Originally Published 2013-04-16 00:00:00 Published on Apr 16, 2013
While on the surface, both the US (and South Korea and Japan) and China appear to have the goal of seeing a stable Korean Peninsula, there appear to be serious differences about what regional stability means.
North Korean imbroglio: Who can do what?
North Korea appears to be yet again on a war path with repeated provocations and increasing rhetoric for the past few months. It has also been a year since Kim Jong-un formally took over power. Power transfer to the new young leader has not however eased the policies in Pyongyang. In fact, the military-first politics of North Korea is continuing ever more fervently under Kim Jong-un. The situation may even be more dangerous under Kim Jong-un than the previous leaders because at least previous leaders were slightly more experienced and had a sense of the thresholds that must not be crossed.

This has serious implications for the region. The US, bound by its alliance commitments, has reassured its partners Japan and South Korea that the US will do what was necessary to any attack from North Korea. After his visit to Seoul, the US Secretary of State John Kerry headed to Beijing where he called upon China to step in actively to bring about restraint in Pyongyang’s behavior. Given that Pyongyang is already so isolated internationally and that China continues to be one of the few countries that maintain ties with the regime, Kerry said "China has an enormous capability to make a difference here." Thereafter, while in Tokyo, Kerry even softened up a bit to say, "Our choice is to negotiate, our choice is to move to the table and find a way for the region to have peace," but of course if Pyongyang gives up its nuclear weapons programme.

What are the expectations from the region and beyond on China? Following the meeting with Chinese officials, there was much optimism with headlines like, "Kerry Hails Chinese North Korea Pledge", "China, United States to work together to calm down North Korea" and the like.

Will China rise to the occasion and do something? Would China step in as an active partner in bringing down the tempers in the Korean Peninsula? Are China and other regional powers on the same page as far as regional security is concerned?

Beijing’s continuing aid and trade relations with Pyongyang does offer it a leverage and one that can be used to extract some benefits in the interests of regional stability. However, China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi’s statement that "We advocate addressing and settling the problem through dialogue and consultation and by peaceful means," and that it is "the common responsibility of all" does not suggest that China is serious on extracting any conciliatory steps out of North Korea.

While on the surface, both the United States (and South Korea and Japan) and China appear to have the goal of seeing a stable Korean Peninsula, there appear to be serious differences about what regional stability means. It appears that Chinese perspective on regional stability is driven by a narrow objective of ensuring no internal crisis in Pyongyang which will drive a large number of refugees into China; and second, that there is no US military presence near its borders. This vision differs sharply with that of the others who perceive a denuclearized North Korea that respects human right for its people as an essential step to regional stability. This time around, at least in its rhetoric, China has made calls for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which was not the case earlier.

Does the Chinese rhetoric for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula mean anything if it fails to act on North Korea? What could be the potential rationale for China not to act on Pyongyang? One, it may be a buffer between China and the US and its allies in the neighbourhood. So, it may be in China’s interests to sustain the regime but under limits and one that does not engage in repeated provocations that reinstate the role of external players, particularly that of the US.

On the other hand, it is possible that China may not enjoy the same clout as it did earlier vis a vis the new regime in North Korea. It is a fact that the new leader has not much of a contact with the new leadership in China nor has Kim Jong-un undertaken a visit to Beijing to solidify relations between the new leadership teams in both countries. And if one were to go by a Wikileaks report, it may be true that China is beginning to be frustrated with North Korea including over the increasing belligerent approach and the failing economy of Pyongyang. While there is a grain of truth in these reports, the Chinese response to some of the recent incidents including the Cheonan sinking or the repeated missile tests suggest otherwise.

While China may be increasingly getting frustrated with the North Korean leadership, they remain the sole friend and benefactor, extending the much needed economic, political and moral support to the Kim Jong-un regime. Therefore, China remains the sole country that has some leeway in bringing the North Korean situation under control. The west should not get carried away by the Chinese pledges and open rhetoric and instead get China to act on its words.

It may also be in the interests of China to see that North Korean nuclear programme is rolled back because if Pyongyang were to continue with repeated tests including that of its delivery vehicles, it would only strengthen the regional insecurities prompting Seoul and Tokyo to contemplate all options including potential nuclearisation. While China may see immediate short-term benefits in not acting strongly against the Pyongyang leadership in curbing its nuclear programme, the end result of a nuclear Seoul or Tokyo may be much harder for China to live with. Therefore, taking strong measures and going beyond the rhetoric on North Korea may be in the long-term interests of China as well.

1.    "China Committed to Maintaining Peace on the Korean Peninsula: State Councilor," Xinhua, April 14, 2013, available at http://english.chinamil.com.cn/.

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Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr ...

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