North Korea: What Is China Thinking?

Why Beijing won't solve Washington's problem with Kim Jong Un

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waving to North Korean officers during the launch of ballistic missiles
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waving to North Korean officers during the launch of ballistic missiles (KCNA / Getty)

When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi gave a news conference during the annual session of the National People’s Congress on March 8, he warned that the United States and North Korea were behaving “like accelerating trains coming toward each other,” and wondered whether the countries were “ready for a head-on collision.”

Wang’s remarks and the accompanying imagery certainly drew the attention of the international media. But as Wang surely knew, this proverbial train wreck would also do grievous damage to Sino-U.S. relations: China would inevitably be dragged into a military conflict, should one erupt as a result of North Korea’s provocations. Indeed, as Pyongyang continues ratcheting up tensions through its repeated nuclear and missile tests, Beijing faces stark strategic choices, each of which comes with its own fraught trade-off.

China could, of course, always elect to maintain its current policy of pushing the United States to talk (and offer concessions) to North Korea while applying only modest pressure on its client state across the Yalu River to roll back its nuclear and missile programs. But the long-term feasibility of this approach appears doubtful. Circumstances may well eventually draw the Trump administration back to the negotiating table with North Korea, but it is unlikely to be blackmailed by Pyongyang into making any substantive concessions, like a peace treaty coupled with economic aid, without a credible commitment to nuclear disarmament.

Barring such a miracle, the status quo, as Wang argued, is untenable. North Korea is on the brink of a nuclear breakout. With its recent advances, the Kim Jong Un regime may acquire a large number of powerful nuclear warheads and the long-range missiles to deliver them, posing a direct threat to America. A burgeoning nuclear arsenal would also tempt a cash-starved North Korea to proliferate nuclear materials and missiles in exchange for foreign currency.

Such developments would force the United States and its regional allies, Japan and South Korea, to beef up their deterrence and even consider pre-emptive strikes to defang Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal. The military deployment required for such efforts, such as the recent installation of Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), an advanced anti-missile system, will raise fears in China. Beijing, as is widely reported in the Chinese press, believes that the United States wants to use the brewing crisis on the Korean peninsula as a pretext to introduce capabilities that will make the Chinese military more vulnerable. As a result, China regards the U.S. response, not North Korean provocations, as the primary threat to its security. This underlying dynamic could eventually spark a collision between China and the United States.

If Beijing’s current policy risks such a disaster, the alternatives are hardly more palatable. China may be tempted to increase its aid to North Korea in hopes of bribing Kim Jong Un to slow his nuclear and missile programs. But the chances of success for such a strategy are slim. Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang are at an all-time low, with the Chinese and the North Koreans barely on speaking terms. And an increase in Chinese support would risk violating UN sanctions. The Kim regime would also view such an about face by Beijing as an acknowledgement that its policy of penalizing Pyongyang for its provocations was wrong headed, and fresh Chinese aid as compensation for its mistake. In any case, North Korea has a track record of taking Chinese aid without moderating its behavior. The Kim dynasty knows perfectly well that China values North Korea as a strategic buffer so much that it simply cannot afford to lose it.

Another alternative would be a complete reversal of China’s current stance. Under this scenario, rather than keeping North Korea on life support, China would work with the United States to force Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear ambitions. This revolutionary shift in policy would require that Beijing demonstrate it is prepared to tolerate the collapse of the Kim dynasty, whatever the costs or consequences.

In practical terms, executing such a policy would necessitate strategic trust between China and the United States. Both sides would have to engage in a serious dialogue on the endgame in North Korea. Negotiations over that endgame would include the restoration of peace and security in the event of the Kim regime’s collapse. North Korea’s nuclear weapons and materials would have to be secured through a combined American, Chinese, and South Korean effort. This would require joint planning over issues such as demarcation lines, temporary settlement of refugees, and disposal of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal.

In such a scenario, the United States would have to address China’s long-term security concerns over the Korean peninsula. Beijing would almost certainly demand that Washington end its military alliance with Seoul and withdraw its troops from the peninsula. China may sweeten this deal by proposing that the United States work to jointly guarantee the security of a neutral unified Korea.

But given the strategic distrust between America and China and their great-power rivalry, it’s hard to imagine either government embracing this radical alternative. There is good reason why they have not yet engaged in official or semi-official discussion on the future of the Korean peninsula (no such meeting has ever been reported in the media, and my colleagues both in China and America know of no such discussions). In Beijing, a regime collapse in Pyongyang is a taboo subject the Chinese official media has never broached. At the same time, Washington would likely reject the idea that it should accommodate China’s security concerns and withdraw its forces after the reunification of the two Koreas (leaving aside whether a reunified Korea would want the U.S. troops to leave). An obvious concern of Washington’s is that an American exit from the Korean peninsula could perhaps fatally undermine the U.S.-led system of alliances in East Asia. Once the U.S.-Korea military alliance dissolves, Washington would be left with Japan as its sole treaty ally in northeast Asia.

With the alternatives appearing either infeasible or unthinkable, China is likely to stick with its current policy for the foreseeable future, despite the fact that this is unlikely to reverse the dangerous dynamics on the Korean peninsula. In the short term, the political turmoil in South Korea may give China a chance to complicate the life of the Trump administration. The impeachment of President Park Geun Hye has created an opening for South Korea’s leftists, who favor a softer line toward North Korea.

In the event that Moon Jae In, the leader of the opposition Minjoo Party, wins the special presidential election in May, China is expected to pursue two immediate priorities. First, it will push Seoul’s new government to back out of the THAAD deal with the United States. Second, it will throw its weight behind Moon’s more conciliatory approach to Pyongyang, thus raising the pressure on Washington to reengage Pyongyang diplomatically.

The combination of China’s continuation of its current policy and South Korea’s political uncertainty has made Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s upcoming trip to the region a challenging task. In all likelihood, the most he can hope for is some non-committal reassurance from Chinese leaders about working with the United States. To be sure, the just-announced summit between Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping in Mar-a-Lago in April should be welcomed as a positive indicator of potential improved U.S.-China cooperation on the Korean peninsula.

But we should also temper expectations. Unless the upcoming summit reaches a grand bargain that stabilizes U.S.-China relations across the board, the risks that the Trump administration will push back against China on trade and security will remain high and China will have little incentive to help America out where North Korea is concerned. If anything, the unfolding crisis in North Korea could get far more dangerous.