After the Execution of No. 2 Leader: An Analysis of Chinese Commentary on North Korea- Part II

By September 7, 2014 No Comments

North Korea’s nuclear ambition has made the Peninsula a problematic hotspot and increased geopolitical complexities in Northeast Asia. The North’s nuclear program has caused China grave security and environmental concerns. The vulnerable position of China has served to leverage its ties with Washington. North Korea’s repeated nuclear provocations have also circumstantially forced the United States and South Korea to strengthen their military alliance. This has posed one of China’s fundamental geopolitical challenges. A 2014 blue-book report put out by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China’s top think tank, suggested that China might have to drop its support of the North in order to stabilize the situation on the Peninsula and focus on greater national interests. The report noted that if North Korea continues its provocations, Beijing should abandon its support of the country. Some Chinese experts assert North Korea has become more of a liability than a strategic asset and partner. [1]

In the interview, Zhang discussed the implication of geopolitics on the peninsula noting that North Korea’s military value has dramatically decreased due to the development of weapons and the modal changes of warfare. However, the professor insisted that politically and psychologically North Korea remains as a buffer zone. [2]

China’s position, Zhang said, has reflected its duty as a responsible power, and also its vital interests. In the interview the professor expressed grave concerns about potential nuclear contamination from the North, saying, “there is no country like North Korea in the world staging nuclear tests in densely populated areas,” continuing to say, “I do have reservations for the notion that North Korean nuclear program is an issue of international relations and it involves only North Korea and the United States, but not China.” [3] Zhang’s remarks seemingly reflected an underlying concern that dialogue between North Korea and the United States might leave China as a bystander.

Washington has tried to avoid direct dialogue with Pyongyang to ensure any deal with North Korea is framed as a multilateral decision, however, both the Bush and Obama administrations held several talks with Kim’s regime. Some experts gave credit for a bilateral approach. Charles Pritchard, a special envoy under the Bush Administration, noted that, “it is a bilateral approach between the United States and North Korea that has worked the best, [and] that has produced the most results in the shortest period of time.” [4]

In the interview Zhang emphasized the importance of China’s participation as a major player in the multilateral framework like six-party talks, saying, “North Korea’s nuclear program is a regional security issue, and, in particular, an environment safety issue detrimental to China’s interests,” continuing that, “China has clearly noted that North Korea’s nuclear issue does not fall into the category of internal affairs.” [5] Zhang’s opinion of China’s vital role on the issue coincides with remarks made by senior Chinese officials during talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Foreign Minister Wang Yi insisted on February 14, 2014 that China would never allow chaos or conflict on the Korean Peninsula. According to Kerry, Chinese officials had made it clear that they supported the denuclearization of the Peninsula, “over the long run” and were prepared to take, “additional steps” if the North was not willing to stop its nuclear effort and begin serious negotiations. [6]

In addition to diplomatic rhetoric, China has flexed military muscles. In January 2014 the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) mobilized 100,000 troops in a long-range drill in the area not far from North Korean border. It was unusual in terms of its large scale, a source from the PLA said. The elite and heavily equipped 39th Group Corps had just completed a winter exercise after Jang’s execution late last year. Chinese media have published images of these drills. The PLA’s moves are interpreted as China’s response for the incident and preparation for any potential crisis from the Peninsula. [7]

Pyongyang has conducted three nuclear tests each of which resulted in a UN sanction. In the wake of the North’s third nuclear test, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2094 on March 7, 2013 enforcing the severest sanctions against Pyongyang. China, Zhang insisted, has supported and executed the UN sanctions. [8]

As part of a financial curb, four Chinese banks shut the accounts of North Korean banks in China. Four Chinese government agencies subsequently announced sanctions targeting North Korea’s attempts to ship and receive several hundred types of cargo related to its nuclear and missile programs.

With Jang incident winding up, Pyongyang has resumed its routine by sending mixed messages of reconciliation and provocation. On February 27, 2014, North Korea fired four short-range Scud missiles into the sea off its eastern coast. This was an apparent response to annual South Korean-U.S. joint military drills that began three days earlier and would continue for months. The launching came only days after a Chinese vice foreign minister concluded a shuttle diplomacy between Pyongyang and Seoul.

Meanwhile, amid high tension and fear for cancellation,  families separated by the Korean War were united just days before the North’s Scud launching. Then in mid-March 2014, North Korea had talks with Japan in a northeastern Chinese city on the repatriation of the remains of Japanese who died in Korea at the end of World War Two. The two sides agreed to resume high-level official talks suspended since late 2012.

Recently, North Korea has been aggravating relations with other surrounding countries by engaging in reckless acts. Without warning on March 4, 2014, North Korea launched rockets into the Sea of Japan six minutes before a Chinese passenger plane flew into the region. Furthermore, on March 30, 2014, North Korea blatantly threatened to conduct what it called, “a new form of nuclear test” [9] after the UN Security Council’s condemnation of the North’s repeated ballistic missile launch. On March 31, 2014, North Korea engaged in provocative live-fire drills near the South Korean maritime border, leading to an exchange of fire between the Koreas.

The Chinese foreign ministry stated Jang’s removal was “an internal affair” of North Korea. Zhang defended this stance saying, “how you [North] Koreans criticize and treat Jang, that is your business…however, if you unilaterally tore up contracts signed during Jang’s tenure of office, causing Chinese firms’ losses, China should take a clear-cut stand to defend national interests.” [10]

Given the political and economic reality, however, the two countries are expected to continue their lukewarm, sometimes strained relations after the Jang incident. North Korea is inclined to revamp ties with its Chinese patron, restoring economic cooperation halted by this political earthquake. And China will continue to urge the North back to the negotiating table on the nuclear issue.

As a major ally, Beijing has long persuaded Pyongyang to model after its successful reforms. China is hopeful that open-minded officials like now-ousted Jang will improve North Korea’s economy and mend ties with the outside world. Apart from modest pilot projects and cooperation, however, Kim’s regime has stuck to its own way. The regime has responded with endless aid demands, accelerated nuclear efforts, and finally a massive purge of pro-Beijing, pro-market officials and their followers.

The incident, Zhang acknowledged, has somehow impaired the North’s economic ties with China because of Jang’s position towards China. It is unknown yet whether contracts signed with the North would be continued. North Korean communique specified Jang’s part in sale of, “coal and other precious underground resources at random.” [11] In fact, only Chinese companies are engaged in coal mining business in the North. Some Chinese mining firms, Zhang said, allegedly lost their shirts in joint ventures. Additionally, it is unclear if the leases of two ports, Chongjin and Rajin, will continue. Zhang expounded the relations between China’s aid and its political influence over North Korea:

“there is a pipeline installed in the Chinese border city of Dangdong, providing the North with oil all the year around. Without it, their tanks and planes are not able to move and economy will be affected. China provides the North with food and fertilizer too. In this regard, China exerts a huge influence on North Korea that depends on China to maintain social stability.”[12]

From a human rights perspective, China ideologically aligned with North Korea. When the United Nations accused Pyongyang of crimes against humanity in a report released on February 17, 2014, Beijing defended Kim’s regime, brushing it off as, “unreasonable criticism.” After this 400-page report was launched one month later, China slammed a UN commission for unfounded accusations and recommendations that were, “divorced from reality.” China’s stance is expected to derail any move to refer North Korea to the Hague-based International Criminal Court. [13]

China-North Korea relations, Zhang conceded, are very complicated, and the Chinese perception has largely paused in the 1950s because much was unknown about the inner workings of North Korea. In fact, North Koreans have their thoughts on how to regard China and the bilateral relations. [14]

China was on better terms with North Korea in the early 1960s, and continued until after 1965, said Zhang who studied in Pyongyang at that time. Zhang recalled his experiences as an officer in the border areas to deal with North Koreans:

“we have realistic views on matters such as disputes   resulting from exchange of visits. Though two countries enjoy friendship, we are actually of two nations and do not necessarily have same interests.” [15]

China’s aid to North Korea has not augmented its political relations with the North. In spite of the ups and downs of the relationship, the aid has been stable over past decades. China has stood firmly opposed to the North’s nuclear tests, but have not reduced aid. Zhang believes that North Korea does not care about China’s position and appeal because Pyongyang receives aid and oil every day regardless of its attitude toward Beijing. [16]

Zhang’s accounts highlight China’s policy dilemma. Beijing has not been able to convert Pyongyang’s dependence into a meaningful influence, which would otherwise serve as a substantial bargaining leverage to rein in its defiant neighbour. China has long stuck to this heavily-criticized approach to preserve political and geographic relations. The North’s nuclear pursuit, Zhang maintained, is detrimental to China’s immediate interests, since its nuclear facilities are built in the areas proximate to China. In the event of a mishap, it would be a disaster to all in northeast China. [17] Political unrest in the Pyongyang regime could spark political and social unrest that spreads into China’s territories.

The six-party talks have stalled for five years because of the withdrawal of Pyongyang and significant differences among participating states. North Korea has insisted on dialogue without preconditions, declaring that they will attend meetings as a nuclear power.

Pyongyang has proclaimed null and void the agreement signed in September 19, 2005, in which the North had committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs, and the United States had promised it has no intention to attack or invade North Korea. The North’s perfidy has inevitably drawn strong opposition. Washington has insisted Pyongyang should honour commitments to dismantle its programs before resuming discussions with other parties.

China, Zhang noted, has instigated resumption of the six-party talks by persuading the North to abandon nuclear arms in order to create non-nuclearization on the Peninsula, saying, “this is the first choice for China, so are for the United States, South Korea, Russia and Japan.” [18]

Zhang believes that even if the six-party talks resumed, it would be easier for all countries to sit down at the table but very difficult to reach a consensus. Zhang’s belief is reinforced by international analysts who are tired of Pyongyang’s gimmicks, casting doubt on the sincerity of any proposal from North Korea to break deadlock.

China has begun new mediation by sending its top nuclear envoy Wu Dawei to Pyongyang in mid-March 2014 for talks on resuming the six-party negotiation. Beijing has been comparatively more accommodating toward Pyongyang having urged Seoul and Washington to sit down at the table. On September 18, 2013, China held a commemorative ceremony to mark the tenth anniversary of the start of the six-party talks, even though the United States, Japan, and South Korea boycotted the event.

When asked whether China should do more on the issue, Zhang said that since things have not come to the last stage, nobody knows how the issue would be solved. Zhang noted the strong reaction from the United States after the Jang incident, “this is the nature of this ruthless, horrendous dictatorship and of his insecurities.” Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his shock at the execution of Jang saying that, “to have a nuclear weapon, potentially, in the hands of somebody like Kim Jong-Un just becomes even more unacceptable.” [19] Kerry’s attitude has plainly reflected the U.S. determination to make efforts on the issue.

The new U.S. ambassador to China has also placed the North Korean issue at the top of the list while talking about co-operation on regional security matters between the United States and China. Max Baucus said in Beijing on March 18, 2014 that the two countries have much more to gain from co-operation than conflicts. The American top envoy’s words are an indication that Washington has pinned more hopes on Beijing in reining in the North’s nuclear program. [20]

North Korea’s improved nuclear capability is another important factor that has prompted Americans to step up efforts. In December 2012 North Korea launched a satellite into orbit by using ballistic missile technology. Then in February 2013 the North staged the third nuclear test, taking a step closer to developing a nuclear warhead small enough to be mounted on a long-range missile and possibly threatening America’s west coast. Yet back in January 2011, then U.S. Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, thought the North’s nuclear missile was at a primitive stage and would not cause menace to continental America for at least in five years. [21]

Zhang believes that amicable relations between North Korea and the United States is contingent on North Korea, but warning that, “if North Korea’s nuclear programs persisted there would be little opportunity to improve its ties with the United States.” Zhang states that, “it is the North’s wishful thinking that while in pursuit of nuclear arms it would also be able to sign a peace treaty and establish diplomatic ties with Washington.” [22]

Over the years the Chinese public have repeatedly criticized their government’s policy towards North Korea, and have demanded they stop tolerating Pyongyang’s wrongdoings. Zhang believes that China’s foreign policy is in development and it guided in part by the public’s opinion. In the past, the public had no say in and no influence on foreign policy but in recent years Chinese leadership has begun paying attention to public opinion. Zhang predicts the public are expected to play an increasingly significant role in government decision-making. [23]

When asked how China would react to the North’s possible fourth nuclear test, Zhang noted, “it would be up to the Chinese leaders and relevant authorities for a decision and we scholars are not engaged in decision-making.” However, if the North were to conduct a nuclear test, Zhang predicts it would surely trigger off a much stronger reaction from the United Nations and the whole international community. [24]