China's Role in the Korean Peninsula Issues
Joseph A. Bosco
National security consultant; Senior Associate CSIS; former OSD official, Pentagon
The outrageous threats uttered by North Korea's new leader confirm what Henry
Kissinger wrote in his latest book about the prospect of a nuclear North Korea:
The spread of these weapons into hands not restrained by the historical and
political considerations of the major states augurs a world of devastation and
human loss without precedent even in our age of genocidal killings.
A decade earlier, when North Korea was well along the way to acquiring a nuclear
weapon, Kissinger said:
Eliminating North Korea's nuclear program is overwhelmingly in the
Chinese interest. They don't want nuclear weapons on their borders.
That was not the first, nor the last, time Kissinger made that assertion over those
twenty years. But he was far from being alone in that judgement. The
conventional wisdom among government officials and China scholars has long
been that Beijing opposed North Korea's nuclear program at least as much as we in
the West did because, they said ,"it is not in China's interest."
The problem is that for more than two decades, China has had a quite different
view of what is or is not in China's interest. And North Korean nukes have simply
not been a matter of deep concern to Beijing. In fact, a strong case can be made
that China sees its strategic interests as having been advanced by Pyongyang's
nuclear and missile programs, at least up to this point.
First, the North Korean threat coerced massive Western aid that helped keep in
power a close Communist ally and prevented a unified, democratic Korea.
Second, it won China enormous prestige as "a responsible international
stakeholder" and essential partner in the Six-Party Talks and other negotiations
intended to curtail North Korea's WMD activities.
Third, it greatly enhanced Beijing's negotiating leverage with Washington on
trade, currency valuation, human rights, Taiwan, Iran, and other issues. When
Senator Joe Biden was asked in 2005 why Washington wasn't being tougher on
Beijing, he responded: "After all, we need China to help roll back North Korea's
Fourth, Pyongyang's WMD activities distracted Washington's diplomacy and
defense planning; diverted attention and resources from Iraq, Afghanistan, and
counter-terrorism; and strained American public support for overseas
Fifth, they hindered U.S. counter-proliferation efforts with Iran, and spread
dangerous technology to other anti-Western regimes and potentially to terrorists.
Beijing has not exactly been an innocent bystander or passive observer of North
Korea's activities. The start-up technology for its nuclear program came from
China by way of Pakistan's AQ Kahn network. Much of the flow of nuclear and
missile technology and materials from North Korea to other rogue states has gone
through Chinese territory. China has not only been a proliferator of WMD; it has
been a proliferator of proliferators.
Last year, Defense Secretary Panetta told Congress that China has been complicit
in developing North Korea's missile technology. And China has consistently
blocked or significantly weakened Security Council resolutions seeking to halt
Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs, such as the 2005 and 2009
resolutions. Even when it has allowed something to pass the council, it has failed
to follow through with effective enforcement of sanctions regimes.
Time will tell whether China's pattern of behavior will be any more serious or
sustained after the most recent Security Council condemnation and the Bank of
China's action against North Korean companies.
It is not only in the area of developing and proliferating weapons of mass
destruction that Beijing has used its Security Council position to protect North
Korea against meaningful international sanctions. It also blocked Council
resolutions condemning the unprovoked Cheonan
killed a total of 50 South Korean sailors and civilians. Through the careers of three
generations of North Korean despots--including shooting down a civilian airliner
and its two hundred passengers, kidnapping Japanese civilians and Asian film
stars; seizing a U.S. Navy ship and imprisoning its crew--Beijing has always been
there for its Communist ally, just as it was for the invasion of South Korea sixty-
three years ago.
The North Korean regime's treatment of its own people has been as monstrous as
its international behavior-condemning millions to privation and death while
diverting the nation's wealth to build the world's fourth-largest army and nuclear
and missile programs in violation of Security Council resolutions. With the entire
country effectively a prison, the government operates scores of special gulags
where hundreds of thousands routinely face forced labor, torture, rape, forced
abortion, starvation, and death without charge or trial. Mr. --- can certainly
elucidate on this
The question for the Chinese people is: How can modern China, an aspiring
superpower that demands the world's respect, associate itself so intimately with a
universally despised regime?
The answer is that China's Communist leaders are not easily shocked by North
Korean behavior that mirrors their own governance not so long ago. Even today,
despite decades of Western engagement, Beijing's authoritarian rule and external
aggressiveness reflect a value system and worldview that is in many ways closer to
Pyongyang's than to the West's. Neither is a normal government in the
Every few years another prominent Chinese general threatens nuclear destruction
of American cities if the U.S. should dare to defend Taiwan against a Chinese
attack. The "sea of fire" imagery North Korea regularly conjures is also part of
China's strategic vocabulary. Another repressive regime favoring that colorful
term is Iran, which also happens to have benefitted from Chinese and North
Korean nuclear and missile technology.
Wherever there is a state oppressing its people, proliferating dangerous missile and
nuclear technology, or threatening its neighbors, China tends to take its side
against the standards and values of the international community. Given Beijing's
philosophical kinship with such rulers, its enduring support for North Korea should
not surprise Western observers.
Shared attitudes toward the West also help to explain the China-North Korea
alliance: in their official strategic doctrines, both see the United States as their past
and future enemy. Washington's decades-long preoccupation with Pyongyang has
served Beijing's interests by distracting U.S. attention from the growing potential
China threat while enabling it to posture as a responsible Asian power.
Beijing is quite transparent in declaring its worst fear: the end of the Pyongyang
regime and its replacement by a normal, unified, democratic Korea. To avoid that
result, China is perfectly content to have the West live with the nightmare of a
nuclear-armed North Korea.
The accepted rationale for Chinese behavior is that it needs Communist North
Korea as a buffer against a pro-Western South or unified Korea. But only extreme
paranoia, or duplicitous intentions, could envision an unprovoked attack on China
from either the U.S. or a democratic Korea in the absence of North Korean or
Chinese aggression. Either way, China's attitude toward North Korea says much
about China's attitude toward the West and suggests that, beyond the North Korea
problem, we have an even greater China problem.
While China's role in keeping the North Korean regime in power--and in the
WMD business--is no longer in serious dispute, analysts often accept China's
argument that its hands are tied--even threatening to cut economic aid would
supposedly collapse Kim Jong UN's regime and trigger a massive refugee flow
into China. Secretary of State Kerry said last week that Chinese authorities worry
about North Korean instability because they know that, from a humanitarian point
of view, they would have to deal with most of the problems.
But it has been clear for sixty years that the sole cause of tension and instability
between the Koreas has been Pyongyang's own bizarre and dangerous behavior,
despite substantial aid and concessions from accommodating South Korean
During Jiang Zemin's 1999 visit, President Clinton thanked China for controlling
North Korea's nuclear and missile programs. In 2003, President Bush said he was
"heartened" by Jiang's commitment to a nuclear-free peninsula. In 2008, he
commended China's "critical leadership role." The Obama administration has
expressed the same hopes for Chinese cooperation.
During his visit to Beijing last week, Secretary of State John Kerry said:
"It is obvious that China is the lifeline to North Korea. Everybody knows that
China provides the vast majority of the fuel to North Korea. China is their biggest
trading party, their biggest food donor,"
"There is no group of leaders on the face of the planet who have more capacity to
make a difference in this than the Chinese.
"I think it's fair to say that without China, North Korea would collapse."
Precisely. Nor is it obvious that, if Pyongyang were faced with a credible Chinese
ultimatum, it would choose regime suicide rather than give up its nuclear
program. It seems clear that China has never confronted it with that choice.
So far, despite its recent bombast, North Korea has not launched another missile or
conducted another nuclear test, and China has sent signals that it has become
dissatisfied with Pyongyang's provocative rhetoric. Again, the latest conventional
wisdom has it that North Korea has finally crossed a Chinese red line by
threatening to destabilize the region. But questions remain: Is this more wishful
thinking about Chinese intentions, or is it the real thing this time? Has Beijing
actually decided to put the pressure on Pyongyang, or will it be a reenactment of
previous cases where it appears to take corrective action, only to go back to
business as usual with North Korea? Is China, this time, genuinely concerned with
North Korea's actions--or is it worried only about Washington's reaction?
President Obama reportedly called Xi Jinping and told him if China does not like
the enhanced U.S. forward presence in Asia, then it needs to do something to
reduce or eliminate the regional threat that caused it. Was the President referring
only to the recent deployment of missile defense assets following North Korea's
third nuclear test in February, or was he suggesting something broader?
The official Xinhua news agency has forcefully criticized the US for "fanning the
flames" on the Korean peninsula. "It keeps sending more fighters, bombers and
missile defense ships to the waters of East Asia and carrying out massive military
drills with Asian allies in a dramatic display of pre-emptive power." The article
noted that Washington sees both North Korea and China as threats.
Speaking in Seoul before arriving in Beijing, Kerry made clear that the US would
continue to deploy such weapons, unless Beijing "put some teeth" into forcing
North Korea to denuclearize.
But during his stay in China, Kerry seemed to moderate the U.S. position from a
warning to a bargaining chip: he raised the possibility that if North Korea gave up
its nuclear weapons capability the United States might reverse military moves in
the region that have unnerved China. Those included additional missile defenses in
Guam and Japan.
Kerry said the discussion had included "why we have taken the steps that we have
taken" in missile defense. "Now obviously if the threat disappears-i.e. if North
Korea denuclearizes-the same imperative does not exist . . . for us to have that
kind of robust forward leaning posture of defense." Kerry later seemed to back off
a little from the idea of a straight quid pro quo
Perhaps he had in mind a possible analogy that occurred during the Cold War
when he was a young naval officer in Vietnam. Washington had deployed missiles
to our NATO ally Turkey to help deter Soviet incursions into Western
Europe. Moscow was not happy about it and in 1962 it stationed offensive
missiles in Cuba, which led to the famous Cuban missile crisis. The conventional
wisdom at the time was that President Kennedy had stood down the Soviets and
forced Nikita Khrushchev to withdraw the missiles. A few months later, however,
the U.S. missiles in Turkey were also quietly withdrawn in what is now confirmed
as an explicit tradeoff. So, in that case, aggressive Communist behavior managed
to provoke a crisis, then cool it down by appearing to back off, while extracting a
significant concession it was not able to get otherwise.
China sees the recent North Korean crisis as an opportunity to reverse not only the
US actions of the past few weeks but also the pivot that actually began in the last
two years of the Bush administration and accelerated under President
Obama. Beijing is convinced that Washington is reacting not only to North
Korea's explicit threats but to the perceived threat from China itself. Missile
defense systems that can shoot down North Korean missiles can do the same with
Chinese missiles. Russia has parallel concerns about US missile-defense systems
that are intended to protect against Iran's missiles but can also destroy Russian
Whether the imperfect Cuban missile analogy applies here will depend on
Washington's action going forward. Will the resources and policy attention
needed to sustain a robust rebalancing to Asia be provided, or will they be allowed
to wither away under cover of financial constraints such as the sequester? Even
before that legislation went into effect, there was already concern that the
administration's rhetoric on rebalancing was not matched by the deployment of
resources needed to sustain an expanded American presence over the long
term. Achieving a 60-40 ratio of ships in the Pacific, for example, could be done
simply by drawing down Navy assets in the Mediterranean or Persian Gulf without
adding anything to Asia.
In recent weeks, under the rationale of defense spending cuts--either previously
planned or as a result of the sequester--the U.S. military has taken several actions
to diminish our presence and activities in the Pacific:
--the 374th Airlift Wing based in Tokyo cut its flying program by 25% and
cancelled its participation in a joint exercise with U.S. ally Thailand
--the Air Force cancelled community outreach events at its bases across Japan
--the Navy reduced ship and tug boat movements and other port operations
--the Naval Facilities Command and Public Works reduced normal maintenance and upkeep
--all military branches have cut electric power usage and official travel
--civilian workers in Asia, like those in the U.S., are facing furloughs
This visible shrinking of U.S. operations in Asia revives concerns among
America's friends and allies in the region that, for all the talk of pivoting and
rebalancing to Asia, we may actually be moving in the opposite direction. That is
exactly the wrong response they want from the U.S. given North Korea's wild
rhetoric and China's ongoing military buildup and aggressive behavior in the East
and South China Seas. With reason to doubt the depth and sustainability of
America's commitment to Asia, some may feel it prudent to move closer to China-
-which will remain in Asia for the foreseeable future. Other countries, such as
Japan, will decide to enhance their own defense capabilities to meet the North
Korean and Chinese threats. As a general matter, it would be a welcome
development for our Asian allies to pick up some of the slack and participate more
vigorously in joint defense planning.
On the other hand, some in Washington fear that too strong a nationalistic response
in Japan and South Korea could exacerbate the situation. Once again, the United
States is seen as the indispensable nation--not only to defend against foes but to
reassure and, if necessary, restrain friends. Hopefully, any Sino-U.S. arrangements
to cool the North Korean crisis will not jeopardize that essential long-term U.S.
role in the region.
This page last updated May 13, 2013 jdb