China Changes Its Approach To North Korea

February 28, 2009

China Changes Its Approach To North KoreaMartin McCauley writers: The recent visit by Wang Jiarui, a senior official of the Communist Party of China (CPC), to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was to mark the beginning of the ‘Year of China-DPRK Friendship’. Even more significant was his meeting with the ‘Dear Leader’, Kim Jong-Il.

It was the Korean leader’s first public appearance with an international guest since his rumoured stroke in August 2008. It also marked Beijing’s continued efforts to maintain a high level dialogue with the DPRK which were broken off after Pyongyang’s test of a nuclear device in October 2006.

Kim wanted to demonstrate to the world that he was fit and in control. Pyongyang has been toning down its anti-American rhetoric lately. This is a signal to Washington that it is ready for a dialogue. After Wang’s departure, the DPRK announced that China was to provide more economic aid. Was this a hint to South Korea that it expects some aid from there as well?

The conversations with Kim Jong-Il permitted the Chinese to gauge his health and state of mind. Kim reiterated the DPRK position that it was committed to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

Wang delivered a letter from President Hu Jintao and Kim accepted an invitation to visit China in the future. If the visit takes place, it will be the first time Kim has travelled to China since January 2006. It could then lead to President Hu going to the DPRK. This would be a fitting way to mark the ‘Year of China-DPRK Friendship’.

China maintains closer relations with Pyongyang than any other country. Beijing’s main concerns are its nuclear ambitions and the stability of the regime. The DPRK depends on China for energy and food.

The six party talks on nuclear issues are at a standstill. The message now is that if the United States wishes to improve relations with the DPRK it must take into account Chinese interests.

Beijing’s influence in Pyongyang should not be overestimated. It failed spectacularly to halt the missile tests in July 2006 and the nuclear test in October 2006. Chinese officials had repeatedly warned against such moves. China unequivocally condemned the tests and joined the United States and others in the UN Security Council in imposing sanctions on trade in military and nuclear items and luxury food.

China is adopting a new approach to the DPRK. It has decided to speak more plainly to Pyongyang.  It wishes to reiterate constantly that the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula is vitally important to Chinese strategic interests. It will condemn in no uncertain manner any actions by Pyongyang which are viewed as destabilising. An effort will be made to tighten export controls so as to slow down the DPRK’s nuclear programme. Sanctions will be imposed if persuasion does not work.

The above however must be balanced against the desire to maintain stability in the DPRK. Too aggressive Chinese behaviour could lead to less Chinese influence in Pyongyang.

The South Korean Ministry of Defence has just issued a white paper which suggests that the DPRK has completed the deployment of medium range missiles which can travel up to 3,000 km and carry a warhead of up to 650 kg. Pyongyang has announced that it plans to launch a rocket carrying a communications satellite. The missile has a theoretical range of 6,700 km. This means it could reach Alaska. The DPRK is upgrading its submarine fleet and special forces. Its plutonium stock was put at 40 kg – enough for five nuclear bombs. However it was thought that Pyongyang does not yet have the technology to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile. The DPRK army is thought to consist of about 1.9 million soldiers.

Beijing hopes that Kim will commit himself to running down his nuclear arsenal. If not, it will then be clear that the DPRK wishes to become a permanent nuclear power. This will underline the failure of Chinese diplomacy. Beijing then may be willing to cooperate with other international actors to rein in the DPRK’s nuclear ambitions.

China wishes to make it clear to Pyongyang that if it becomes a permanent nuclear power, this will damage irreparably Sino-DPRK relations.  Will this convince Pyongyang to give up the bomb?

The DPRK is now the most militarised state on earth after Israel. Just why should such an impoverished country devote so much of its GDP to defence? Is it rearming only to increase its bargaining power vis-á-vis the United States and China? Or does it think that the Obama administration is so mired in economic decline that it would not come to the aid of South Korea if attacked? These are nervous times.