Shadow Government

Will China Join Its North Korean Ally in Splendid Isolation?

With its nuclear test, North Korea may have made trouble for its supportive neighbor.


The double whammy of North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, followed by another missile launch has raised the stakes and altered the geopolitical dynamics in Northeast Asia. The consequences of Pyongyang going one step too far are only beginning to play out.

China’s unwillingness to impose any measures that might threaten its ally North Korea, may limit U.N. Security Council sanctions to the largely symbolic, but has sparked a wave of secondary sanctions that will inflict significant pain on North Korea by the United States, South Korea, and Japan.

As U.S. sanctions legislation makes its way through the Senate to President Obama’s desk, Japan has banned all North Korean ships and third-country ships visiting North Korea from Japanese ports and tightened restrictions on any cash going to North Korea. Seoul shut down the Kaesong Industrial Park, costing North Korea nearly 55,000 jobs and $100 million a year.

The big question that remains unanswered after Pyongyang doubly dissed Beijing in a remarkable display of disrespect: Is there any limit to Beijing’s tolerance of North Korea’s dangerous behavior?

Pyongyang’s recent nuclear and missile test came a moment when Beijing was making an effort to revitalize frayed government and party-to-party ties with Pyongyang. Thus, 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 cavorted publicly with Kim Jong-un. Rumors circulated in Beijing only last December as buoyant Chinese analysts boasted of improving relations, and hinting that Kim Jong Un might visit Beijing.

Then came the poke-in-the eye — Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test — the first time Beijing received no advance warning. Just days before the missile test, Xi dispatched his top nuclear negotiator, Wu Dawei to Pyongyang seeking to prevent another North Korean missile launch. Yet on arrival he was greeted with the official announcement that Pyongyang would launch a satellite in early February. Considering that China is North Korea’s principal enabler, accounting for 90 percent of its foreign trade and is the chief provider of most of its fuel and food, this was a remarkable display of contempt.

This behavior illustrates that Pyongyang has correctly judged that it has near complete 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 Korea, the damage to Chinese interests in Northeast Asia is significant. It includes the enhancement of the United States “rebalanced” posture in the region, new levels of U.S.-South Korean-Japanese defense cooperation, and fresh doubts in Seoul about what it can expect from China.

Many South Koreans were affronted when China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, explained that China’s position on missile defense is, 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 (that China has enabled) 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 Korean-Japanese 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 the South Korea’s own need for its own nuclear weapons. 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 WMD arsenal continues to grow and pose 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.

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 of U.S.-China cooperation is becoming a source of confrontation.

As the U.S. moves to unilaterally impose a sanctions regime on Pyongyang tougher 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. that moved to cut off Iran from the use of the Society for the Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications for international financial transactions that was instrumental in creating pressure that led to the Iran nuclear deal.

Similarly, it was U.S. sanctions against Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in Macao (where Kim Jong-il and his cronies had their slush 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.

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 neither do the outside powers (apart from China) have anything to take away from North Korea.

An impressive united front response the United States, South Korea, and Japan will also raise the costs to Pyongyang with further secondary sanctions. Seoul has shut down the Kaesong Industrial Zone, the only economic project it still operated in North Korea. This will cost Pyongyang 55,000 jobs and nearly $100 million in hard currency. Japan has also moved to ban not only any North Korean ships from Japanese ports, but also any third-country ships that have visited North Korea.

Imposing tough sanctions would get Kim Jong-un’s attention. After all, 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 IAEA inspectors back in to verify it, a nuclear freeze might be possible.

But 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 United States. 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.

At the same time, as the dust settles from North Korea’s actions, a more polarized situation in Northeast Asia is emerging. China has, in effect, thrown a monkey wrench into an already troubled U.S.-China relationship, pushed South Korea and Japan closer to together and into a new realm of U.S.-South Korean-Japanese trilateral security cooperation, and is left isolated with its North Korean ally.

This is a revised, expanded version of an article that appeared in Nikkei Asian Review.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He served as a senior counselor to the 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’s Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter at: Twitter: @Rmanning4

James J. Przystup is a senior research fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies.
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