Commentary

Overestimating China’s Willingness to Pressure North Korea

This article was published in In The National Interest.com, Aug. 6, 2003.

The Bush Administration is determined to forge a united diplomatic and economic front of East Asian nations to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. China’s assistance is the most crucial component of that strategy. Indeed, the administration apparently expects China to exert whatever diplomatic and economic leverage is needed to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Those hopes are likely to go unfulfilled.

Beijing’s record to date has been mixed at best. During his trip to East Asia in February, Secretary of State Colin Powell privately urged China to do more to pressure its neighbor, but the Chinese did not seem overly sympathetic to the Secretary’s objectives. Indeed, in the midst of Powell’s, trip Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan and Kim Yong Nam, president of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly, issued a joint statement pledging to boost ties between their two countries.

China’s cooperation in attempting to get Pyongyang to back away from its nuclear ambitions has improved only marginally since then. China does seem more troubled about North Korea’s actions than it did during the early stages of the crisis, but PRC officials have proceeded cautiously when it comes to pressuring the North Koreans.

Washington overrates both Beijing’s willingness and ability to get North Korea to remain non-nuclear. True, China does have significant economic leverage over the DPRK. Seventy to 90 percent of North Korea’s annual energy supplies, approximately 30 percent of its total outside assistance, and an estimated 38 percent of its imports come from China. But it is leverage that Beijing is reluctant to use to its full effect.

Chinese leaders do seem willing to exert some diplomatic, and occasionally even economic, pressure on Pyongyang to keep the Korean Peninsula non-nuclear. For example, Beijing temporarily suspended energy shipments to North Korea in late March to get Kim Jong Il’s regime to abandon its insistence that all talks with the United States must be bilateral rather than multilateral. In July, the PRC again prodded Pyongyang to agree to a new round of multilateral talks.

China repeatedly insists that it is working hard on the nuclear issue through quiet diplomacy. But that defense illustrates an important point. China sees itself as an intermediary between the United States and North Korea, not as Washington’s partner in a campaign of isolation and coercion. China has repeatedly urged the United States to negotiate with Pyongyang without preconditions. It also is revealing that Beijing’s most visible role to date has been to host the April 2003 trilateral talks involving the United States, North Korea and China.

A few Sinophobes in the United States charge that China is in league with the North Koreans and would not mind seeing a nuclear armed North Korea. Former congressional staffer William C. Triplett II states bluntly that “the idea that Beijing shares our desire for a nuclear weapons free Korean Peninsula is nothing more than a dangerous self-delusion.” Triplett alleges further that if the Chinese “disapproved of North Korea’s WMD activities, they could end them with a telephone call.” Most evidence suggests, however, that Beijing is not eager to see nuclear weapons introduced on the Peninsula. Among other drawbacks, such a development would increase the chance that Japan would respond by building a deterrent of its own, and a nuclear armed Japan is the last thing China wants to see.

But while maintaining the non-nuclear status quo on the Korean Peninsula may be a significant Chinese objective, it is not the most important one. Beijing’s top priority is to preserve the North Korean state as a buffer between China and the U.S. sphere of influence in northeast Asia (although it also clearly wants Kim Jong Il’s regime to reform). As North Korea’s economy has languished in recent years, resulting in mass famine, China has worried that the North Korean regime might implode, much as the East German system did in 1989. Such a development would lead to the sudden emergence on China’s border of a unified Korea allied to the United States. It might also lead to a massive flow of North Korean refugees into China. As two prominent experts on East Asia note: “To guard against this event [China] will ultimately allow fuel and food (sanctioned or unsanctioned) to move across its border with the North.”

The overriding objective of keeping North Korea as a viable country places a distinct limit on the amount of pressure that Beijing is willing to exert on Pyongyang. In theory, China might be able to use its economic leverage as North Korea’s principal source of energy and other vital commodities to compel Kim Jong Il’s regime to put its nuclear weapons program back into the deep freeze. In reality, though, China fears the possible consequences of using that leverage.

And as far as diplomatic influence is concerned, the United States overrates Beijing’s clout. China may be North Korea’s closest ally, but that is only because most other countries (with the partial exception of Russia) have nonexistent or utterly frosty relations with the reclusive, Stalinist state. The North Korean elite is not especially fond of China. In addition to the wariness with which a small state typically regards a much larger neighbor, Pyongyang considers the Beijing government a communist apostate for its extensive flirtation with market-oriented economic reforms and its tolerance of a considerable amount of social pluralism for the Chinese people.

The North Koreans may listen to China’s diplomatic message that it is dangerous and counterproductive to pursue the nuclear option, but it is not at all certain that they will heed that message. New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof correctly concludes, “China’s influence on North Korea has always been wildly exaggerated. North Koreans speak openly of their contempt for Chinese officials.”

In short, if U.S. officials are counting on China to “deliver” a non-nuclear North Korea, they may be making a miscalculation. Beijing probably will try to be helpful on the issue, but its willingness and its ability to influence Pyongyang are quite limited.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and is the author or editor of 15 books on international affairs.