Only sixty years have passed since the Korean War that pitted the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army against the soldiers of the newly-minted Republic of Korea, and a mere two decades since Beijing and Seoul normalized diplomatic relations. Even since the end of the Cold War, as Chinese trade with South Korea has exploded, the two nations have often found themselves at odds, thanks largely to Beijing’s continuing economic and political support for the North Korean regime that Mao Zedong rescued from the brink of oblivion in 1950.
But at a summit in Beijing last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his South Korean counterpart Park Geun-hye were all smiles. At the end of the meeting, the two parties issued a joint statement, announcing that that they were sympatico on the most divisive issue in the bilateral relationship: “Both sides confirmed that denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and keeping peace and stability there were in their common interest, and they agreed to make joint efforts toward that end.”
Beijing has formally condemned each of the three North Korean nuclear tests since 2006, but the appearance of such unambiguous language in a shared release with the North’s peninsular rival for legitimacy and military supremacy might seem to deal a devastating blow to Pyongyang’s atomic ambitions. Unfortunately, Beijing’s calculus in Korea remains opaque, and there is reason to believe that putting an end to the North’s nuclear adventurism is well below the top of its agenda.
Chinese policy towards the North is of special significance because China has unparalleled leverage over its regime, and a unique ability to limit access to the money and resources that enable its “Dear Young General” Kim Jong-un to carry on his late father’s dangerous projects. Since the final years of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union slashed assistance to Pyongyang and opened ties with the South, Beijing has been the regime’s only true patron, an essential major-power ally for a state that is otherwise isolated and strapped for cash, forced to compensate for its lack of credit with a bizarre array of criminal schemes.
China now accounts for as much as two-thirds of North Korea’s external trade,and also provides most of its oil, a pressing necessity in a land whose people have already denuded its mountains to fuel their furnaces and wood-burning trucks. In addition, Beijing has offered the North valuable diplomatic cover, joining with Russia to water down the UN Security Council response to Kim Jong-il’s second nuclear test in 2009, and blocking international efforts to censure Pyongyang after the sinking of an ROK Navy warship and the shelling of a South Korean island in 2010.
Beijing’s outwardly blasé reaction to such incidents – which usually include a call for calm, and a pro forma request that Pyongyang return to the region-wide Six-Party Talks it abandoned in 2009 – is naturally read as an insult in Seoul. In the United States, China’s perceived indifference to the North’s destabilizing provocations has led many to assign ultimate blame to Beijing. Following the 2010 island shelling, for example, The Washington Post editorialized that “the United States and its allies should hold Beijing responsible for putting a stop to [Kim Jong-il’s] dangerous behavior.”
Of course, American diplomats have been leaning on their Chinese counterparts for years, but it is only as Xi Jinping has taken the reins in Beijing that long-simmering Chinese frustration with its closest ally has been given fuller voice.
With a relationship consecrated by the blood of ethnic Koreans who served in Mao’s army during the Chinese Civil War and the Chinese “volunteers” who repelled General Douglas MacArthur’s northward advance after Incheon, the North was once regarded kindly by many Chinese (“as close as lips and teeth,” went a famous refrain). Although the alliance has long been rocky, the divergence between the two nations has accelerated as each has discarded Marxism – Beijing for authoritarian state capitalism; Pyongyang for megalomania, militarism and xenophobia – and their economies have raced in different directions. For sophisticated Chinese netizens, the North’s leaders have become an object of ridicule and contempt, while the South is a hot destination for sightseeing and shopping.
Too young for mid-century nostalgia, China’s rising political elites are hardly exempt from this trend. And while Xi’s long-term strategy is unknown, Beijing does seem to be changing its tack towards Pyongyang under his watch, increasing pressure while providing clear (if subtle) signs of its frustration.
After North Korea’s third nuclear test in March of this year, China agreed to a new round of enhanced sanctions, which limit the North’s access to cash and weapons components. Moreover, while Beijing’s relations with Pyongyang have historically been managed at the party-to-party level — a unique sign of solidarity and intimacy – China treated a recent visit from the North’s veteran nuclear negotiator Kim Gye-gwan as an ordinary state affair. Indeed, Xi’s joint statement with South Korea’s Park was merely the latest in a string of similar affirmations by the Chinese leader, echoing language he used in his California summit with President Obama in early June.
Welcome as these moves may be, however, it still appears unlikely that China will take the kinds of aggressive measures that may be needed to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear work.
Although China’s opposition to North Korean nukes is genuine, the strategic and economic price that Beijing would actually pay to arrest the regime’s progress remains an open question. Given Pyongyang’s reliance on China for its survival, Beijing reasonably fears that exerting too much pressure on the regime might precipitate its disintegration. Even as its relations with South Korea have improved, China remains leery of the prospect of Korea’s reunification under Seoul, a steadfast U.S. ally, and worries the fall of the Kim Dynasty after more than half a century of misrule would open a vast wound along a lengthy border. While it is South Korea, not China, which would likely bear the heaviest burden if the North collapsed, the South also has more to gain from reunification — and far more to fear from the status quo.
Xi’s repeated embrace of the principle of Korea’s denuclearization — particularly in meetings with the U.S. and South Korean presidents — is a meaningful step up from the bland condemnations that China issued after the North’s first two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Yet it is Beijing’s priorities, rather than this principle, which will ultimately determine its willingness to take effective action. Xi’s rhetorical escalation is a sign of his government’s consternation at the course Pyongyang has charted under Kim Jong-un, but it is only when Beijing comes to regard North Korea itself as the chief threat to regional peace and stability that China will finally leave its old ally to fend for itself.