China and the U.S.: Similar Frustrations, Different Policies toward North Korea

SHENYANG, CHINA—China-Korean relations are in a state of flux.  The People’s Republic of China and South Korea have exchanged presidential visits.  Trade statistics suggest that the PRC did not ship any oil to the North during the first quarter of the year.  Chinese academics openly speak of Beijing’s irritation with its long-time ally.

The cold feelings are reciprocated.  Last year North Korea’s Kim Jong-un sent an envoy to the PRC to unsuccessfully request an invitation to visit.  In December Kim had his uncle, Jang Song-taek, the North’s most intimate interlocutor with China, executed.

These circumstances suggest the possibility of a significant foreign policy shift in Beijing away from the North and toward the Republic of Korea.  Washington hopes for greater Chinese willingness to apply economic pressure on Pyongyang.  However, the PRC remains unwilling to risk instability by undermining the Kim dynasty. 

I recently visited China and held scholarly meetings amid excursions to long-missed tourist sites (such as Mao’s Mausoleum!).  I also made it to Shenyang, where relations with the North are of great interest because the city is about a two hour drive from the Yalu River.

I met one senior scholar who indicated that there was no doubt that Beijing-Pyongyang relations had changed since Kim came to power.  The two nations “have a different relationship now and it is becoming colder than ever before.” 

However, Jang’s execution had been “weighed too heavily by Western researchers,” he indicated.  In fact, economic relations had continued.  Jang’s fate was a matter of internal North Korea politics, “the result of the natural struggle for power.” 

This doesn’t mean Beijing was happy about Jang’s fate.  However, Jang’s ouster “is not the reason for the DPRK’s and China’s bad relations.” 

Rather, the principal barrier is the North’s continued development of nuclear weapons.  Kim Jong-un wants to visit China.  But it is “unimaginable for Chinese officials to invite him when he’s doing nuclear tests.  Impossible.”

In return, the North is unhappy over Beijing’s refusal to accommodate Kim as well as the end of oil shipments.  “Also, the DPRK is quite angry over the quick development of Chinese relations with South Korea.” 

This has made Pyongyang “eager to make contact with the U.S.,” an effort which so far has gone nowhere.  This is why the Kim regime “took American citizens as hostages” and invited Dennis Rodman to visit, but these tactics “are not working.” 

The North eventually “shifted the focal point of its foreign relations to Japan.”  For the same reason, though “less importantly the DPRK made contact with Russia.”

The PRC is quite interested in U.S.-DPRK relations and Washington’s view of Japan’s move toward Pyongyang.  “One of the uniform convictions for both the U.S. and China is no nuclear weapons in the DPRK,” he emphasized. 

However, in Beijing’s view the solution is not more sanctions which “everyone has been putting on the DPRK,” but revival of the Six-Party Talks.  This is where agreement between the U.S. and China breaks down. 

The PRC wants more negotiations, preceded by an American willingness to reduce tensions and Pyongyang’s perceived need for a nuclear arsenal.  The U.S. wants the North to make concessions beforehand lest the latest round fail like the many previous efforts.

This clash reflects an even deeper disagreement over competing end states.  Both Washington and Beijing oppose a nuclear North Korea.  However, the U.S., in contrast to China, would welcome a DPRK collapse, even if messy, and favor reunification with the South.

As I write in China-U.S. Focus, It isn’t impossible for American and Chinese policymakers to work through their differences.  However, it will require understanding the other party’s perspective and offering meaningful concessions to make the deal a positive for both parties.