What China's humiliation by North Korea means for East Asia

Pyongyang has correctly judged that it has license: that however much Beijing wants a denuclearized North Korea, its policy priority remains to assure a stable North Korea and it will endure substantial damage to its strategic interests if necessary. 

  The great Roman orator Cicero, addressing his political enemy Catiline, once asked: "To what extent will you continue to abuse our patience ... Is there no end to your unbridled audacity?"  That question is raised afresh by Pyongyang's remarkable display of insolence to its sole treaty ally, China. 

     Pyongyang's recent nuclear and missile tests were a double humiliation at a time when Beijing was trying to revitalize frayed government and party-to-party ties with Pyongyang. Last October President Xi Jinping dispatched the fifth-ranking member of the Standing Committee, Liu Yunshan, to Pyongyang to participate in the 70th anniversary of the Korean Workers' Party.  Over four days, Liu was seen publicly with Kim Jong Un. Rumours circulated in Beijing that amid improving relations, Kim Jong Un might visit Beijing. 

     Then came Pyongyang's 4th nuclear test -- the first time Beijing had received no advance warning.  Next, just days before the missile test, Xi dispatched his top nuclear negotiator, Wu Dawei, to Pyongyang seeking to prevent another North Korean missile launch. On arrival he was greeted with the announcement that Pyongyang would launch a satellite in early February. 

     Considering that China is North Korea's principal ally, accounting for 90% of its foreign trade and is the chief provider of most of its fuel and food, this was a remarkable display of contempt. 

     What this behavior shows is that Pyongyang has correctly judged that it has license: that however much Beijing wants a denuclearized North Korea, its policy priority remains to assure a stable North Korea and it will endure substantial damage to its strategic interests if necessary. 

     Beyond a nuclear North, the damage to Chinese interests in Northeast Asia is significant. It includes the enhancement of the U.S. "rebalanced" posture in the region, and new levels of U.S.-South Korea-Japan defense cooperation. 

     Many South Koreans were affronted when China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson explained that China's position on missile defense is that "countries when pursuing their own security interests should take into account others."  To South Koreans, that formulation suggested that Beijing seemed more opposed to Seoul's effort to defend itself against a North Korean threat than with Pyongyang's nuclear and missile proliferation itself. 

     Now South Korean Defense officials speak of "synergy" between THAAD (a U.S. anti-ballistic missile system designed to shoot down short, medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase) and the other layers of Korean missile defense. Strong opposition from Beijing made THAAD a sensitive political and diplomatic issue in Seoul. But now, THAAD deployment as well as an integrated U.S.-South Korea-Japan defense network may soon become a reality.  Yet this is the strategic price Beijing appears willing to pay to protect Pyongyang.  

     Even more worrying for Beijing is new enthusiasm in Seoul for South Korea's own need for a nuclear weapon.  It's not hard to see where this could lead -- to a nuclear-armed Northeast Asia, a frightening prospect given the structural tensions and uncertainties in Sino-Japanese relations. 

     If North Korea's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction continues to grow and poses a threat to U.S. territories and mainland, questions regarding the U.S. commitment to extended deterrence are likely to surface in Japan and South Korea. 

     Of still greater concern to Beijing is the likely impact of its North Korea-first policy on Sino-U.S. relations.  Beijing's ties to Washington are already strained by a host of issues -- the South China Sea, the East China Sea, cybersecurity, human rights. Now. North Korea, an issue long viewed as a bright spot in U.S.-China cooperation, is becoming a source of confrontation.  

     As the U.S. moves to unilaterally impose tougher sanctions on Pyongyang than those authorized by the U.N., Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has made clear that "a principle of China is that we never approve unilateral sanctions in international affairs.  This position will not change no matter how the situation varies."   

     In effect, China is saying that it will accept only a limited, token U.N. Security Council resolution. U.S. efforts to design a U.N. resolution that would cut off North Korea's sources of hard currency - for example, coal exports (all to China) have been rejected by Beijing. 

     The U.S. Congress is close to finalizing legislation that would impose "secondary sanctions" -- including against Chinese banks dealing with North Korea. The U.S. Treasury has become skilled at targeted financial sanctions.  It was the U.S. move to cut off Iran from the use of SWIFT for international financial transactions that was instrumental in creating pressure that led to the Iran nuclear deal.  

     Similarly, it was U.S. sanctions against BDA bank in Macao (where Kim Jong il and his allies had their funds) in 2005 that drew a hysterical reaction from Pyongyang. Only after the Bush administration lifted the BDA sanctions did Pyongyang agree to the Sept.19, 2005 nuclear deal.  North Korea is still vulnerable to such measures. 

     South Korea and Japan could also adopt more stringent measures. For example, prohibiting any ship that unloads cargo at North Korean ports (except for food and medicine) from visiting any ports in the US, South Korea or Japan. 

     The hard truth is that the other five powers in the six-party talks now have nothing to offer North Korea of sufficient value to entice them to surrender their nuclear weapons.  

     But imposing tough sanctions would get Kim Jong Un's attention. He can't do without his Mercedes, cognac, yachts and ski resorts.  If this were coupled with an open offer to hold high-level talks to explain what steps were necessary to remove the sanctions, it could result in diplomatic progress. For example, if Pyongyang agreed to freeze production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, and allow international nuclear inspectors back in to verify it, a nuclear freeze might be possible. 

     Unless tough measures, that take away things the North Korean elites value, are put in place, Pyongyang will almost certainly disregard the modest opprobrium of U.N. Security Council resolutions and thumb its nose at China and the U.S. In the event, North Korea's efforts to perfect its nuclear weapons and delivery systems will continue, uncertainty and tension in  Northeast Asia will grow, and China will likely face the very instability its appeasement of North Korea is designed to prevent. 

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. He served as a senior counselor to the U.S. undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council Strategic Futures Groupfrom 2008 to 2012. James Przystup is a Senior Fellow at the National Defense University, Institute for National Security Studies. His views are his own and do not represent any agency of the US government. 


Print this post

Do you like this post?

Add your reaction to this article