Hu Jintao’s State Visit: China and the Korean Peninsula

On January 19, President Hu Jintao of China will arrive in Washington for his third visit since President Barack Obama’s inauguration. On the agenda will be discussion of a wide range of issues, including global trade imbalances, currency valuation, Iran’s nuclear program, global climate change, and most critically, North Korea. President Hu’s trip comes after a year of difficult relations between the United States and China over North Korea’s provocations.

Q1: What is President Obama’s main concern regarding China’s policy on North Korea?

A1: The main concern is that Beijing is not acting like a responsible stakeholder on the North Korea issue. It is not using its leverage to get better behavior out of Pyongyang. Instead, it is issuing bland calls for resumption of the Six-Party Talks, which are designed more to take pressure off of itself than solve the problem. The North Korean sinking of the Cheonan in March 2010 was met in Beijing by a noncommittal response. Premier Wen Jiabao called the incident “unfortunate” and said China would “adopt an impartial position.” The Chinese questioned the multination investigation report’s conclusion that a North Korean torpedo sunk the Cheonan. In early November, when the North Koreans unveiled their sophisticated, clandestine uranium enrichment program, the Chinese response was again, muted. And finally, when the North bombarded Yeonpyeong Island with over 170 artillery shells, China simply called for “calm and rational” responses from all sides and then put forth an inappropriate, last-ditch call for an “emergency session” of the Six-Party Talks, which was summarily rejected by Japan, South Korea, and the United States. President Obama will likely have some tough questions for Hu behind closed doors regarding its recalcitrant neighbor, North Korea.

Q2: What exactly is the nature of the relationship between North Korea and China?

A2: “Mutual hostages” would be one way to think of it. Pyongyang needs Beijing to survive. Beijing can’t afford to let Pyongyang collapse. Each may be unhappy with the other, but neither will sever the relationship. The founder of China’s People’s Liberation Army, Zhu De, once famously referred to the relationship between North Korea and China as being “as close as lips and teeth.” While this is certainly no longer the case, they obviously continue to share close and important ties. To North Korea, China is a major source of aid and trade, providing 70 percent of its foreign trade, 90 percent of its oil, 80 percent of its consumer goods, and 45 percent of its food. North Korea is believed to make up some 40 percent of China’s international aid budget, and this flurry of economic activity has led some to dub the North as “China’s fourth northeastern province.” To China, North Korea acts as a strategic buffer between itself and the prosperous, U.S.-allied, democratic South and the 28,500 or so U.S. military personnel in the country. China is most comfortable with relatively weak and not necessarily Western-aligned states on its borders (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, Laos, Vietnam), and the North is an integral part of this chain. With a unified, democratic Korean peninsula, China would also be relatively isolated in the region, facing an informal coalition of Taiwanese, Japanese, American, and post-unification Korean democracies.

Q3: Why doesn’t China push North Korea harder to denuclearize and stop provocations against South Korea?

A3: Bizarre as it may sound, the more North Korea relies on China for sustenance, the more China becomes emasculated regarding the ability to pressure the North. This is because Beijing has no metric for determining how much pressure can force change or how much pressure will lead to collapse. Ironically, when others were funding the North (as during South Korea’s Sunshine Policy), the Chinese had more room to pressure Pyongyang. Now, the weakness of North Korea is the biggest reason why China doesn’t push it harder. At $960, North Korea has the lowest GDP per capita in Northeast Asia, by almost $3,000 (China’s is $3,735). According to Foreign Policy’s latest “Failed States Index,” North Korea is the 19th-most failed state on earth, sandwiched between East Timor and Niger. The last thing the Chinese would want is to force the regime into a tailspin leading to a catastrophic collapse of the state. This could result in massive, uncontrollable refugee flows; unaccounted for nuclear materials; great power confrontation; potential factionalism within the North Korean territory, leading to civil war; and countless other untold horrors Beijing is intent on avoiding. China’s modus operandi has been and will likely continue to be to ever-so-gently push and prod the North Koreans in the direction of Chinese- and Vietnamese-style economic liberalization, being always mindful of the potential threat of a “hard landing” in the North.

Q4: So, what will move China to change views toward North Korea?

A4: There are two answers. At the tactical level, the only time China becomes truly motivated to influence North Korean behavior is when Beijing feels that the situation could spin hopelessly out of control. Beijing felt this way after the first nuclear test in October 2006 (i.e., concerned about how the Bush administration would respond). Arguably, China felt this way when South Korea was adamant about carrying out live-fire artillery exercises last month on the island bombed by the North Koreans (i.e., Beijing played a role in ensuring that the North did not respond to the South’s exercises). At the strategic level, since North Korea’s October 2006 and May 2009 nuclear tests, there have been ongoing debates within China about the need for a shift in their traditional North Korea policy. However, their actions over the course of this past year seem to have dashed many of these hopes. The statement by China’s purported incoming leader, Xi Jinping, that the Korean War was a “great and just war for safeguarding peace,” is not a positive sign either. We all hope for a younger, more pragmatic generation of Chinese officials for whom the historical and ideological ties with the North are a mere fraction of those of the older, ruling class.

Q5: What would the Obama administration want China to do specifically?

A5: Three measures seem appropriate. First, the administration probably wants China to compel the North to abide by the 1953 armistice and cease provocations. One simple way of doing this would be for Beijing to state clearly that it opposes any North Korean actions that violate the 1953 armistice (e.g., the Yeonpyeong Island shelling) to which China is a signatory.

Second, Chinese diplomacy should focus on “pre-positioning” the North for an eventual return to Six-Party Talks, which entails: (a) inter-Korean talks and conveyance of condolences for the Korean lives lost in the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks; (b) a North Korean commitment to the 2005 and 2007 denuclearization agreements; and (c) a North Korean commitment to freeze uranium enrichment programs.

Third, the administration would probably want Beijing to cooperate more closely on limiting the proliferation risks from the North, including curtailment of proliferation-related financial activities and more secure monitoring of land, sea, and air routes out of the North.

Victor Cha holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair