Understanding China’s North Korea Policy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 5

The two rounds of six-party talks in Beijing on the Korean nuclear standoff have demonstrated China’s unusual support for a multilateral solution to the conflict. This is symbolic of the country’s new diplomacy under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabo. As is typical, Beijing is seeking to maximize its diplomatic gains for reasons related to national prestige and regional stability. What is new, however, is that the two leaders are trying to achieve these goals by having China act as a status quo power rather than through revisionist behavior. This change is vividly reflected in the fact that China has proven more willing to cooperate with the United States and is more determined to pressure North Korea. This brief article attempts to evaluate some of the domestic and international factors that are driving China to sponsor the six-party talks.


China’s abnormal relationship with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has triggered a debate among Chinese strategists over the issue of how to cope with Pyongyang’s erratic behavior, which has served to worsen conflicts on the Peninsula–with severe security implications for China. In the last few years two schools of thought have emerged in Beijing with respect to Chinese policy toward the DPRK. The first of these is the “buffer zone” school. It argues that, Pyongyang’s ill intentions and unpredictable adventurism notwithstanding, North Korea’s very existence remains of great strategic value to a China whose worst security nightmare is that of another Korean war. Moreover, any regime change that might occur in the DPRK as a result of war could bring the deployment of U.S. troops to positions close to the Sino-Korean borders. And taking into consideration a possible showdown between China and the United States in the Taiwan Strait, this could result in a hostile military presence right on China’s doorstep. Indeed, it was precisely this worst case scenario that China fought a war fifty-four years ago to prevent.

In addition, any serious military clash would disrupt the strategic redeployment that Beijing is attempting to implement in order to deal with what it views as the cause for its most realistic prospect for war: Taiwan’s move towards independence. China started to readjust its defense posture in the 1990s in response to alterations in its regional security environment. One key element in this initiative is its move to shift defense priorities from north and northwest China to the east, where China’s military posture will ultimately be more offensively oriented. This is a huge project, and its success rests on a substantial improvement in the security situation along China’s land borders. A peaceful Korean Peninsula is a precondition for this endeavor.

This school of thought has long been dominant and its ideas have formed the foundation for Beijing’s policy vis-a-vis the DPRK; most Chinese geostrategic analysis has been oriented in this direction. Yet the difficulties that have emerged in relations between China and the DPRK in recent years have given rise to other views that increasingly see Pyongyang more as a threat than as a buffer zone of peace. Against this background a new school has gradually emerged, one that emphasizes the liabilities involved in existing relations between the two countries. Jiang Zemin represents this school of thought. Jiang has not hidden his reluctance to speak with leaders from the North, including Kim Jong-Il. People in this school cannot forget that Pyongyang voted against Beijing’s bid to host the 2000 Olympic Games and that it has continued to criticize China’s reforms. They point out that, while China carries a heavy economic burden in aiding North Korea on a permanent basis, Pyongyang has shown little gratitude in return. Since 2001 the problem of refugees from North Korea has pushed more security analysts toward this line of thinking. They argue that Beijing will find its relations with Pyongyang more and more difficult to manage. They also envision an inevitable breakdown in bilateral relations between the two, particularly because they see no convergence of strategic interests between Beijing and Pyongyang outside of the dubious presumption that the DPRK can act as a buffer zone separating China and the United States.

Although those who subscribe to this view have refrained from predicting a relatively quick collapse of the regime in the North, they do see this trend as an inevitable development. Economically, the DPRK is neither reformable nor savable. A succession crisis after Kim Jong-Il’s eventual departure will trigger political upheaval. U.S. pressure will become ever heavier. As a result, they argue that Beijing needs to make preparation as soon as possible for this eventuality. Those holding such views do not oppose Beijing’s stance on the six-party talks and the emphasis at the talks on a peaceful resolution. Yet they insist that Beijing’s support for Pyongyang in the negotiations should be measured and conditional.

The peace proposal made by China at the Beijing talks suggests that the “buffer zone” mentality may have won the day. However, even the position of the buffer zone school is Machiavellian. A sudden collapse of the North would not be good news for Beijing. Large numbers of refugees would ensue and Wen Jiabo’s rejuvenation plan for China’s northeast region would be disrupted. There would also be a huge loss of trade with the south and tremendous costs involved in post-war reconstruction; Beijing needs none of this right now. For those subscribing to the buffer zone school approach, the name of the game for China right now is to maintain the status quo so that Beijing can buy time to prepare for any future scenarios.

Indeed, the basic difference between the two schools of thought is that the liability school believes an early solution of the North Korea problem might better serve China’s interests, while the buffer zone school simply wants to maintain the status quo. There has, however, been some signs of convergence between the two schools of opinion. As was noted earlier, this has been symbolized by China’s strengthened cooperation with the United States and by the increased pressure that Beijing has exerted on North Korea in the six-party talks. These developments suggest that the influence of the “liability school” is rising in China.


One key motivation for China’s intervention in the nuclear standoff negotiations lies in its effort to consolidate improvements in Sino-U.S. relations. The post-9/11 international environment is favorable for Beijing insofar as it is providing new opportunities for China to ease tension with the United States. And any improvement in relations between the two countries could give Beijing more space for maneuvering on the world stage. This bilateral cooperation is especially crucial for Beijing as it tries to deal with Taipei in the lead-up to Taiwan’s March presidential election. The support offered by Beijing to the United States since 9/11 has helped to alter the tripartite relationship between Beijing, Washington and Taipei in a way that appears to favor China. There is no doubt that the opposition voiced by the White House to Chen Shui-bian’s decision on a referendum is linked to Beijing’s own efforts to denuclearize North Korea. Beijing is well aware that it can capitalize on opportunities in the post-911 environment only when it does its part in helping U.S. leadership in world affairs.

How has China supported the United States with respect to North Korea? Washington expects Beijing to use its leverage to induce restraint in Pyongyang while also serving as a tacit mediator and message bearer between North Korea and the United States. [1] Beijing is indeed undertaking these tasks in good faith. More concretely, the United States has in many respects cornered itself with respect to the nuclear crisis. Washington could not back up its “axis of evil” rhetoric with firm actions and it is also opposed by its regional allies. But any retreat by Washington to a “soft landing” strategy involves matters of face, a likely political backlash in the United States, and the sending of unwanted signals to Pyongyang. On the other hand, the United States cannot tolerate a nuclear DPRK. Yet for Pyongyang, nuclear deterrence may have become a new guarantee for regime survival. The Being process is a practical way to narrow this seemingly unbridgeable gap and to get the United States out of the current situation; the mediation of a third party is crucial here.

What China has done is to force Pyongyang to the multilateral negotiating table. To this end it has said that Beijing would suspend transfers of oil to North Korea for a few days on technical grounds. China has also warned the DPRK that if a war erupts over the nuclear issue, then Beijing would find no justification for being helpful. There is no suspicion regarding China’s current position: It is closer to the United States than to the DPRK at this particular moment. This was the chief reason why Pyongyang indefinitely suspended Wu Bangguo’s official trip to North Korea, which had been scheduled for September 25, 2003. This move has been interpreted as a clear expression of Kim Jong-Il’s displeasure over what he perceived as China’s biased mediation. Additionally, in order to get Pyongyang on board again for the second round of talks, China had to substantially raise the level of economic aid in October 2003.

Another driver propelling Beijing to host the six-party talks is its policy of staying in step with its key neighbors in the handling of the crisis. This is especially true with regard to Chinese policy toward Seoul. China strongly supports South Korea’s negotiation-centered position in resolving the current confrontation. This is not only because Beijing shares common interests with Seoul over the nuclear matter, but also because it regards the process as a good opportunity to construct a firmer foundation for long term bilateral relations. China is preparing for the eventual reunification of the peninsula, as was mentioned earlier. If the reunification takes place, it has to be on South Korea’s terms. Therefore, making an ally of South Korea serves Beijing’s strategic vision of Northeast Asia. That is, it foresees that the emergence of a reunified Korea with closer ties to China could tilt the balance of power vis-a-vis Japan and China–while also reducing the influence of the United States. Indeed, a better relationship with Seoul is crucial to dealing with any sea change in the situation on the peninsula. This is the reason why Beijing has sought to ensure that South Korea plays a key role in the six-party talks.

To conclude, it seems clear that Beijing has skillfully handled the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. The internal leadership debate in China is helping to formulate a new policy consensus toward the DPRK, one with long term significance. Externally, Chinese policy has successfully improved Sino-U.S. relations and has also kept China in step with other regional powers. Beijing has shown to the world that it is still the most important power with respect to the process of resolving conflicts on the Korean Peninsula. Ultimately, however, China has to decide whether it is in its own best strategic interests to abandon its relationship with North Korea altogether.


1. Jonathan Pollack, “China and the U.S. post-9/11,” Orbis, Vol. 47, no. 4, Fall 2003, p. 621.