Editor's Note

Dong Ryul Lee, Professor at the Department of Chinese Studies at Dongduk Women’s University and the Chair of the China Research Center at EAI, writes that China’s policies toward North Korea and its nuclear program has been consistent for the past 30 years, has taken caution not to pressure North Korea to the extent that would escalate instability and has played a role in easing tensions. Professor Lee highlights that Beijing actively intervened to secure its position and influence in the Korean Peninsula when significant changes to the region’s strategic landscape were made. He suggests that South Korea should seek the support of China in its North Korea policy based on the accurate understanding of China’s policy stance and the maximum degree to which South Korea can influence.

Reviewing 30 Years of “China’s Role” in North Korea’s Nuclear Issue


It is no exaggeration to say that the thirty-year history of political and diplomatic relations between South Korea and China has been dominated by North Korea and the North Korean nuclear issue; addressing North Korea and the North Korean nuclear issue has accounted for a large portion of South Korea’s diplomatic engagement with China. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between South Korea and China, controversy has persisted over the “role” China should play in dealing with North Korea and the North Korean nuclear issue. As relations centered around economic cooperation between China and South Korea quickly progressed, expectations that South Korea could bend China’s position to its will began to grow. In particular, Korean expectations for China’s role in the North Korean nuclear issue increased as ROK-Chinese relations developed into the so-called “best relationship” of 2015. That is to say, after President Park Geun-hye attended China’s Victory Day parade in September 2015, public expectations for the degree of support China would provide—and the "role" it would play—in Korean Peninsular unification reached their apex.


However, in January 2016, when North Korea’s fourth nuclear test put China to the trial, China did not play the active role the South Korean government had expected and requested it to. This confirmed that South Korea’s expectations for China had been arbitrary. Immediately, disappointment and criticism toward China led to the emergence of the “China responsibility” discussion on the North Korean nuclear advancement. In the end, the controversial issue quickly led to increased pressure on China through the deployment of THAAD and reinforcement of US-ROK-Japan security cooperation. After the consecutive inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea summits following the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, questions of “China’s Alienation” began to emerge. However, when the DPRK-China summit, which had been suspended for seven years after Xi Jinping took office, suddenly resumed in March 2018, relations between North Korea and China quickly recovered. In response, President Trump kept Chinese intervention in check by raising allegations of China’s behind-the-scenes involvement in derailing a U.S.-DPRK rapprochement. As the U.S.-North Korea Summit in Hanoi broke down and inter-Korean relations stalled again, DPRK-China relations were restored and discussions on China’s role in the Korean Peninsula entered a new chapter.


There have been a confusing variety of controversies over China's role in the North Korean nuclear issue. That said, China has essentially stayed its course rather than actively affecting change in North Korea and its nuclear policy. Even though North Korean nuclear weapons development is rapidly advancing, China has consistently adhered to its existing “Three Principles” policy on North Korean nuclear weapons, proposing plans called “dual suspension” and “dual-track parallelism” as an extension. Over the past thirty years, China has consistently maintained the policy of “stabilizing the Korean Peninsula by maintaining the status quo” within its broader policy framework. North Korea-China relations indeed became strained during Xi’s early days in office, as exemplified by the fact that even the annual summit, a regular occurrence between the two countries, did not take place. Nevertheless, China, keeping North Korea’s strategic value in mind, has continued its attempts to restore or at least maintain relations with North Korea.


In the process of maintaining its basic policy on North Korea’s nuclear program, China has been adjusting the role it plays in the situation. The North Korean nuclear crisis began on March 12, 1993, when North Korea declared its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Since then, China has pursued four different key responses and roles.


First, China took a passive approach, essentially acting as a behind-the-scenes mediator during the first North Korean nuclear crisis. However, in October 1994, North Korea and the United States adopted the Agreed Framework after negotiations in Geneva, from which China was excluded. At the time, China was still subject to U.S. checks and pressure in the wake of the Tiananmen Square incident. The U.S. exclusion of China made Beijing react strongly against the moves to improve U.S.-DPRK relations. In response to the U.S.-North Korea agreement, China launched a diplomatic offensive against South Korea. In October 1994, Prime Minister Li Peng visited South Korea for the first time since establishing diplomatic ties between the two countries. In April of the following year, Qiao Shi—chairman of the National People’s Congress—visited Korea, and President Jiang Zemin paid a state visit in November. This created an unprecedented situation in which the first, second, and third highest-ranking Chinese officials had all visited Korea within two years. Notably, during Prime Minister Li Peng’s visit to South Korea, North Korea was trying to neutralize the existing armistice agreement and discuss a new peace treaty directly with the United States; Li sent a message of restraint to North Korea, saying, “Until a new peace mechanism is established, the Armistice Agreement is still in effect and should be observed.”


Second, when North Korea withdrew from the NPT on January 10, 2003 and the second North Korean nuclear crisis erupted, China began to seek out a new role for itself. China conducted shuttle diplomacy to mediate between North Korea and the United States, successively arranging both DRPK-U.S.-China trilateral talks and the Six-Party Talks. In the face of strained relations between North Korea and China, Beijing used pressure and persuasion simultaneously; then, after the second round of Six-Party Talks, it exercised influence primarily through persuasion by providing economic aid to North Korea. China played an important role in encouraging North Korea to participate in the Six-Party Talks on its nuclear program after its initial rejection. The Bush administration’s attack on Iraq was behind China’s transformation into an active mediator from 2003 onwards. In other words, as the Bush administration referred to North Korea as belonging to the axis of evil along with Iraq—thus raising the possibility that North Korea could also become a target of U.S. attack—China turned into an active mediator to help manage the crisis occurring within the North Korean regime.


Third, after North Korea’s sixth nuclear test in September 2017, China was exceptionally quick to participate in high-intensity sanctions against North Korea. Nine days after the North Korean nuclear test, China agreed to adopt UN Security Council Resolution 2375, which included additional stringent sanctions restricting oil supplies to North Korea. As North Korea’s successive nuclear and missile provocations raised the possibility of a precise preemptive strike—the “Bloody Nose” strategy—by the Trump administration and the crisis on the Korean Peninsula escalated, China tried to manage the situation by tightening sanctions against North Korea in an unprecedented manner.


Fourth, when the inter-Korean and U.S.-DPRK summits were unexpectedly held following the February 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, it initiated controversial discussion of “China’s Alienation,” and China once again began to look for a new role to adopt. Not only did the DPRK-China summit, which had been suspended for the seven years since 2011, suddenly resume, but also—very unusually—a total of five DPRK-China summits were held between March 2018 and June 2019, including four consecutive visits to China by Chairman Kim Jong-un. After Kim Jong-un’s second and third visits to China, President Trump expressed wariness toward China’s interference. Specifically, when sending a letter to cancel the U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore, President Trump explicitly expressed his doubts about China intervening and changing North Korea’s attitudes. As a result, discussions on China’s role in the Korean Peninsula once again entered a new phase.


The four times China has sought to adjust its role in the North Korean nuclear issue during the thirty years of ROK-China diplomatic relations provide insight into China’s policy stance on the Korean Peninsula and its perception of and position on the North Korean nuclear issue. China played different roles during the 2003 and 2017 North Korean nuclear crises: mediating dialogue and strengthening sanctions, respectively. However, both scenarios had one thing in common: in both cases, when the possibility of U.S. military intervention was raised, crises within the North Korean regime and the Korean Peninsula escalated. Regarding North Korean denuclearization, China has avoided playing its “cards” unnecessarily in situations where its role is limited, viewing the problem as one that should ultimately be resolved between Washington and Pyongyang. On the other hand, in situations where the crisis is likely to escalate, it has played a part in facilitating dialogue and easing tensions. Nevertheless, China has taken caution not to pressure North Korea to the extent that would escalate instability or crisis within the North Korean regime or dissolve the relationship between North Korea and China. China believes that internal crises within the North Korean regime are also a major source of instability in the Korean Peninsula. Additionally, in the 1994 and 2018 cases, in the face of deteriorating U.S.-China relations, China actively intervened to secure its position and influence in the Korean Peninsula. This was when significant changes to the region’s strategic landscape were being pursued without China, such as the rapid progression of U.S.-DPRK relations or the declaration of an end to the Korean War.


In short, in the face of escalating confrontation between China and the United States, China has emphasized North Korea’s value as a strategic buffer zone, and accordingly has played a minimal role in maintaining and managing the North Korean regime. China recognizes North Korean regime crisis to be as important security challenge as the North Korean nuclear and missile provocations. In other words, the United States and North Korea are important factors in China’s calculations to determine the role it will play in the region. It is necessary to objectively and accurately understand China’s policy stance and the factors affecting the changes to its policies on North Korea and the North Korean nuclear issue. Furthermore, the maximum degree to which South Korea can influence and direct China’s role in the matter should be clearly and objectively determined. As U.S.-China strategic competition escalates and another North Korean nuclear test looms imminent, it is still both crucial and feasible for South Korea to shape the role that China plays in managing the peninsular crisis stemming from North Korea.■



Dong Ryul Lee is a professor at the Department of Chinese Studies of the Dongduk Women’s University since 1997. He is now a chair at China Research Panel of East Asia Institute (EAI). Previously, he served as a policy advisor to the Republic of Korea Ministry of Unification and an executive committee member in the Joint Committee of Experts for Korea-China Strategic Cooperative Partnership. He was also an editor of The Journal of Contemporary China Studies in Korea (2010-2011). He was a visiting scholar in the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University from August 2005 to August 2006. He received his Ph.D. in the Department of International Politics, Peking University in 1996. He has published many scholarly articles, monographs, and edited books, including Global Superpower? Prospects for China’s Future (2011), “China’s Policy and Influence on the North Korea Nuclear Issue: Denuclearization and/or Stabilization of the Korean Peninsula?” in The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis (2010), China’s Territorial Dispute (2008), and “Chinese Diplomatic Behavior in the United Nations” (2007). His research area includes Chinese foreign policy, international relations in East Asia, Chinese nationalism and minority.



Typeset by Junghoo Park, Research Associate
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