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PSPD  l  People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy

  • Peace/Disarmament
  • 2018.10.23
  • 185

China’s Strategy on the Korean Peninsula at a Time of Great Transition: Changes and Tasks




October 2018

Lee Nam-joo / Professor, Department of Chinese Studies, Sungkonghoe University




1. After Economic Reform, China Shifts to Maintaining Status Quo on the Korean Peninsula


Prior to the economic reforms of the late 1980s, the Chinese government strategy regarding the Korean Peninsula was centered on maintaining ties with the North, with the dual objectives of containing American influence and easing Soviet pressure on China. During this period, Beijing saw South Korea mainly as an enemy and as a simple forward base for the United States, which China saw as expanding its sphere of influence in Asia against China’s interests.


The Chinese view of the Korean Peninsula began to transform in February 1972, when Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon held their historic summit, agreeing to develop strategic and cooperative relations between their countries. This strategic cooperation lessened China’s fear of the possible military role that the US Army stationed in South Korea would play. Moreover, its own interest in preventing escalations on the Korean Peninsula became clearer, if only so China could maintain its new relations with the US. Although the Chinese state refused to jettison its rhetoric in support of North Korea’s ambitions for unification of the peninsula, Chinese policymakers began to work at ensuring stability of the two separate Korean states, thus beginning the desire to maintain the status quo on the peninsula. Given its alliance with North Korea, however, China took care to avoid being too overt about its desires to improve relations with the South and of keep things as they were on the peninsula.


The sweeping economic reforms that began in China in 1978, however, made it necessary for Beijing to begin improving economic relations with South Korea despite objections from Pyongyang. This was because, first, the paramount objective of China’s foreign policy at the time was to cultivate an international environment favorable to its reforms, which raised the importance of relations with South Korea. Second, Beijing was eager to attract economic and financial resources from abroad to ensure the success of its reforms, and the potential that South Korea would become an important investment and trading partner was promising. Channels of indirect trade with China were established by the early 1980s, with an increasing volume of civilian and non-political exchanges between China and other countries. Until the end of the 1980s, though, Beijing took care to confine relations with South Korea to economic and cultural areas of activity only, out of respect for its ally in Pyongyang.


Nevertheless, the growing volume of economic and cultural exchanges between China and South Korea inevitably led to increasing political exchanges. The watershed moment in the two nation’s partnership came with the fall of the Soviet empire. The collapse of socialism and the Cold War order led South Korea to enter into new diplomatic relations with Russia and other countries in the former Eastern Bloc. China could not sit idly by as the world was developing in a whole new direction both politically and economically. Even North Korea joined the South in becoming a member state of the United Nations (UN) in 1991, creating the conditions for China to take its relations with the South to the next level.


Economic factors were at the top of Chinese statemen’s minds when China officially opened diplomatic channels with South Korea in August 1992. The fall of Socialism in the Eastern Bloc quickly raised official Chinese fear of the security of its own regime. The country was still reeling from the fallout of the Tiananmen Square crisis that had unfolded in 1989. These changing circumstances conspired together to raise demands, within the communist party, to strengthen control not only over politics, but also to strengthen the planned economy policy. Deng Xiaoping, however, was convinced that there was no way out for the Chinese socialist system except through economic reform, the acceleration of which Deng began to advocate in 1991.  This emphasis was clarified to party officials and the general public during his last official activity, involving a series of trips throughout the southern region of China in early 1992. The communist party responded by officially adopting the idea of a socialist market economy and raised the pace of liberalization, reform, and economic growth. Party officials did their best to ensure the success of their new doctrine, as their future crucially depended on it. It was against this backdrop that Beijing officially entered diplomatic relations with Seoul, confirming to the rest of the world that it sought to pursue its national interests by keeping intact the separate status of the two Koreas and the presence of the US Army in South Korea rather than promoting radical transformation on the peninsula. In some respects, this switch in policy amounted to tacit acknowledgment of continued US leadership over international order in Northeast Asia. However, China’s new strategy regarding the peninsula also betrayed the country’s desire to strengthen its influence over inter-Korean relations in the long run, as it would now be the only major nation with official ties to both Pyongyang and Seoul. History since then has helped China achieve its aspirations to a certain extent. Its relations with South Korea have strengthened both economically and politically, and the South is now as important to China as the United States. While China-North Korea relations souring quickly in the immediate aftermath of the former opening diplomatic relations with the South, they have been improving since Kim Yeong-nam, then chair of the Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Council of North Korea, visited Beijing in June 1999, followed by another visit from Kim Jong-il himself in May 2000. The fact that the six-party talks on resolving the North Korean nuclear issue took place in China indicates that nation’s increased influence on peninsular affairs. The Chinese strategy on the Koreas, however, soon faced a dilemma. 


2. North Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions and China’s Strategic Dilemma


China’s strategy of maintaining the status quo on the Korean Peninsula had a fatal defect. It compelled North Korea into diplomatic isolation, raising fears in Pyongyang over the security of the Kim regime. The state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula would have turned out quite differently had the new China-South Korea partnership been accompanied by action to allay fears over regime security among Pyongyang policymakers, such as through the establishment of a peace regime on the peninsula and the development of new relations between North Korea and the United States. China, however, went ahead with establishing diplomatic relations with the South without preparing such action for the sake of its ally. This has had the effect of leading South Korean and American policymakers to wait for regime collapse in North Korea rather than maintaining dialogue with Pyongyang.  North Korea’s isolation from the rest of the world deepened in the 1990s through the so-called Arduous March. 

Having awakened to the fact that China no longer guaranteed the security of its regime, Pyongyang leaned toward an even more extreme and hawkish line of self-defense, ultimately embracing the development of a nuclear arsenal. North Korea’s relations with China seemed to improve from 1999 not because the two countries shared the same ideology and strategic goals, but because they had overlapping geopolitical interests. China could not ignore the remaining value of North Korea as a buffer against the expanding sphere of American influence. North Korea could not afford to jettison its relations with China, one of the very few countries on earth capable of providing it political and economic support. Although the two countries maintained and improved their relations out of such practical necessities, deep-seated mistrust remained on both sides, but especially in North Korea. China’s new Korean Peninsula strategy, in other words, weakened the “traditional friendly relations” between Beijing and Pyongyang and replaced them with a practical partnership. 


North Korea’s mistrust of its larger neighbor is evident in the fact that it has continued to develop nuclear weaponry and missile systems despite China’s explicit warnings. Pyongyang did so as it seemed the only card it could play in a very skewed game. North Korea, in other words, viewed nuclear weapons not only as leverage for negotiations with Washington on the security of the Kim regime, but as security collateral for the regime. In the early days, Pyongyang’s policymakers appear to have viewed the nuclear card more as a negotiating instrument. The second nuclear crisis of 2002 and 2003, in particular, involved North Korea trying to force some compromises from Washington by broadcasting its still-too-early nuclear development. The negotiations that followed in the form of six-party talks culminated in the Joint Declaration of September 19, 2005. While the six-party talks were in progress, Pyongyang did agree that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was one of the chief objectives of the talks, so the conflict between China and North Korea remained below the surface. China insisted on three principles—peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, denuclearization of the peninsula, and dialogue as the way to find solutions—as the basis for resolving the nuclear issue. These three principles, at least in theory, went hand in hand. Beijing’s utmost interest, nonetheless, was in maintaining status quo on the peninsula in the name of “peace and stability.” 


As the September 19 Declaration was thwarted in execution, however, things began to change. With antagonism against Washington reaching new peaks, Pyongyang plunged headlong into upgrading its nuclear capacity, aiming at the possession of a well-equipped nuclear arsenal as one of the core national objectives. Shortly after he succeeded his deceased father in 2013, Kim Jong-un made it the official policy of his regime to pursue “the simultaneous development of the economy and the nuclear arsenal.” Beijing watched in horror as Pyongyang’s attempts to strengthen its nuclear and missile systems continued to increase volatility on the Korean Peninsula and in the rest of Northeast Asia. While Beijing also wanted the Kim regime to remain intact in Pyongyang, this was not desired at the cost of having nuclear weapons so close by.


Even more serious was the fact that it became increasingly difficult for China to maintain the status quo on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea continued to advocate nuclear armament, repeating nuclear and missile tests and honing its capacity to strike the US mainland. As the United States and South Korea increased their military readiness, the Korean Peninsula seemed about to become a powder keg. The Chinese government sought to exert control over the problem, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi calling for the “simultaneous cessation” of North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities and joint ROK-US military exercises, and “simultaneous development” of both denuclearization and a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. Military tensions, however, continued to escalate until late in 2017. The three principles China had insisted on were increasingly seen as unrealistic. It was, instead, forced to choose between stability and denuclearization. The inauguration of Xi Jinping accompanied the return of the denuclearization process to China’s strategy for the peninsula, with Chinese policymakers now stressing the need to stop North Korea from completing its nuclear weapons and missile program. Accordingly, China more actively endorsed international sanctions against the North, even imposing its own on tourism and other sectors. Beijing hoped that these mounting pressures would put North Korea onto the path of denuclearization and restoring stable relations with the United States. As North Korea directly acted against this desire, it represented a great strategic defeat for China.


First, sanctions against North Korea unsurprisingly worsened China’s relations with the country. Song Tao, a high-level communist party official who visited Pyongyang in November 2017 as President Xi’s special envoy, was forced to return home without gaining access to Kim Jong-un. On November 29, 2017, shortly after Song’s return, North Korea successfully tested its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch capabilities, declaring it as the completion of its nuclear arsenal plans. Second, the United States and South Korea went ahead with deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, which China condemned as a serious threat to its strategic interests. China found itself compelled to take retaliatory actions against South Korea, even if that would mean the destruction of the ties it had long taken effort to cultivate. Third, the United States began to move to keep China in check. In its National Security Strategy Report, released in December 2017, the Trump administration officially labeled China as a “revisionist” state, along with Russia, and a competitor to the United States.  The report disappointed Beijing, which had proposed earlier to the US that the two great countries should make new efforts to foster better relations. By 2018, the United States began to criticize China on a variety of issues, including trade and cross-Strait relations. As China had set up sanctions against North Korea mainly in the hopes of improving and strengthening relations with the United States, the Trump administration’s denouncements represented a direct affront and embarrassment. 


The decisive blow to China was the fact that, while it was acting in good faith in imposing sanctions against North Korea (mainly out of its own interest in building good relations with the United States), the United States chose to alienate China from the dialogue with North Korea. The expression “China passing” may be more rhetorical than substantial, but it does reflect the increasing worries China has about the possible diminishing of its influence over the Korean Peninsula now that the state of affairs there has changed so rapidly.


What put China in the back seat? The fatal mistake was in its underestimating the likelihood that the Trump administration would enter into direct negotiations with Pyongyang. China may have thought it was a significant mediator between Washington and Pyongyang due to the great mutual distrust between them, but it underestimated the growing incentives, particularly for the United States, to engage Pyongyang in direct dialogue now that its nuclear and missile development programs had progressed so far. If Washington decided to talk directly to Pyongyang, it now needed no intermediaries. The three-party and six-party talks of the past occurred only because the US administrations of the past were reluctant to talk to the Kim regime face to face. Although China desperately wanted to maintain the status quo on the Korean Peninsula, it failed to eliminate factors that made this desire impossible to satisfy. While China, on the surface, emphasized the need to guarantee the security of the Kim regime in North Korea as part of resolving the Korean question and denuclearization, it failed to show either the will or the ability to change the international situations that increasingly forced North Korea into isolation. As the North set out to ensure the security of the regime with its nuclear card, China was forced instead to choose which side it would be on—with the United States or North Korea. How, then, should China escape this dilemma? 


3. Transition on the Korean Peninsula and China’s New Strategy


The fear of “China passing” subsided after Kim Jong-un visited China three times to meet President Xi. Relations between the two nations are improving again, with preparations underway for Xi to visit Pyongyang. At the third summit with Kim on June 19, 2018, Xi mentioned “three unchanging principles” underlying China-North Korea relations: commitment of the Chinese communist party and government to maintaining good relations with North Korea irrespective of changes in surrounding international circumstances; the goodwill of the Chinese people toward the people of North Korea; and China’s unwavering support for “socialist North Korea.” The last emphasis on “socialist North Korea” seems to signify China’s willingness to actively cooperate in efforts to ensure the security of the Kim regime.


These changes give us the impression that China and North Korea have restored at least some of the strategic partnership they enjoyed during the Cold War era. Words and protocols exchanged between the two countries surpass those expected of “normal interstate relations”. China is making use of these improving relations to re-exert influence on the Korean Peninsula. It may be too early yet to say it now has a completely new strategy regarding the two Koreas, as Beijing is still reluctant to strengthen its ties to Pyongyang to the extent that would make South Korea or the United States uncomfortable.


It is unlikely that improving China-North Korea relations will affect South Korea adversely. Seoul does not regard such relations as a threat to the peacebuilding process it is contemplating for the Korean Peninsula. Brief discomfort was in the picture over who should count as “parties” to the declaration of the end of the Korean War, with Beijing criticizing the South Korean government’s move to declare the end of war between North Korea and the United States only. While Beijing insisted that its participation in the peace agreement was crucial to ensure the effectiveness of the new peace process on the Korean Peninsula, it also evinced an openness toward a three-party declaration of the end of the Korean War insofar as such a declaration could effectively contribute to peace on the peninsula.  South Korea’s foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, also mentioned in August that, while the South Korean government pushed for the three-party declaration in an attempt to rush the commencement of the peace process on the peninsula, a four-party declaration with China as one of the parties was still a viable option. Should China, however, approach the declaration not as a primer for promoting the peace process, but as an instrument with which it could compete against the United States for greater influence, things could become quite difficult.


The improving relations between China and North Korea are exerting quite complex effects on China’s relations with the United States. Beijing is still hopeful that the Trump administration’s aggression toward China will wane after the midterm elections in the United States. This means that Beijing is unlikely to use its partnership with Pyongyang as leverage against Washington. As its relations with North Korea began to improve as the latter embraced the objective of denuclearization, China would be wise to emphasize the role it played in inducing change in North Korea’s attitude. Pyongyang, too, will not resume its nuclear or missile tests insofar as neither Washington nor Seoul provokes it to do so.


President Trump, nonetheless, continues to complain about China’s influence on North Korea. This is in part because his administration is worried that improving relations with China will strengthen the North’s leverage in negotiations, and also in part because such outward complaints serve as a warning against North Korea to prevent it from slacking off in regards to denuclearization due to its presumed support from China. However, the recent delays in US-North Korea negotiations are more reflective of the mistrust that remains between the two countries than China’s deliberate meddling. All relations involved, therefore, will be determined by the direction that US-North Korea negotiations take in the coming months and years.


Now that the state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula remains so fluid, China is unlikely to shift its strategy radically. Improving relations with North Korea is one of the strategic cards that China has to play as it seeks to enhance its role and influence in effecting positive change on the peninsula by defusing the nuclear crisis. Once the denuclearization process is well established and conditions are set for a new status quo on the peninsula, China will be able to maintain stability there while strengthening relations with both Koreas.


Circumstances, however, may not turn out for the best as far as China is concerned. The state of affairs on the peninsula could become volatile again, presenting the same dilemma. China’s conflict with the US could also escalate to new heights, with the latter launching new offensives against it on the economic, political, and military fronts. Such a situation may well compel China to prioritize relations with the North above the South and actively use the North Korea card in its negotiations with the United States. Beijing, however, does not want the Cold War rift to return to the Korean Peninsula or Northeast Asia. These tricky situations can be avoided only when a new order is securely established on the Korean Peninsula through elimination of all the factors that contribute to disorder, including the ceasefire state, hostility between Pyongyang and Washington, and the arms race between the two Koreas. “Perpetual peace mechanism” has been given as the name of this new envisioned order since the Joint Declaration of September 19, 2005. Although China has at least verbally endorsed this vision of a new order, it remains uncertain to what extent the country is willing to help Koreans achieve that order. The recent transition in the state of affairs in the region, however, has convinced Chinese policymakers of their nation’s stake in outgrowing the status quo focus of its strategy on the Korean Peninsula. Now it remains to be seen how China will respond.



* This essay is the fourth essay written for the 2018 Peace Report Project of the Civil Peace Forum, under the sponsorship of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Korea Office. 

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