China’s “Strategic Impatience” on the North Korean Crisis

How does China view the nuclear crisis that is developing in North Korea and the legal and policy strategies for addressing it? How should we understand recent discussions of support for military options expressed by some segments of the scholarly and policymaking communities inside China? How can—and should—China and the U.S. work toward common goals in handling this situation? Let’s start with first understanding the perspective of the DPRK.

Nuclear capability is seen as the spiritual pillar of the DPRK regime and its people, as well as a demonstration of its independence and comparative national strength. As a matter of fact, North Korea has three expectations from being acknowledged as a “nuclear state”: first, to secure its survival and enhance its national pride; second, to obtain strategic advantages over the South in both a military sense and in future unification processes; and third, to use it in counterbalancing pressures from regional and global powers, in winning the respect of regional and international communities.

China’s policy on North Korea reflects both its regional interests and global aspirations. Although China is not ready to abandon the two countries’ traditional relationship and turn itself into an enemy of the DPRK, there is indeed a sense of “strategic impatience” demonstrated in statements as well as in the internal and public debates after the DPRK conducted five nuclear tests and a series of missile launches. For example, debates inside China on North Korea have been focusing on some specific issues, ranging from whether North Korea is a strategic asset or liability, from nuclear safety and potential refugee issues to Chinese investments in North Korea and the benefits versus costs of maintaining economic ties. The consensus of the debate is to maintain the stability of the North Korean regime, expressed in the “3 Nos” policy (no war, no nuclear, and no chaos).The most controversial issue, however, is how big of a price China should pay for supporting the Kim Jong-un regime.

It should be noted, the debates are still ongoing but actually backfired at times for China’s own government. The “strategic impatience” is gradually shaping the decision making process in China on its North Korean policy. For instance, some Chinese scholars and policymakers began to talk about supporting “Surgical Strikes” and “Decapitation” by the U.S. and South Korea as one policy option, emphasizing that China should be well prepared for the worse scenario if all positive measures failed. The Global Times indicates in its commentaries that China should think about “making some contributions” to such an effort in “destroying the nuclear capability” of the DPRK (see also discussion here). As Chinese scholars and policymakers are openly discussing military solutions to the DPRK nuclear program, more radical proposals even indicate that China should “change the leader, send troops across borders and station [them] in DPRK, force DPRK into giving up nuclear and beginning opening up and reforming.”

Of course, contrary to these hard line views, it is also argued that China should avoid showing a “chauvinistic” attitude towards the DPRK, seeing it as a country that China can do whatever it wishes to “correct” its behavior. In this sense, some critics call for seeing the DPRK as a sovereign and independent state that doesn’t necessarily have the responsibility to care too much about China’s security interests. The 1961 treaty between the two countries has actually been nullified. So it is understandable that North Korea’s top priority is to survive. In addition, since China publicly stated that its relationship with the DPRK is a “normal” relationship, the DPRK is entitled to pursue nuclear development—like what India, Israel, and Pakistan have done. On this view, no country in the world should consider using military force to attack another nuclear state. Even if UN Security Council Resolutions constrain a state’s prerogative to build a nuclear program, that still would not justify military action in response to the state defying the Council.

To use a wider angle lens to look at the Chinese “strategic impatience,” how the U.S. and South Korean governments responded to North Korea’s provocative behavior should also be considered. While these three countries share the common goal of the stability and denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, the ugly fact is that Chinese citizens and government officials generally perceive that the U.S. spares no efforts to keep China, rather than North Korea, down by deploying the THAAD system in South Korea.

How can China, the U.S. and other members of the international community coordinate with each other and find a way of turning dark clouds into silver linings?

China’s options range from closing the border and stopping trade and aid (including food, energy, and the tourism business) to revoking visas, to military drills for contingency plans. What about the non-military options for the U.S. and South Korea? Having dialogue with North Korea cannot be seen just as a “bonus.” Dialogue instead needs to be essential to the next steps forward. Otherwise the U.S. and China will both have to accept the unfortunate and sour fact that North Korea has finally become a de facto nuclear state isolated by the international community.

If that happen, then, China’s “3 Nos” policy may fall apart because if the “no nuclear” drops out first, then it is very difficult to sustain the “no war” prong of that equation. In this sense, a “strategic impatience” in both China and the U.S. might need to turn into a cooperative “strategic action” to stop North Korea.

 

Image: Wiki Commons 

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About the Author(s)

Sun Zhe

Adjunct Senior Research Scholar and Co-Director of the China Initiative at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs