes demanding food and money, as long as the defectors did not hurt anyone (Global Times, May 15). But horrified by the recent string of killings, a large portion of the local population has been forced to flee from the region (Sina, February 4).

These incidents further erode the Chinese public’s declining sympathy for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). On Weibo—a Chinese version of Twitter which serves as an important barometer for public opinion–the killing intensified an ongoing wave of outrage with Beijing’s ineptitude in protecting the border and its demonstrated “softness” in handling these incidents. A post questioned, “Where are our troops who claim to protect our homes and defend the country? Being cowards AGAIN?” Another user wrote, “That is the friendship sealed by blood”—a sarcastic reference to the traditional slogan extolling China–North Korea relations. More posts expressed dissatisfaction not just with the violence, but also the disclosure of these killings first by foreign media: “It was Chinese citizens killed on China’s territory. And [why] did our information first come from the South Korean media?”

Whereas the Chinese public tends to demonstrate a mixed attitude toward North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile programs, incidents directly victimizing ordinary Chinese citizens more easily evoke an empathetic feeling of vulnerability and set off a public backlash against China’s North Korea policy. In May 2012, North Korea seized three Chinese fishing vessels in Chinese territorial water and detained 29 Chinese fishermen on the boats, demanding a ransom of 1.2 million RMB (193,500 USD) (CCTV Online, May 16, 2012). This incident incited a strong nationalist response in China’s social media and comments on news articles. This was exacerbated by the subsequent North Korean kidnappings of a Chinese fishing vessel and its 16 crew members in May 2013 for a ransom of 600,000 RMB (97,000 USD), and another fishing vessel and nine Chinese fishermen in September 2014 for 250,000 RMB (40,000 USD) (Global Times, May 20, 2013; New Capital Daily, September 23, 2014). In an op-ed on the public concerns over potential radioactive pollution caused by North Korean nuclear tests, Ding Gang, a staff writer for People’s Daily, said, “The masses may not think from a strategic perspective. Nor can they control North Korea’s pursuit of nukes. All they care about in their everyday life is safety and stability” (Global Times, April 23, 2013).

In this context of losing public support for North Korea, Beijing seems compelled to step up its posture with Pyongyang. Less than six weeks after the murders were publicized, local authorities in Helong disclosed via Weibo the fatal shooting of a North Korean trespasser by the Chinese troops in the border area, which was quickly picked up by China’s state media and applauded by netizens as a legitimate border protection action. Disclosure of killings of North Korean trespassers is rare in China, if not unprecedented. While this seems to be an effort by Beijing to pacify public anger, it is highly unlikely that the general public is an emerging actor capable of exerting substantial influence over China’s North Korea policy.

Static Contours of Elite’s Policy Debate

Roughly in step with the general public’s changing tone is the renewed debate in the Chinese policy community that centers on the strategic question of whether Beijing should continue its commitment to North Korea or abandon it. Currently, the policy debate is best divided into two camps—the traditionalists and strategists. Traditionalists argue against “abandoning” North Korea, citing shared socialist political ideologies, the human and capital investments China has made in the North, Beijing’s credibility as a patron and ally, increased Sino-DPRK economic ties, Beijing’s need for a geopolitical buffer and the potential risks to China if the North Korean regime collapses.

One prominent traditionalist, Chen Fengjun, a professor at Peking University, contended that the U.S. “Pivot to Asia” underscored the strategic importance of the Korean Peninsula. “Abandoning” North Korea would exacerbate the imbalance of power on the peninsula, precipitating a military confrontation or even a nuclear war. A destabilized Korean Peninsula would only impair China’s interests, making the cost of “abandoning” the North outweigh that of “defending” it (Global Times, March 12, 2013). A Global Times editorial claimed, “As of today, North Korea is still China’s geopolitical frontline. The United States has Japan and South Korea as its strategic footholds supporting its pivot toward Asia. North Korea is still a buffer. Whether there is a North Korea friendly to China will influence the strategic landscape in Northeast Asia. Abandoning North Korea cannot be a viable option…China supports not only North Korea’s national security but its regime’s rule…A friendly Sino-DPRK relationship will always be a source of security for Pyongyang” (Global Times, April 12, 2013).

Li Dunqiu, a visiting research fellow at Zhejiang University, contended that abandoning North Korea would lead to three possible outcomes: North Korea aligning with a third country other than China; North Korea collapsing as a result of political, economic and military pressures; or North Korea waging a suicidal war on the peninsula. None of these would be beneficial to China’s interest (Global Times, November 27, 2014). Cao Shigong, a research fellow at the China Foundation for International Studies, argued that North Korea still has geopolitical value to Beijing and that the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program should not be a reason for China to abandon it. According to Cao, denuclearization can only be achieved as a part of the settlement of Cold War legacies and the establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula (Global Times, December 2, 2014).

But as the Chinese public views the DPRK in an increasingly negative way, traditionalists seem to be losing ground in the debate to the strategists, who call for outright abandonment of traditional commitment to North Korea. A prominent critic of North Korea, Shen Dingli, a scholar at Fudan University, wrote in Foreign Policy immediately after North Korea’s third nuclear test that “North Korea’s value as a security buffer has much diminished” and that “in an age where global public opinion matters more than ever, the benefits of association with Pyongyang’s mistaken line outweigh the costs.” Shen then called on Beijing to “cut its losses and cut North Korea loose” (Foreign Policy, February 13, 2013).

The shared socialist political ideology also has lost its appeal to most of the Chinese public, even CCP officials and military personnel. Deng Yuwen, then deputy editor of Study Times, a journal of the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), wrote in the Financial Times that “North Korea’s value as a geopolitical ally is outdated” and “a relationship based on ideology is dangerous.” Calling upon China to “consider abandoning North Korea,” Deng went further by proposing to “take initiative to facilitate North Korea’s unification with South Korea” and “use China’s influence to cultivate a pro-Beijing government in North Korea” (Financial Times, February 27, 2013). Retired Lt. Gen Wang Hongguang, former deputy commander of the PLA Nanjing Military District, wrote in Global Times repudiating traditionalists’ argument, “In our country, the Communist Part rules and other democratic parties participate, electing Party and national leadership based on mutual consultation. North Korea’s three generations of leadership come through family heredity. Are the two the same?” (Global Times, December 1, 2014)

Strategists also point to North Korea’s diminishing strategic value, the prospect that its nuclear weapons program will trigger a nuclear arms race in this region, and the risk that Beijing would be dragged into a military conflict provoked by Pyongyang. Under the condition of modern warfare, says Wang, it is an undeniable fact that the strategic value of North Korea as a buffer is diminishing. “North Korea’s repeated threats to nullify the Korean War Armistice pushes the two Koreas to the brink of another war. It is not a matter of whether North Korea listens to China, but that North Korea’s behavior has undermined China’s fundamental interests.” Therefore, China should not get involved in another war on the Korean peninsula. “If North Korea decides to fight an all-out war, there is no need for China to get involved,” Wang argued. “Whoever provokes a war takes responsibility. The ‘socialism bloc’ ceased to exist long time ago. There is no need for China’s younger generation to fight a war for another country”. Zhu Feng, a professor then at Peking University and a long critic of North Korea, claimed, “A nuclear North Korea is definitely a grave threat to China.. if China cannot prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, how can it stem Japan and South Korea’s ambition to develop nukes?” (Lianhe Zaobao, February 16, 2013).

The strategists line of argument gains popularity after every North Korean provocation. The strong language in these articles, and especially, Gen. Wang and Deng’s affiliation with the PLA and the Party respectively, and their explicit rejection of ideological aligning with Pyongyang, draw wide speculation from international observers as on whether it is a signal of a sea change in China’s policy. But it is more likely a display of Beijing’s frustration with Pyongyang and a valve to let off some steam by the elites. To most strategists, it is clear that “abandoning North Korea is not a realistic choice for China” (International Crisis Group, December 9, 2013, 12). Even “normalizing” China’s relationship with North Korea, as some Chinese analysts believe is suggested in the novel use of “seek common ground, allow disagreement” (求同存异) by China’s newly appointed Ambassador Li Jinjun, is yet to occur. Decoding Liu’s diplomatic language, a recent Xinhua article claimed, “Even brothers in a family have different opinions. It is pragmatic to admit discrepancy. The bilateral relationship can only be moved forward by highlighting both countries’ shared position and interest rather than zoom in on disagreement” (Xinhua, May 8).

Over the past several months, nurtured by new signs of change in North Korea’s economic policy, Chinese analysts increasingly lean toward a utilitarian approach that Pyongyang’s reform will increase North Korea’s economic viability and its economic value for China. In his latest analysis on North Korea’s economic reform initiatives, Li Dunqiu claimed, “The contract system linking remuneration to output that North Korea adopted early this year apparently is a duplicate of the measure China took at the beginning of its economic reform and open up. This is extremely likely a signal of an overall reform in North Korea…In the early stage of its economic development, it is of great magnitude that North Korea opens its door to Korean Chinese investors. The DPRK has hosted a series of promotion events in Dalian and Shenyang, which shows Pyongyang is redoubling its efforts to attract investment” (Global Times, May 14). Cao Shigong expressed a similar optimism, “North Korea’s reform has taken effect…as it accumulates more experience and gains more confidence, it is possible that North Korea will speed up its reform and enhance economic cooperation with the outside” (Global Times, May 22).

Some analysts even go so far as to raise the prospect that North Korea’s enhancement of trade and investment ties with the international community will eventually translate into a strong incentive to bring Pyongyang back to nuclear talks, even though Kim Jong-un vowed to have both. In his June 4 interview with the Phoenix TV, Yang Xiyu said, “North Korea is in a dilemma. If it wants to return to talks for economic interests, it must face the nuclear problem. The nuclear issue is the greatest barrier in North Korea’s relations with other regional actors. We must make use of its dilemma, encouraging and pushing Pyongyang to pursue the correct direction.”

Amid escalating tensions in China’s relations with its other neighbors, and as North Korea refrains from another major provocative such as a fourth nuclear test, breaking the ice with Pyongyang may serve Beijing’s interests better than allowing the impasse to continue. There have been signs of improvement. In his meeting with North Korea with North Korea’s Minister of Foreign Trade, Ri Ryong-nam in Pyongyang, Ambassador Li Jinjun extended Beijing invitation to Pyongyang to to join the ambitious “One Belt One Road” initiative (Xinhua, May 8). To show support for North Korea’s drought relief, Ambassador Li pledged to strengthen agricultural cooperation with the North, and Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang offered food aid (Chinese Embassy to the DPRK, June 5; Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, June 18). That being said, as denuclearization is still a fundamental constraint of the relationship, it would too rush to anticipate a rapid rapprochement or resumption of top-level exchanges.

Assessing Elite Commentaries

This ongoing debate in the Chinese policy community has led outside observers to speculate whether Beijing might recalibrate its policy towards Pyongyang. The debate may be intended as a public warning to North Korea, conveying Beijing’s dissatisfaction with Pyongyang. Moreover, it may allow the Chinese government to cite domestic pressure as justification for adopting a tougher negotiation position with North Korea. In turn, Beijing can appeal to Washington and other regional stakeholders that this public discourse is a way of exerting more pressure on Pyongyang. Domestically, it creates the appearance of elite sharing and being responsive to the pains of ordinary citizens.

Chinese authorities have managed this policy debate to maintain a delicate ambiguity as to how much it reflects a possible change in Beijing’s attitude toward North Korea. Global Times’ role as the premier platform for the Chinese elite’s debate over North Korea strongly points to the debate enjoying Beijing’s tacit support, if not encouragement. At the same time, the Global Times’ status as a nationalistic foreign policy-focused tabloid has the ability to popularize this debate beyond the elite level and reach the general public. Yet, participation has so far been primarily limited to Chinese academics, retired military officers, journalists and commentators. These people do not hold government positions and thus cannot be seen as articulating China’s official position, leaving the Chinese government plausible deniability. The lack of government officials in the open debate may reflect an unspoken rule—a red line that cannot be crossed when debating sensitive foreign policy issues like North Korea. Those who fail to understand this may risk their political careers. One month after publishing his article in the Financial Times, Deng Yuwen was suspended from his position. A likely explanation is that he used his official title when articulating his opinion about North Korea.

Public Opinion Meets Elite Policy Debate

Despite the growing influence public opinion exerts on Chinese foreign policy, particularly on hot-button issues such as the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, the continued downward slide of public opinion of North Korea will continue to have a very limited impact on Beijing’s policy. This is in part due to the fact that there is little chance for anti–North Korean street protests along the lines of the frequent protests directed against Japan. Not only is Beijing unlikely to allow such protests, but there is also a lack of the type of collective memory, experience, grievances and outrage that could mobilize the masses in the same way that popular hatred of Japan can. Still, Beijing cannot simply turn a blind eye to the rising public anger, as criticism of North Korea increasingly goes hand in hand with dissatisfaction over Beijing’s ineptitude strengthening border protection and its weakness in managing North Korean provocations.