Building off of the momentum generated by the Iran nuclear deal, some have considered whether the East Asian political climate is ripe for the resumption of nuclear negotiations with North Korea. While the extensive “Six-party” talks were unsuccessful, a general deterioration of Chinese-North Korean relations has upset the relationship between the two states, in which China acted as a benefactor to prop up the North Korean regime, allowing for the possibility of more purposeful and forceful Chinese mediation. Even so, China will not push Pyongyang as hard as the West pressured Tehran, and China’s support for any agreement would be contingent on if the deal favored Chinese interests. It is also important to remember that while both Iran and North Korea are considered “pariah” states, significant differences between the two make the likelihood of a similar nuclear deal much less probable.
Despite its autarkic ideology, embodied by the state philosophy of juche, which literally means “self-reliance”, North Korea is not a self-sufficient state. It cannot feed its population during poor harvest years, requiring generous food imports, and also relies on mineral imports to fuel its limited industrial economy. Instead, it survives largely thanks to extensive Chinese support. China has facilitated this dependency through the development of robust cross-border trade networks, which help the general population meet its basic needs for food, clothing, and consumer goods. Because of this reliance, China possesses an un-paralleled level of influence with North Korea. However, in the past China has not leveraged this dependency in a way consistent with goals of Global peace and stability. For example, Chinese financial firms have acted as intermediaries for North Korean financial transactions restricted under international law, and in the past North Korea has skirted sanctions by importing restricted goods from China. Chinese diplomats have also given North Korea an extensive amount of “cover” in international organizations, including the blocking of a referral of top North Korean officials to the International Crime Court. As such, China’s protection of North Korea has stymied previous disarmament and de-escalation talks. As long as North Korea has a sympathetic China in its corner, it is assured a degree of safety from what would be otherwise punishing international sanctions.
While North Korea’s overwhelming reliance on Chinese aid should relegate their autonomy to the level of a client state, this is not the case. In the past, North Korean leaders retained their independence by playing off Russian and Chinese leaders, promising concessions to whichever side supported them, and later switching over to the other. But Russian interest, now focused on urgent crises in both the Ukraine and Syria, has waned. This global shift leaves China as North Korea’s only reliable ally, and as a result China exercises considerable and unprecedented influence over North Korea’s foreign policy. Even so, Chinese influence is still subdued in several ways.
While Pyongyang’s economic reliance on China is undeniable, this dependency has not translated into a strong control over the actions of the government. For example, during the most recent spat in the DMZ, China’s foreign ministry urged “restraint” from both North and South Korea. North Korea’s state media replied spitefully, claiming their nation had exercised self-restraint for decades and that such talk was “unhelpful”. Furthermore, North Korea’s frequent military confrontations with South Korea directly counter Chinese policy, which promotes predictability and stability whenever possible. China has never approved of North Korea’s nuclear program, and shares a mutual concern with the U.S. that a nuclear North Korea will encourage other nations in the region to develop their own nuclear weapons. Chinese nuclear experts have also expressed alarm at the rapidly expanding rate of the North Korean nuclear program. They estimate that North Korea has an arsenal of 20 nuclear weapons, with the potential to double it by 2020. This policy of aggressive nuclear expansion has alienated the Chinese government, which is beginning to view North Korea as an unpredictable ally that is more trouble than it is worth.
The deterioration of Chinese-Korean relations is in large part due to the induction of Kim Jong Un, the Son of North Korea’s previous leader, Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011. Chinese officials enjoyed a strong relationship with Kim Jong il’s government, and maintained multiple high level contacts in both the military and government. The current President of China, Xi Jinping’s relationship with Kim Jong Un is marked by a distinct coldness. Kim Jong Un has done next to nothing to court the Chinese. He largely ignores Beijing’s delegations to the country — usually sending low-level party members to greet them — and has showed little interest in resuming the six-party talks. China’s geriatric government respects elderly, experienced leaders, and views Kim Jong-Un as young, brash, and impulsive. As such, their willingness to tie themselves to his regime is quickly waning.
While ties with North Korea have frayed, China and South Korea have grown closer. Both nations believe Japan has not demonstrated sufficient repentance for the atrocities its soldiers committed in World War II, and frequently argue that point in international arenas. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has made significant diplomatic overtures to the Chinese, including the repatriation of the remains of 437 Chinese soldiers who were killed during the Korean War. Furthermore, burgeoning trade relations have fostered ties between the two nations. Trade between them has increased approximately thirty-five times, from $6.37 billion in 1992 to $220.63 billion in 2011 (adjusted for inflation). Currently, China is South Korea’s largest trading partner and South Korea is China’s third largest. In contrast, trade between China and North Korea is a paltry $6.86 billion (2014), most of which constitutes imports of capital and mineral goods.
All of these factors indicate a positive environment for the resumption of nuclear-disarmament talks. Chinese influence over North Korea is stronger than ever, and Chinese officials believe a nuclear North Korea under the rule of Kim Jong Un to be a serious threat to regional stability. However, a number of significant barriers remain. While Chinese leaders are sincerely interested in a stable, non-nuclear Korean peninsula, their first priority is preventing the collapse of the North Korean regime. Such a collapse would precipitate a flood of millions of impoverished, malnourished refugees into Manchuria, creating a disastrous human rights debacle which would impose a heavy cost on Chinese Society. As such, Beijing will resist the implementation of harsh sanctions, especially if they target vulnerable areas of the economy. China also values North Korea as a buffer state between China and democratic South Korea, which houses 30,000 U.S. soldiers. Beijing fears a regime collapse or widespread military intervention could precipitate a reunification of the Korean peninsula under Seoul, removing the strategic barrier which has separated Manchuria from Korean Capitalism for sixty years. This wariness of South Korea and American intentions was further strengthened by President Obama’s much publicized “pivot” to South East Asia, which Chinese leader’s perceive as an effort to contain the Chinese state.
As such, the full support of the Chinese in any future negotiation will be contingent on three factors. First, the Chinese government must be convinced that any punitive measures will not endanger the stability of the North Korean regime. This would rule out a sanctions campaign of the same severity as that used on Iran, which crippled the economy and triggered protests across the nation. Second, the Chinese must be assured that South Korea and the U.S. have no intention of forcibly reuniting the Korean peninsula. Any indication of duplicity would be a nonstarter for Chinese officials. Third, Chinese extensive influence with North Korea must be given recognition, and the Chinese should retain a significant level of control over what an agreement would entail and how it would be enforced. While the U.S. is traditionally accustomed to taking the lead in international negotiations, U.S. diplomats have little substantive leverage over Pyongyang. As such, China should be permitted to take a leading role, even if that means making concessions to Beijing.
However, a nuclear agreement with North Korea will not be similar in its main points to the recent nuclear deal made with with Iran. North Korea maintains a large embedded nuclear arsenal, and has had time to develop a sophisticated domestic nuclear industry. North Korea will likely reject any western observers from the IAEA, and potential regulation may have to be regulated to the Chinese alone. Unlike Iran, North Korea is a total dictatorship, and the domestic pressures which exist in Iran do not necessarily openly exist in North Korea. For example, NSA Senior director Jon Wolfsthal argued that the $50 billion released to Iran in the deal will be used for domestic investment, because the population is aware that money exists and will pressure the government to use it to improve infrastructure and public services. No such pressure exists in North Korea. As such, America’s role in any future negotiation must be to convince Pyongyang that there is more to be gained through integration with the world economy. North Korean leaders have already demonstrated a limited interest in small-scale market liberalization, as evidenced by the Kaesong industrial zone.
A nuclear North Korea is the most pressing threat to the stability and security of East Asia. The United States must leverage its significant diplomatic clout to resume talks with North Korea, while recognizing that China’s extensive influence with North Korea should grant it more influence than that of a mere mediator. While U.S. and Chinese leaders have clashed on a wide array of international issues, both sides have a clear, unifying goal in promoting a non-nuclear North Korea. For the sake of the entire region, it is imperative that this common goal is recognized.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.