China's UN Permanent Representative Li Baodong votes to impose tough sanctions on North Korea (top); North Korea’s young supremo Kim Jong Un reviews a parade
NEW HAVEN: At a first glance, North Korea’s defiant February 12 nuclear test and the strong international reactions it provoked are reminiscent of an old movie. North Korea has at numerous times in the past engaged in nuclear and missile brinkmanship, issuing bloodcurdling threats to turn Seoul or Washington into a “sea of fire” The US and the western nations have responded by routinely, and ineffectually, denouncing North Korea for flouting international law, and pursued UN censure with or without China’s support. Even while joining the international sanctions, China has repeatedly cautioned that dialogue with Pyongyang is more likely to produce results than sanctions.
The same pattern is repeating in response to North Korea’s latest challenge. Yet this time, analysts detect new concern in China. Unprecedented public debate over North Korea in China, where the Communist Party prefers to speak with one voice on foreign-policy issues, and unprecedented public debate about dealing with North Korea reveals both Beijing’s growing concern and ambivalent support to the bankrupt regime.
As North Korea continues to serially violate UN resolutions on its nuclear and missile tests, Chinese attitudes have hardened. When North Korea prepared for its third nuclear test, China cautioned against it. After North Korea ignored the entreaties, Beijing condemned the country. In the past, Beijing might have abstained from a UN Security Council vote against North Korean misbehavior, or at least sought to water down US- or European-led sanctions. Not so this time. Tired of the Kim regime ignoring polite entreaties for restraint, China has taken the unusual and striking step of joining hands with the US in drafting a tough sanctions resolution.
As North Korea serially violates UN resolutions on nuclear and missile tests, Chinese attitudes have hardened.
The bulk of Security Council Resolution 2094 is designed to disrupt North Korean nuclear-proliferation activities and expand existing sanctions on the imported luxury goods enjoyed by its leaders. The new financial measures are expected to block bulk cash transfers and restrict North Korean institutions engaged in illicit activities – in the past, North Korean diplomats have been expelled from foreign posts for engaging in smuggling drugs, liquor and cigarettes, designed to generate cash for the regime. The sanctions also involve mandatory interdiction and inspection of suspicious ships and cargoes, which China and Russia refused to endorse in the past. In the buildup to UN sanctions, China’s scholars and media have shown unusual openness in discussing the problematic neighbor.
In late February, for example, Deng Yuwen, assistant editor of the Central Party School’s journal Study Times, published an opinion piece in the Financial Times entitled, "China Should Abandon North Korea.” He argued that “Basing China's strategic security on North Korea's value as a geopolitical ally is outdated.” He also warned, “Once North Korea has nuclear weapons, it cannot be ruled out that the capricious Kim regime will engage in nuclear blackmail against China.”
Not everyone agrees. Another expert, Liu Ming, executive director of the Institute of International Relations Studies at Shanghai Academy of Social Studies, dismissed such talk, telling YaleGlobal that Deng is not an authority on North Korea. Deng, according to Liu, reflects the view of ordinary young people frustrated by Pyongyang’s bad behavior, who consider North Korea’s “boy general” Kim Jong Un as a petulant, disobedient little brother who fails to acknowledge big brother China’s efforts to help the country. Liu summed up the thoughts of the young scholars: “Even if he does not always listen to the big brother, he should to take into account the core interests of the big brother.”
Deng: “It cannot be ruled out that the capricious Kim regime will engage in nuclear blackmail against China.”
Still, Liu is wary of what the unpredictable country might do and wants China to maintain a balanced policy of avoiding steps that could lead to conflict. “This is a very poor country, maybe they are not afraid to lose something, but for China we have to be afraid of our border security, prosperity of people, our lives.” He says, “we should punish them in some ways but leave some room” and adds that China, while making common cause with South Korea, the US and others, “should maintain some contacts, some channels [of communication] with North Korea.”
China is often asked by foreign countries, and now some Chinese commentators, to stop supplying North Korea rice and oil that keep the regime alive. But that, Liu says, would make them take more desperate steps. Besides, North Korea can still carry on for some time with selling arms and smuggling operations. With the military totally controlling news from the outside and closely monitoring citizens, toppling the regime is not easy, he says.
China’s Global Times has published a series of provocative articles analyzing the North Korean situation. Ren Weidong, a researcher at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, raised the possibility that North Korea was cultivating the US in order to join an anti-China alliance as a nuclear power. “The most important US strategy in the Asia-Pacific region,” he wrote, “is to establish a most extensive international united front against China, of which North Korea is a component.” His analysis was pooh-poohed by Cao Shigong, a researcher at the Korean Peninsula Research Society, Chinese Association of Asia-Pacific Studies, who characterized writing like Ren’s as that of “agitators.” He wrote: “This kind of argument, defaming North Korea as an ungrateful scoundrel, intends to do nothing but alienate the relationship between China and North Korea.”
Liu: With the military controlling news and closely monitoring citizens, toppling the regime is not easy, he says.
Shanghai-based Liu calls for a moderate approach in recognition of North Korea’s complicated situation. He suggests that Kim’s effort to reform the economy has run into opposition from the military and officials. He noted that such opposition has stalled an attempt by Kim last summer to abolish the public distribution system. Perhaps perceiving Kim’s weak position, China is being extra cautious about pushing North Korea. After the Security Council vote, Li Baodong, Chinese ambassador to the United Nations who voted for the sanction, sought to dispel fears that China would slow-roll implementation. “Passing the resolution, by itself, is not enough," he said. “We want to see the resolution completely enforced.” But that stern message was diluted by Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who said at a press conference that sanctions are not “the fundamental way to resolve the relevant issues,” adding that “the only right way to resolve the issue is to take a holistic approach and resolve the concerns of all parties involved in a comprehensive and balanced manner through dialogue and consultations.”
John Delury, a Seoul-based East Asian expert, acknowledges that discordant voices may be aired in publications like Global Times, but reports seeing no shift in Chinese policy. Beijing clearly is unhappy about North Korea making headway in its nuclear program. In an email, he said China is annoyed on a variety of issues with North Korea, “but it is also committed to the alliance (its only one!), sympathetic with North Korea's threat perception of the US, ROK and Japan, opposed in principle and practice to sanctions, and happy to have a buffer state keeping at least some distance from a major US military garrison.”
While Beijing continues to hew to its established policy line, open debate in the Chinese press points to deepening distrust and worry – quite a change in tone about a neighbor with whom relations used to be compared to that between lips and teeth.