China’s Shifting Policy
towards North Korea
By Xiaoyu Pu
Special report prepared for the National Security Forum
According to recent news reports, some leaked documents indicate that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has formulated a set of emergency measures to cope with a possible collapse of North Korea’s regime. The Chinese Foreign Ministry immediately denied the existence of these plans. However, it is reasonable to assume that the PLA might have such contingencies. The leaked documents generate wide speculations regarding Beijing’s policy on North Korea. Is Beijing calculating a shift against North Korea? Does this leak of documents reflect any internal Chinese debate? Is there a new rift occurring between China and North Korea? To answer these questions, one must first understand China’s calculations about the Korean peninsula.
According to former Chinese top diplomat Dai Binguo, regime security is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s top priority in defining national interest. Next to regime security is sovereignty, territorial integrity, and lastly, the stable development of China’s economy and society. These main interests could help explain why Beijing has not yet abandoned North Korea, despite of all the troubles that alliance has wrought.
In the eyes of CCP leaders, a collapsing North Korea will pose a serious challenge for China’s regime security. Of course, China is different from North Korea. China maintains an authoritarian regime, but it has a globalized economy and dynamic society, while North Korea remains an isolated, totalitarian regime. However, the two countries still share the same political legacy, as one-party “communist” countries. Facing domestic unrest and civic challenges to the status quo, Chinese leaders do not want to see a communist regime collapsing near its borders. They worry about the political shock to their own regime. Further, China is a multi-ethnic nation, and the collapse of North Korea might destabilize China’s northeastern borders where millions of ethnic Koreans reside.
From a geopolitical perspective, Chinese leaders have viewed the Korean Peninsula as a buffer zone for hundreds of years. China’s Ming and Qing dynasties fought wars with Japan over Korea. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) fought the Korea War with the United States because of the same geopolitical reason. Given the importance of the Korean Peninsula, Beijing has strong incentives to influence security developments in Korea.
The ideal outcome for Beijing would be for the Korean peninsula to remain divided, while North Korea begins implementing economic reforms. However, such a “soft-landing” ofNorth Korea might be unlikely, given the brutality and stringency of the regime. A unified Korea allied with the United States might be a nightmare for Beijing. If Beijing cannot achieve its ideal goals of a more moderate and globalized North Korea, it would likely strive to shape a neutralized Korean peninsulain the long term.
While Beijing has supported North Korea, Pyongyang has increasingly become China’s “rogue ally.” North Korea’s nuclear weapon program is likely to generate an arms race in East Asia. Pyongyang’s belligerent behaviors inevitably pushes South Korea and the United States to take tough military measure to respond, which will impact China’s security environment. In many issues, North Korea has clearly jeopardized China’s national interests. Furthermore, because of its troubling international behavior, North Korea has a very negative image in Chinese society, especially among the Chinese middle class and intellectuals. Some Chinese elites have come to view North Korea as China’s “negative strategic asset,” and they call for a tougher policy on North Korea. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said earlier this year, “We have a red line, that is, we will not allow war or instability on the Korean peninsula.” Wang’s statement was an explicit warning to North Korea.
The Leaked Documents: Two Explanations
For the recent leaked documents, there might be two explanations. First, some Chinese military officers might intentionally send such a message to North Korea through international channels. Accordingly, this leak of documents might reflect internal Chinese debate. As some Chinese elites increasingly view North Korea negatively, it is not surprising that they might want to send a strong signal to Pyongyang.
Additionally, becausethe original news report that attracted so much international attention comes from Japan’s Kyodo, it is plausible that the Kyodo report was based on intelligence sources from Japan or the United States. By leaking China’s contingency plans to the media, Japan or the United States might want to push Beijing to change its policy on North Korea.
No matter which explanation better accounts for the sudden emergenceof these leaked documents, it is time for Beijing to rethink its foreign policy towards North Korea.
Breaking the Taboo
While open discussion of North Korea’s collapse remains taboo in China, Beijing should consider finally addressing pervasive questions and concerns about North Korea’s future. Discussions of contingency plans might benefit China’s own interests. These discussions will also increase crisis management for relevant countries.
For several decades, North Korea has hijacked China’s diplomacy inEast Asia. North Korean leaders understand that their collapse would be too costly for Beijing. By demonstrating that Beijing has contingency plans to cope with a collapsing North Korea, Beijing could demonstrate its resolve to constrain North Korea’s belligerent behavior. Obviously, this type of signal should not be sent through formal diplomatic channels. However, informal signals might be appropriate and necessary.
Breaking such a taboo should also help manage any international crisis involving the two Koreas. Assuming the United States, China, South Korea, and Japan all have their own contingency plans, it is critical for these countries to have some coordination. Without minimum coordination, accidental conflicts might occur when dealing with any military crisis on the Korean Peninsula. The United States has been working hard to get China to talk about contingency plans. Beijing’s continued reluctance to discuss specific contingencies has hindered its ability to effectively discuss sensitive topics. This will likely cause future key conversations to veer towards more generic topics. Furthermore, “track-II diplomacy,” i.e., informal contacts and activities between non-state actors, involving scholars and think-tanks analysts, could facilitate a mutual understanding of the risks associated with the possible collapse of North Korea.
Xiaoyu Pu is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno. Before joining the faculty at UNR, he was a postdoctoral fellow in the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program. He received his Ph.D. from Ohio State University.