Editor’s Note: North Korea has long been a thorny problem for the United States as an erratic nuclear power that threatens America’s regional allies. Yet the problem may be even bigger for China, which has long propped up the North Korean regime but must live with its destabilizing behavior. Andrew Scobell and Mark Cozad of RAND describe China’s diplomatic, economic, and military entanglement with North Korea and contend that despite the many problems, inertia is likely to keep China on its current course.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has proved to be a near-constant headache for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since the early 1990s. Unlike relations across the Taiwan Strait with Taipei, which have improved appreciably since 2008, and relations with Washington and Tokyo, which has its ups and downs but remains cordial if not exactly friendly, Beijing’s Pyongyang problem has not abated and appears to be chronic. China’s unruly neighbor has conducted a series of nuclear tests and missile launches. Pyongyang’s provocations have come in swift succession: two incidents in 2010—the torpedoing of a Republic of Korea naval vessel and the shelling of an island near the demilitarized zone (DMZ), which killed a total of 48 South Korean military personnel and two civilians—and subsequent moves, including a declaration that Pyongyang would no longer abide by the 1953 armistice agreement and severing its hotline to Seoul; blocking South Korean access to Kaesong Industrial Zone; and executing Pyongyang’s key interlocutor with Beijing in the course of a political purge. For the PRC, there has been no respite where the DPRK is concerned.
North Korea besmirches China’s prestige and threatens its national security. Beijing has been accused of consorting with unsavory regimes around the world. For example, in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics, China found itself tarred as the bad guy in a humanitarian tragedy in Darfur because of Beijing’s association with a Khartoum regime accused of perpetrating atrocities. China craves the reputation of a responsible global citizen and a force for good in the world. However, Pyongyang is not akin to Khartoum in Beijing’s eyes. After all, North Korea is not some far-off Third World state like Sudan. Rather, it is a radioactive Darfur on China’s doorstep—a humanitarian disaster that is the subject of enormous international attention, led by a repressive dictator armed with ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Instability immediately across the Yalu River directly threatens domestic stability in China’s heartland, if only because of the specter of many hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into Northeast China. As a result, Beijing is ultra-sensitive to any hint of turmoil on the Korean Peninsula.
Under paramount leader Xi Jinping, China has—at least in official rhetoric—prioritized “denuclearization” above “peace and stability.” While Beijing is undoubtedly sincere about desiring a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula, the reality is that denuclearization is a much lower priority than maintaining peace and stability on China’s doorstep. Foreign Minister Wang Yi underscored these priorities in early 2014 when he said that Korea was China’s “doorway” and no one should foment instability there.
Why China Doesn’t Confront North Korea
Beijing is extremely risk averse, and alarm over the prospect of instability across the Yalu River is paramount in the minds of China’s senior leaders. They are afraid that if China gets too tough on North Korea it will only exacerbate matters—Pyongyang will pull away, Beijing will lose what little influence it has, and/or Pyongyang will escalate its provocations. While China is not happy with the current situation, maintaining the fragile status quo is preferable to the uncertainty of change, which from Beijing’s alarmist perspective increases the potential for instability. Although Beijing was not enthusiastic about dynastic succession following the December 2011 death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, China accepted it believing it would provide some semblance of continuity and hence would be conducive to stability both in Pyongyang and in bilateral relations. But this assumption was called into question two years later, when Kim Jong Un executed his elderly uncle who had been North Korea’s lead interlocutor with the Chinese.
Bolstering the Buffer
The public discourse that has arisen in China in recent years urging Beijing to abandon its most truculent and troublesome neighbor appears to be the manifestation of more relaxed censorship rather than any indicator of policy change. On the contrary, Chinese leaders believe that they have no choice but to redouble their efforts of the past decade or so to bolster China’s DPRK buffer. Following the 2002-2003 Korean nuclear crisis, China decided that North Korea could not be allowed to fail. Beijing desires a neutral or pro-China buffer south of the Yalu River between it and South Korea—a U.S. ally with American military forces stationed within its borders. As such, Beijing has decided to go big and go strong in an all-embracing approach toward Pyongyang to strengthen the regime on its doorstep. This initiative includes diplomatic, economic, and military dimensions.
Diplomacy. During the past ten years, Beijing’s diplomatic support to North Korea has come in two varieties. First, the PRC has not publicly condemned the DPRK (although there have been some mild tongue lashings) and has watered down or opposed United Nations Security Council resolutions on North Korea. For example, in December 2014, China—and Russia—were the only UNSC members to oppose including consideration of human rights in North Korea on the council’s agenda.
Second, China has established a multilateral forum with six participants—North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, and the United States—to manage the North Korean nuclear issue. In 2003, China launched the Six Party Talks and since then has toiled doggedly to keep them alive. While the talks have been on hiatus since 2007, Beijing has worked tirelessly to resuscitate the dormant multilateral forum and prevent it from collapsing completely.
China has a strong affinity to these talks because Beijing created, nurtured, and hosted these talks for four years (2003-2007) and the forum proved a useful management mechanism for dealing not just with North Korea but also with the United States. In May 2013, senior North Korean leader Vice Marshal Choe Ryong Hae visited Beijing in what appeared to be an effort to improve China-North Korea relations and a signal of Pyongyang’s readiness to curb its bad behavior. The following month, DPRK Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Guan—Pyongyang’s point man on the Six Party Talks—traveled to Beijing, apparently to signal North Korea’s willingness to reengage in the multilateral forum. A Chinese initiative to restart the Six Party Talks was clearly underway with a visit by PRC Vice President Li Yuanchao to Pyongyang in July 2013 and a follow-up trip by Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei—Beijing’s point man on the Six Party Talks—to the DPRK in August 2013. Though success has proved elusive, the quest continues.
Economics. In the early 2000s, China launched a comprehensive effort to bolster North Korea’s economic fundamentals. Repeated attempts to convince the late Kim Jong Il of the benefits to Pyongyang of implementing a “reform and opening” policy during his seven visits to China (between May 2000 and May 2011) came to naught. Nevertheless, Beijing has made a concerted effort to get North Korea’s economy off life support and to revitalize a range of economic sectors through a substantial injection of trade, aid, and investment.
China has been North Korea’s top trading partner since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet demise ended the significant subsidies from Moscow and triggered a systemic crisis and economic tailspin in North Korea. China’s proportion of North Korea’s total trade rose to one-third by 2003 and climbed even higher thereafter. Today, China accounts for well over half of North Korea’s international trade. In both decades North Korea has run a huge trade deficit, and Chinese exports to North Korea have risen at a more rapid rate than North Korea’s exports to China. Most of North Korea’s exports have been resources such as minerals and marine life.
Since the early 2000s, Chinese firms—mainly from neighboring Jilin and Liaoning provinces—have invested in North Korean infrastructure, agriculture, mining, and retail sectors. Many of these investments have been encouraged and insured by Chinese provincial and national authorities. This represents a significant shift from China’s previous focus on solely providing economic assistance. Beijing recognized that Pyongyang will almost certainly never repay loans and that outright aid offers limited leverage and negligible return. Investing in North Korea allows China to benefit from economic opportunities—albeit risky ones. Between 2003 and 2009, Chinese companies reportedly invested a total of US$98.3 million in North Korea.
This is much less than Chinese entrepreneurs invest in other countries on China’s periphery, such as Mongolia and Myanmar, but it still makes China the second-largest investor in North Korea. South Korea is the top investor, but these funds are exclusively invested in the troubled Kaesong Industrial Complex. In contrast, investments by Chinese companies are spread across North Korea in a range of sectors, albeit mostly in the extractive (41%) and light industry (38%) sectors, according to one study.
Beijing has also provided hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid, much of it in the form of food grains and petroleum. The size of these shipments increased considerably in 2003, 2004, and 2005, according to available estimates. According to the same source, this aid is reportedly the largest amount China disseminates to any country in the world and is allocated at the highest echelons in Beijing, rather than through the normal channels for dispersing development aid in the Ministry of Commerce.
Military. China has not disowned or distanced itself from North Korea in the security sphere. Beijing’s only formal military alliance is with Pyongyang: the “Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance between the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” was signed in July 1961. The document commits one country to come to the aid of the other if attacked. However, there does not appear to be any real defense-coordination mechanism, nor do the terms of the treaty ever seem to have been invoked. While Chinese leaders have on multiple occasions stated publicly and privately that Pyongyang cannot assume that Beijing will come to the rescue, the treaty provides the justification for an intervention should Chinese leaders consider such a step to be necessary. Thus, the security relationship is perhaps best viewed as a “virtual alliance,” with considerable ambiguity as to if and when it might be invoked by Beijing. In mid-2014, for example, a PRC Foreign Ministry official stated: “There is no military alliance between China and North Korea.”
The alliance may be a virtual one, but this does not mean that Beijing does not take it seriously or that the Chinese military (the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA) doesn’t see it as real. For Chinese civilian and military leaders, this alliance remains relevant and personal. The alliance was sealed in blood during the early 1950s when the so-called Chinese People’s Volunteers fought side by side with the Korean People’s Army. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers gave their lives in the conflict, and Chinese troops remained in North Korea until 1958.
The fact that despite the sacrifice of blood and treasure by Beijing many decades ago, Pyongyang continues to absorb China’s attention, consume Chinese resources, and remain a focal point for PLA contingency planning—including the prospect of a second military intervention—is galling to China’s leaders. But all this pushes Beijing to redouble its efforts. Indeed, it is clear that the PLA is increasingly concerned about the prospect of instability on China’s periphery and on the Korean Peninsula in particular.
By All Necessary Means
China’s North Korea policy seems to suffer from inertia and fear of upsetting the fragile status quo. The enduring goal is to defend Beijing’s vital interests by all necessary means. These interests include preventing domestic insecurity and maintaining a stable buffer state at the gateway to China’s political and economic heartland. Future Pyongyang provocations are unlikely to change Beijing’s buffer strategy. China seems prepared to bolster the North Korean buffer at all costs using every instrument at its disposal—political (tacitly supporting hereditary succession), diplomatic (refusing to condemn the North publicly for its intransigence or transgressions and pursuing the Six Party Talks), economic (aid, trade, and investment), and, if necessary, military (including limited or wholesale intervention to prop up the regime).
Indeed, all indications are that the PLA has been actively planning for a variety of Korean contingencies. While China’s armed forces are fully prepared to execute if so ordered, no one in Beijing is eager to send Chinese forces across the Yalu River for the second time in 60 years. Unlike in 1950, today Beijing has a sizeable tool kit of non-military options at its disposal where Pyongyang is concerned. Chinese leaders would much prefer to manage the problem diplomatically and economically. But this does not mean that Beijing would hesitate to act militarily if China’s vital national security interests were determined to be on the line across the Yalu River.
Andrew Scobell is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. Mark Cozad is a senior defense research analyst at RAND. This piece is drawn from the authors’ recent article, “China’s North Korea Policy: Rethink or Recharge?” in Parameters: The U.S. Army War College Quarterly.
The Treaty of Ghent
James Madison had an opportunity to end the War of 1812 almost as soon as it began. The British had repealed the Orders in Council – rules that curbed American trade with Europe – and thus one of Madison’s major reasons for war was now moot. If the British had foregone the right to impress American sailors, Madison could well have gone back to Congress with the suggestion that hostilities cease immediately. However, the British considered impressment their right by custom, and believed it essential to their naval might. And so James Madison took his country to war.
The Russian Peace Plan
The first serious suggestion that the two sides come together to end the war came neither from London nor Washington, but from St. Petersburg. Czar Alexander I of Russia, eager to trade with both countries, wanted to end the war and thereby make high seas commerce safer and more lucrative. In March 1813 he offered to host mediations. Madison accepted immediately, but the British, who were doing well in the war, were in no mood to talk. It wasn’t until fall of that year, after the defeat of Napoleon at Leipzig, that British foreign minister Lord Castlereagh offered to negotiate directly with the United States.
Negotiations Begin in Ghent
In January 1814 Madison agreed to peace talks in the neutral city of Ghent in Belgium, and sent off a curious collection of intellectuals and politicians to run the negotiations. John Quincy Adams, serious, disciplined and devout, was the chief negotiator. Son of a president and the U.S. minister in Russia, he was often unhappy with one of his colleagues at Ghent, the card-playing War Hawk, Henry Clay. Both men were strong negotiators, supported by an effective committee: Albert Gallatin, secretary of the treasury; James A. Bayard, a moderate Federalist; and Jonathan Russell, the chargé d’affaires for Madison in Paris.
The Americans, whose communications with Washington took at least six weeks, were for the most part on their own. The British team enjoyed a closer connection with London, since Ghent was just a few days away. But this proximity allowed the British chief negotiators a false sense of advantage: Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh and Secretary for War and the Colonies, Lord Bathurst, chose not to attend day-to-day talks, but sent a less-skilled team: the admiralty lawyer, Williams Adams; the impressments expert and admiral, Lord Gambier; and the Undersecretary for War and the Colonies, Henry Goulburn. Thus proximity served the Americans better. The historian Donald E. Graves states that “what the Americans lost on the battlefield, they made up for at the negotiating table.”
Adams and his team had one goal – restore things to the way they were before the war, the status quo ante bellum. The British negotiators were more ambitious; they wanted uti possidetis, that each side could keep what it had won during the war. For example, Britain had, for a time held Detroit, and still occupied Mackinac Island. But the preeminent goal on both sides was an end to the fighting. Britain had spent ten million pounds fighting the Americans. The United States was nearly bankrupt. So the jockeying for position began, as the negotiators pursued their goals with an eye toward a quick resolution.
Henry Goulburn laid out the British topics for discussion: impressments, U.S.-Canadian border disputes, fishing rights and Native lands. This last item was the most important, without its resolution there would be no peace. The British demanded that Native lands in the state of Ohio, and in the Indiana and Michigan Territories by respected by the U.S. The British hoped that this reserved land would serve as a buffer state to protect Canada from American annexation. “The Indians are but a secondary object,” Goulburn wrote. “As the Allies of Great Britain she must include them in the peace…But when the boundary is once defined it is immaterial whether Indians are upon it or not. Let it be a desert. But we shall know that you cannot come upon us to attack us without crossing it.”
Henry Clay, a leader of the War Hawks, would not bargain away the hard-won land of the Northwest Territories. He and the other Americans flatly refused to cede any territory to the Natives. Goulburn was taken aback. “Till I came here,” he wrote Bathurst, “I had no idea of the fixed determination which there is in the heart of every American to extirpate the Indians and appropriate their territory.”
Still, the British upped the ante. They demanded territory in northern Maine, demilitarization of the Great Lakes and navigation rights on the Mississippi. The Americans, force to wait weeks for instructions from Washington, had to stall. They spent their days arguing fine points -- with each other and the British – and their nights socializing and attending the theatre. Adams, an abstemious early-riser, resented Clay’s late-night card playing and carousing. But they held together a united front when pressed by the British for concessions.
The Duke of Wellington’s Advice
The talks dragged on and on, while events in North America, reported in the European papers, affected the strength of each side’s positions. In just the first three months of negotiations Washington was burned, Baltimore defended, Prevost turned back at Plattsburgh. Still, the border between the U.S. and Canada had not changed.
The advantage seesawed between the teams, neither having enough leverage to claim a full diplomatic advantage.
Facing unrest at home and on the European continent, Lord Castlereagh turned to the Duke of Wellington for advice. The British Navy had failed to control the Great Lakes, British Army had failed to occupy substantial territory in the United States. The Duke’s advice was blunt – take the status quo ante bellum and be done with it.
The Final Peace
By Christmas Eve, 1814 the weary negotiators had agreed on the order and syntax of 3000 words in eleven articles. When approved by their respective governments all hostilities would end and “all territory, places and possessions whatsoever, taken by either party from the other during the war” would be restored as they were before the war. In short, no one won a thing. Impressment, a major cause of the war, was not even mentioned.
Article IX contained a tragically unenforceable clause for the Natives. The belligerents agreed to restore the Indians to “all possessions, rights and privileges which they may have enjoyed, or been entitled to in 1811.” But without a clearly-drawn map of Native land reserves, this clause was meaningless. Tecumseh’s confederacy was irretrievably destroyed, and Harrison’s victories could not be reversed. The Natives were simply in the way.
“A Treaty of Peace and Amity between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America” is the last peace treaty the two countries signed with one another. The British finally accepted the United States as a legitimate national entity; and the United States, in turn, gave up its designs on British territory in Canada. The war had been a stalemate whose resolution let each side get on with the business of trade and expansion. In the end, they simply agreed to call the whole thing off.