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2009/07/30 14:16 KST


North Korea's Second Nuclear Test and China's Position

By Tai Hwan Lee (Director, Center for China Studies, the Sejong Institute, South Korea)

China supported the latest U.N. Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on North Korea. Although more time is needed to evaluate the effectiveness of those sanctions, China's participation is expected to have a significant impact on the North Korean nuclear issue. However, Beijing's official position shows China taking an ambivalent position toward North Korea. Some argue that China's saying that Pyongyang may be able to enjoy normal trade, without identifying standards to clarify "normal" and "abnormal" trade, could cause misunderstanding and be interpreted as a sign that China has no intention of implementing the U.N. resolution. Its follow-up in this matter will be a clear indication of to what extent China is a responsible member of the international community and of Beijing's willingness to exercise its influence over the North.

China's Official Position on the North Korea's Second Nuclear Test

The Chinese government has not significantly changed its position on North Korea since its May 25 test of an atomic device. If anything, it has gotten softer. Addressing the test, China's Foreign Ministry released a statement saying the following: "The DPRK (North Korea) conducted another nuclear test in disregard of the common opposition of the international community. The Chinese Government is firmly opposed to this act … China strongly urges the DPRK to honor its commitment to denuclearization, stop relevant moves that may further worsen the situation and return to the six-party talks."

   But in a press conference on June 25, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang announced that measures to deal with North Korea's second nuclear test should not affect the well-being of the North Korean people, nor should it hamper normal trade or economic activity.

   China also called for the international community to "respond in a cool-headed and appropriate manner" to the test, so as to pursue a "peaceful solution through consultation and dialogue." Answering whether China will implement the sanctions set forth in the U.N. Security Council, its Foreign Ministry responded, "We hope parties involved maintain calmness and restraint … and not take any move that may lead to further escalation of tension so as to press ahead with the denuclearization on the (Korean) Peninsula and safeguard peace and stability of the Peninsula and Northeast Asia."

   China has also maintained that it has "normal relations with North Korea, its neighbor." When Vice Chairperson Chen Zhili of the NPC Standing Committee cancelled his visit to Pyongyang, it was made clear that is was not a diplomatic move but that Chen had simply delayed his trip due to domestic commitments.

Chinese Experts' Opinion on the Second Nuclear Test

However, there are notable changes in the responses of Chinese experts to the second nuclear test. Many now argue that it is necessary to change China's policy toward North Korea, and that opinion appears to be gaining traction. Zhu Feng, a professor at Beijing University's School of International Studies is one such scholar. He points out that China's policies on the North Korean nuclear issue and the six-party talks have been primarily based on the assumption that North Korea's nuclear effort is an instrument guarantee the regime's security and bargain for economic incentives. Zhu believes this assumption is wrong and that the test reveals Kim Jong-il's ambition to solidify North Korea's standing as a nuclear state.

   He called the second nuclear test a slap in the face and a sobering wake-up call for the Chinese leadership to the malign nature of their North Korean counterparts. Yet he doesn't predict a fundamental change in China's policy, saying that it's still too early to say what China would prefer to do against the provocation of North Korea. Zhang Liangui, a professor of the Chinese Central Party School, regards North Korea nuclear problem as an issue of environmental as well as regional security. The nuclear test was conducted on the site which was closer to China than Pyongyang, 85 kilometers from the Chinese border.

   A number of schools in Yanbian had to evacuate students because of the earthquake caused by the nuclear test. Xu Baokang, a reporter for the Renmin Ribao (People's Daily) pointed out that North Korea conducted the second nuclear test in spite of China's warnings. For some this is tantamount to a loss of face for China at the hands of its impoverished and isolated neighbor. Shi Yinghong, a professor of International Relations at Renmin University, argued that China should reduce trade with North Korea if the situation worsens. Sun Zhe, director of the center for US-China relations at Tsinghua University, said China should put pressure on North Korea to protect China's security interests, as Pyongyang's frequent missile tests could have a destabilizing effect in the region.

   However, there are some with opposite opinions. Liu Jiangyong, a professor of Northeast Asia studies at Tsinghua University, predicts that no substantial change is likely in China's policy. This is because it would be hard to keep a steady relationship with North Korea if China took a hardline policy resembling the positions of other major powers.

   Remarkably, anti-North Korean sentiments have been growing among China's netizens. Considering that "anti-Pyongyang" views cannot be expressed in China's tightly controlled media without approval from the top, this appears to be evidence that changes are indeed taking place.

   Debates on the North Korean nuclear issue will likely continue in China for the time being. A recent survey by Huanqiu Shibao (The Global Times) of 20 top Chinese foreign policy experts also shows that there are debates on policy toward North Korea. Ten out of twenty experts were in favor of heavy punishment against North Korea while the others opposed. With respect to the six-party talks, fourteen experts responded that they were still viable, but the remaining six thought they had already failed. Notably, responding to whether North Korea still has a bargaining chip, 13 of the experts responded in the affirmative. This result shows that China will likely maintain its cautious approach.

Future Prospects

China's official response to the second nuclear test does not reflect any fundamental policy shift in that China repeatedly urges North Korea to return to the six party-talks. Even the experts who want to see some change in North Korea policy do not support strong sanctions. They would opt for diplomatic and expressions of disappointment. This shows that many in China believe it is too early for China to change its North Korea policy.

   Although China takes ambivalent attitudes between international society and North Korea rhetorically, Chinese policy at the action level shows consistency as far as Northeast Asia and North Korea concerned. One reason for the widening gap between rhetoric and action is that China deals with North Korea's nuclear problem based on its grand strategy. This means that China approaches this problem in the context of the stability of Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia with the aim of creating a new order in the region. However, its big picture is in the making and action cannot be followed based on the big picture yet.

   China's main concern is the U.S. China has a relative advantage in this region because it has leverage on both Koreas. China knows that both itself and South Korea would suffer directly in case of an emergency situation in the North. The damage to the U.S. and Japan will not be so great and thus they have different stake. This causes China to act in concert with the U.S. and Japan in terms of condemning North Korea's action rhetorically but hardly keeping the pace with them in terms of actual sanction measure which might leads to collapse of North Korean regime. What China worries most about is the possibility of Japan, South Korea or Taiwan gaining nuclear weapons and sparking a regional arms race. However, as long as U.S. provides its nuclear umbrella to South Korea and opposes to proliferation of nuclear weapons in Northeast Asia, the chances of nuclear armament is low, and China knows this.

   China might be searching for a change in dealing with North Korea nuclear problem but it surely will not turn over its cards first. In order to play as "responsible great power," China needs to propose the policy for the stability and peace of Northeast Asia instead of passing the buck to other countries like United States. If the U.N. sanctions are to be effective, China's cooperation is essential. Even with China's cooperation, the sanction might not be successful in pushing North Korea to return to the six party talks. China should make new effort to build a cooperative system that enables trust building and conflict prevention in the region. This situation is a good opportunity for the U.S. and China to consider South Korea as important actor. It is now time for South Korea to facilitate trilateral dialogue among Korea, U.S. and China on issues concerning North Korea and the Korean Peninsula.

   (This is a revised version of an article that appeared in the July edition of the journal "Current Issues and Policy," published by the Sejong Institute.)