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North Korea and the Chinese Giant

SOURCE: AP/Ng Han Guan

North Korean soldiers march along the border fence on the North Korean side bordering China near Dandong, northeastern China's Liaoning province.

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The situation on the Korean peninsula continues to deteriorate as members of the U.N. Security Council work to finalize a resolution responding to North Korea’s second nuclear test. South Korean news reported on Saturday that there was activity at a Pyongyang site used to fire long-range missiles, and that the North could fire a missile able to reach American territory as early as mid-June. If launched, the missile would be North Korea’s seventh—and first long-range—missile launch since the May 25 test.

As the Obama administration deliberates on how to respond to the crisis, all eyes are nervously watching Beijing. The Obama administration should work with Chinese leaders to place greater pressure on the North Korean regime, but they must keep in mind that the Chinese have different objectives than the United States.

The United States seeks to denuclearize the peninsula, while China wishes only for stability. China cannot and will not agree to actions they believe go beyond the minimum measures needed to stabilize the current crisis. Effectively responding to the North Korean situation will require a delicate balancing act—one that requires weighing the interests of the reticent Chinese giant.

China has more leverage over North Korea than any other country in the world. It is North Korea’s largest trading partner and provides extensive aid to the country, including food, arms, and nearly 90 percent of the North’s energy supplies.

China is not a potential target of a North Korean nuclear attack, but it does have a significant stake in the outcome of the current crisis. The last thing Beijing needed was another nuclear test on its periphery. North Korea’s recent bad behavior has (yet again) brought an international crisis to the region—a crisis that threatens to disrupt the regional stability that China needs to focus on internal growth and social stability.

Chinese leaders are furious at North Korea, and the ire has shown in statements coming out of Beijing. The Chinese government immediately condemned the nuclear test, stating, “the DPRK ignored universal opposition of the international community and once more conducted the nuclear test. The Chinese government is resolutely opposed to it.” Other statements signal that Beijing’s growing impatience may shift its relationship with its long-standing communist ally. In contrast to China’s usually tepid response, a government official in Jilin remarked, “North Korea has become a major problem for China. It has become a dangerous player in the world.”

China is right to be angry. North Korea’s behavior threatens a number of China’s national interests. North Korea’s nuclear tests could introduce an arms race into the Asia Pacific region. A proximate nuclear threat could give Japan reason to pursue a more robust defense program, including nuclear capabilities, which would alarm other states in the region whose memories of Japan’s past aggressions have far from faded. And China would have to shift its focus and resources away from domestic development to national security, specifically to guarding against increased numbers of nuclear neighbors and maintaining a nuclear balance in East Asia.

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions could have other indirect effects on China’s interests. The 2006 Taepodong missile and nuclear crisis showed that, as the threat from the peninsula increases, Japan aligns more closely with the United States in taking a hard stance against North Korea. Indeed, Japan, the United States, and South Korea pledged at the Shangri-La Dialogue this weekend “to craft a common response” to North Korea’s threats. A more belligerent North Korea could give Japan more reason to side with its ally across the ocean, which would likely “[boost] the appeal of cooperation on missile defense with the United States and the potential for subsequent transfer to defend Taiwan,” according to one analysis. Not only would China be faced with increasing U.S. dominance in the region; it would also have to produce a new set of political and military calculations if Taiwan acquires missile defense systems.

Most daunting for China is the possibility that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions could provoke a military response from the United States. The Obama administration has stayed consistent in its position that it has no military plans and will pursue a diplomatic solution on the peninsula, but China cannot rule out the possibility. Such a scenario would be devastating for China’s security environment and its internal stability. A military conflict would bring a war to the 1400 km-long border China shares with North Korea and could also translate into the loss of China’s northeast strategic buffer.

A collapse of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the face of either military conflict or increased international sanctions could seriously disrupt China’s internal stability. The North’s uncertain succession process has garnered substantial attention since news of Kim Jong-Il’s stroke last year, and some analysts argue that the recent nuclear test, threats, and other bizarre behavior, such as the kidnapping of two American journalists, may be manifestations of the volatile politics within the DPRK. China fears, and has feared for a long time, that North Korea could descend into uncontrollable civil unrest without the iron rule of Kim Jong-Il, and that this instability could spill across the border. China would likely have to grapple with a flood of hundreds of thousands of refugees—a task that may prove economically unsustainable.

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions clearly have high stakes for China, and the question now is not whether China will actively seek to rein in the North’s behavior, but rather, how it will do so.

China has demonstrated over the past few weeks its growing impatience with the North’s behavior and its readiness to take punitive measures against its communist ally. Reports from the United Nations indicate that China is receptive to U.S. calls for sanctions to punish the DPRK for its recent behavior. Beijing played a crucial role in bringing Pyongyang back to the negotiating table following the October 2006 nuclear test, and the United States is again looking to China to be a constructive partner in resolving the crisis.

But a healthy dose of caution must accompany this optimistic development. China’s chief endgame is stability, not the denuclearization of North Korea, and it is unlikely that China would take any actions that it believes would cause the regime to collapse or instigate it to escalate the situation further.

China will continue to be cautious and restrained in its actions, just as it has called for other nations to remain “cool-headed.” What we will likely see as the crisis unfolds is a China that is much more vocal in its opposition to North Korea’s nuclear and military programs and more disposed to participating in multilateral condemnations and economic sanctions against North Korea, but strongly opposed to military responses, such as bolstering of bilateral U.S.-Japan and South Korea relations.

Regardless of whether the final resolution is an unlikely return to the Six-Party talks or a new multilateral package of sticks and carrots, China must play an integral part, and the United States must therefore carefully navigate the complicated shoals of divergent interests.

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