Illustration: Zhai Haijun/China.org.cn
Ever since the beginning of April, the world has been wondering, whether, or to be more precise, when North Korea will conduct its pretty-much anticipated sixth nuclear test. Till today, the world is still awaiting, with sort of unease as well as more of excitement. North Korea has not tested its nuclear weapons, but it did not fail to grab the world's attention – it conducted several rounds of missile tests in the past two months.
And in his typical personal style, U.S. President Donald Trump twitted time and again to press China for a solution to the thorny North Korean issue. On April 21, Trump twitted, "China is very much the economic lifeline to North Korea so, while nothing is easy, if they want to solve the North Korean problem, they will[.]" In his latest rhetoric, Trump twitted again, on May 29, that "North Korea has shown great disrespect for their neighbor, China, by shooting off yet another ballistic missile…but China is trying hard!"
Well, no matter whether you really think China can do the job or you just want to drive a wedge between China and its neighbor, you are mistaken, Mr President. China is not in a position to solve the North Korean problem, especially its nuclear issue, not least by itself alone.
Even back in September 2016, during the U.S. presidential debate, when Trump, then a presidential candidate, said that China was totally powerful as it related to North Korea and China should go into the North Korea to solve that problem, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman said firmly and explicitly that "it is not China that caused the Korean nuclear issue in the first place, and it is not China that holds the key to the settlement of this issue."
Over the past two decades, North Korea's nuclear program has had profound impact on all the shareholders in Northeast Asia. Its impact on China has been more obvious, severe and more importantly, undesirable. Currently, all the issues on the Korean Peninsula, including peace and stability, relations between great powers, inter-Korean dialogues as well as regional trade, have been under the influence of North Korea's ambitious and disturbing nuclear program.
In a white paper entitled "China's Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation," issued on January 11, 2017, the Chinese government announced that "China's position on the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue is consistent and clear-cut. China is committed to the denuclearization of the peninsula, its peace and stability, and settlement of the issue through dialogue and consultation."
Obviously, "denuclearization of the peninsula" has become a top policy priority for China. However, when Pyongyang announced its refusal to participate in any dialogue that aims to persuade it to give up its nuclear program, the door to the "settlement of the issue through dialogue and consultation" was closed, perhaps for good. And China's two critical interests on the peninsula – denuclearization as well as peace and stability – were at stake.
China has been forced into a dilemma by being confronted with the double threats of both its military security and environment security as North Korea has repeatedly conducted nuclear tests just less than 200 kilometers from the China-North Korea border. In terms of foreign relations, on one hand, both U.S. and South Korea criticized China for not having brought North Korea to heel. On the other hand, North Korea has been enormously dissatisfied with China's lawful and rightful actions at the UN Security Council. It is justifiable to say China has become the biggest victim when the goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula is compromised. To the conventional wisdom of some Western scholars and even high-level policymakers, China has great leverage over North Korea. They contend that in the international efforts to deal with the Korean issues, especially the North Korean nuclear issue, China could play a unique role that no other major players could fill. But this has turned out to be a misconception.
On the surface, China-North Korea relations remained solid throughout the 1990s, when China's state media had often described the bilateral ties as "militant friendship sealed in blood" and "as close as lips to teeth." But it was right during that period that the bilateral relations began to deteriorate.
Currently, China's leverage over North Korea, if any, results mainly from three major factors: 1. the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance between the People's Republic of China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea signed in 1961; 2. China's huge and often timely economic assistance to North Korea; and 3. China's support of North Korea's regime survival.
China's timely and high-profile endorsement of North Korea's third-generation leadership, although far from comparable to the endorsement of new Korean rulers by China's emperors in imperial times, is critical to the smooth dynastic succession and continued survival of the Pyongyang regime. However, there has been no summit between Kim Jung-un and any top Chinese leaders since Kim the third came to power in April 2012. This demonstrates one thing only: North Korea's new and young leader does not regard China as important to his country as his father and grandfather had thought.
At this moment, bilateral ties have turned from cold to icy. Since China began to strictly follow the UN Security Council resolutions 2270 and 2321 on North Korea to the letters, Pyongyang had launched several rounds of harsh verbal attacks on Beijing. For example, on April 21, a commentary run by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), targeting "a country around the DPRK," threatens that "if the country keeps applying economic sanctions on the DPRK while dancing to the tune of someone after misjudging the will of the DPRK, it may be applauded by the enemies of the DPRK but it should get itself ready to face the catastrophic consequences in the relations with the DPRK." And on May 3, KCNA explicitly named China – for the first time – in a bylined editorial which warns "China should no longer try to test the limits of patience of the DPRK but make proper strategic option, facing up to the situation." However, with the 1961 security pact still in force, China has treaty obligations to help North Korea in case of war, so China will have to do its utmost to avoid a future war that engages North Korea. Terminating or threatening to terminate the treaty may help restrain or discipline North Korea to a certain extent, but that would incur unpredictable and, most likely, undesirable results. Also, with the North Korean nuclear game on its way to a climax, some Chinese scholars have begun to challenge the justification and validity of the treaty.
In terms of economic assistance, although China has some carrots in one hand, it lacks an effective stick in the other. It is true that for political and geographical reasons, China is the "economic lifeline of North Korea," but such economic aid, from a Chinese perspective, is necessary to maintain the stability of North Korea so as to avoid a "hard landing" or even an "implosion," as some Western media have anticipated.
Immediate and harsher economic sanctions by China against North Korea, including totally cutting off supply of oil and food, may win applaud from the West, but would not slow down Pyongyang's steps toward fulfilling its nuclear ambition. While the West think China has not done enough in terms of economic sanctions, North Korea bit hard the fingers which used to feed it. A February KCNA commentary said that "it [a neighboring country, which often claims itself to be a 'friendly neighbor'] has unhesitatingly taken inhumane steps such as totally blocking foreign trade related to the improvement of people's living standard under the plea of the UN 'resolutions on sanctions' devoid of legal ground."
Following North Korea's fourth and fifth nuclear tests, China actively participated in international sanctions against North Korea, but behind-the-door deals reached within UNSC showed China's great concerns for the ordinary people in North Korea. International efforts, if any and if effective, meant to try to slow down, freeze or even get rid of Pyongyang's nuclear development, but should not aim at a regime change or even a regime collapse.
A regime collapse in North Korea would probably incur, among others, 1. a large-scale refugee crisis; 2. uncontrollable proliferation of conventional weapons and/or even nuclear materials; and 3. huge loss of political leverage and economic benefits, especially large amount of investments already made in the hard currency-stricken country.
An influx of large numbers of refugees to China, in tens of thousands maybe, would be the last thing China wants from the Korean Peninsula (apart from the possible contamination from Pyongyang's nuclear activities). That would be a nightmare for China, which has been making great efforts to reinvigorate its northeastern industrial bases, some of which border North Korea, thus an easy target for Korean refugees. Also it has to be kept in mind that China's northeastern provinces bordering North Korea are where China's Korean ethic people predominantly inhabit.
Compared with other countries, China does enjoy a relatively close relationship with North Korea. But this is not because China and North Korea are particularly close, but because other countries are nearly completely estranged from North Korea.
Contrary to Western overestimation, China's leverage over North Korea is limited, and is most probably one-off rather than sustainable. In other words, China certainly has several trump cards in its sleeve to deal with North Korea, but it cannot play these cards easily and repeatedly.
On the North Korean nuclear issue, China has done its utmost. Unfortunately some Western critics have turned a blind eye to the Chinese government's great efforts in cooperating with the international community to solve the thorny issue. This is unfair to China. China's efforts in the past decades should have been recognized with due respect. It should be made clear to all the stakeholders in Northeast Asia that China alone cannot solve the North Korean nuclear issue because it has never been a Beijing-Pyongyang issue. It was created by Pyongyang and Washington in the first place and now it is the U.S. that holds the key to the final solution.
The U.S., as well as others, has to stop anticipating or even pushing the immediate collapse of the North Korea regime. The international community needs to get ready to deal with a nuclearized North Korea although currently North Korea should not – maybe never – be granted the status of a nuclear power.
The U.S. should take into consideration North Korea's national security concerns and make a fresh move. Before any other extreme actions are deployed, the U.S. has to first reduce the military pressure that Pyongyang says it has felt in the past several decades, replace the volatile 1953 truce with a lasting peace treaty, lift decades-old economic sanctions, and establish diplomatic relations with North Korea.
The Chinese government has proposed a dual-track negotiation approach, which includes simultaneous talks on denuclearization of the peninsula and a peace treaty to take the place of the 1953 armistice agreement. Earlier this year, China made a "suspension for suspension" proposal, namely, as a first step, North Korea suspends its missile and nuclear activities in exchange for a halt of the large-scale U.S.-ROK military exercises. This suspension-for-suspension method would help ease the looming tension on the Korean Peninsula and pave the way for future consultations.
It is clear that North Korea's nuclear development is not reversible, especially after Kim Jung-un shifted the regime's policy from using the nuclear issue as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with the U.S. to making North Korea a de facto nuclear state.
The 1994 Agreed Framework signed between Washington and Pyongyang was so far the closest to a possible settlement of the North Korea nuclear issue. But that was not the outcome of saber-rattling.
If all the options are on the table, as more than one high-ranking U.S. official has put it, the U.S. should, at least for the last time, sit down face-to-face with North Korea to seriously talk about denuclearization and other key issues. Only when the utmost tolerance and patience are shown can we say the final choice is Pyongyang's.