China Policy Institute: Analysis



China-North Korea Relations: Pitfalls and Possibilities

Written by Timothy Rich

China is frequently viewed through a myopic lens when it comes to North Korea. It is technically committed to the country’s defence under the 1961 Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty and is a lifeline to the Hermit Kingdom that undermines efforts to sanction the regime over its continued nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests. China comprises roughly three-quarters of North Korea’s imports and exports and even after the 2016 nuclear test, China emphasised that sanctions should not harm “normal trade”. However, oversimplifying China-North Korea relations creates a convenient scapegoat for Western observers frustrated over the lack of progress on rein in Pyongyang. This overlooks long-standing tensions between the two countries and risks overestimating China’s influence over its neighbour. At the same time, Chinese influence encourages domestic reforms in North Korea and although piecemeal, these reforms suggest ways to constrain North Korean belligerence. Continue reading “China-North Korea Relations: Pitfalls and Possibilities”

Targeting Northeastern Tigers: The Anti-Corruption Campaign in Liaoning

Written by Adam Cathcart

In assessing the depth and the impact of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, few provinces are as interesting as Liaoning (遼寧). The reason for this curiosity comes in part because Liaoning, quite simply, is the buckle on the north-eastern “rust belt,” having once been the beating industrial heart and the molten steel veins of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) modernization project. Today, it is also an area where extensive corruption has come to light amid industrial restructuring, a downturn in the coal industry, uniquely negative economic numbers, and a huge election-fraud scandal exposed last September. Continue reading “Targeting Northeastern Tigers: The Anti-Corruption Campaign in Liaoning”

Sino-North Korean Relations: Blood Allies without Mutual Trust

Written by Mikyoung Kim.

Unlike South Korea which submitted itself to the US for security protection, North Korea has never compromised its national defence with China. That is despite often cited historical precedents: the Sino-North Korea Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty which remains effective until 2021; and China’s participation in the Korean War (1950-53) which caused 180,000 deaths of Chinese soldiers. While these precedents resulted in the term of “blood allies,” the empirical details reveal the description being close to a euphemism at its best, or a hyperbole at its worse.  Continue reading “Sino-North Korean Relations: Blood Allies without Mutual Trust”

Reading Chinese media responses to a North Korean defection

Written by Adam Cathcart.

No matter where they are working around the world, most journalists (like aspiring novelists) love a good cloak-and-dagger story. And when it comes to occurrences more ripe for investigation, speculation and opining, there are few events more defining than the defection of a high-level diplomat from one state to its existential rival. The questions that arise from such events themselves create a kind of frisson of possibility. With apologies for the normative use of the male pronoun, we can ask: For how long had he planned his leap from one set of loyalties to another? How had he prevented discovery of his plan, and how did he escape? Was he in mortal danger? What did he know, and how much did he tell the intelligence services in the new state into whose hands he had entrusted himself? Why did he defect? And what – and who – did he leave behind?

Continue reading “Reading Chinese media responses to a North Korean defection”

China’s Korean dilemma: influence and power on the Korean Peninsula

Written by James Hoare.

The Chinese–Korean relationship has puzzled Westerners. While the Korean kingdom claimed to be independent, at the same time it seemed to accept a dependent status within the Chinese world order that was seen as a limitation on sovereignty. Yet in the 1870s and the early 1880s, while the Korean court consulted China on what it should do as Japan and the West pressed it to open up to trade and residence – and got the advice to engage in diplomatic relations with countries such as the United States and Britain to avoid becoming too close to Japan – at the same time, it claimed the power to make treaties with other countries independent of China. Western countries added to their own confusion by sometimes dealing directly with Korea and at other times going through China. Thus the Korean Customs Service was until the mid–1890s, a branch of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service. In the British case, no minister was appointed to Korea. Instead the British minister in Beijing was side accredited to Seoul. To further add to the confusion and complexity, China twice intervened in Korea, in 1882 and 1894, on the first occasion removing the Korean de facto leader because it did not approve of his policies. This was a special relationship hard to understand.

The 1894 intervention proved disastrous for China, which suffered defeat at the hands of the Japanese. Korea became formally independent but Japan dominated and eventually took over the country completely. And so the connection with China ended. But of course it did not. Some two thousand years of interaction did not come to an end suddenly in 1905 or 1910. Many Koreans went into exile. While those who went to the United States, such as the future president of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, tended to have a relatively high international profile, many more went to China.  Their numbers included those who would later be prominent on both sides of the divided Korea that emerged in 1945. That division was a new complication. While the international balance had shifted in East Asia with the defeat of Japan and the increasing dominance of the United States, China, a weak and divided country for the 40 years after 1911, was once again united under the newly established People’s Republic of China. And when the Korean War began, the new China made it clear that it would not stand by if its interests were threatened. When these warnings were ignored, the Chinese acted, sending the “Chinese Peoples’ Volunteers” – the People’s Liberation Army, in reality – to save North Korea. The intervention in peninsula affairs did not stop with the war, since China played an active role in the 1954 Geneva Conference, and in 1975, after the reunification of Vietnam, indicated to the North Koreans that they would get no support if they attempted once again to settle the division of the peninsula by war.

So what has all this history to do with today? Naturally, when there are tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the outside world tends to look to China to pressurize the North Koreans.  After all has not China been the main supporter of North Korea since saving it from destruction in 1950? Surely the Chinese can – and should – use their influence to make the North Koreans see reason?  Alas, it is more complicated than that. That earlier history shows that there is no simple client relationship between the two countries. Chinese involvement in Korea has always been driven primarily by Chinese interests – the North Koreans make no secret of this, even if the Chinese are a little more circumspect. When those interests are threatened, the Chinese will act. A relatively recent example was in 2002, when the Chinese moved swiftly after the North Koreans had appointed the Sino–Dutch businessman, Yang Bin, as the head of a newly projected Special Economic Zone just across the border from China at Shinuiju. As the Chinese ambassador said: “We warned our Korean friends” against such a move. When it still happened, Yang was arrested when next in China and in 2003 received an 18–year sentence for tax evasion.

So China can and will act but its leaders have to believe that it serves Chinese interests to do so. An antagonistic North Korea is something that they can do without, especially with a large Korean– Chinese community on their borders with widespread links to North Korea. The nuclear issue does concern China but its leaders believe that it was the United States that created the current crisis by abandoning the 1994 Agreed Framework and that it is only the United States that can sort out the problem. The Chinese strongly believe that they have been helpful, in convening the Six Party Talks in 2003. But they have hitherto argued that their influence on an issue such as this is limited and that Chinese interests preclude them from exerting too great a pressure on North Korea. While they have signed up to the latest sanctions, I would not expect an overzealous implementation of them. Exasperation with the current North Korean leadership may lead to an initial fervent endorsement – but it may not last.

Dr James Hoare is a retired British diplomat, whose last job was setting up the British Embassy in North Korea. He now writes and broadcasts on East Asia. Image Credit: CC by Roman Harak/Flickr.

North Korea’s ABC (Anybody but China) diplomatic initiatives will face a harsh reality

Written by Brian Benedictus.

The December 2013 execution of Jang Song-thaek, Uncle of  North leader Kim Jong-un and Beijing’s most trusted official within the country, was widely seen by many North Korea watchers as the starting point of relations between the two countries plummeting to their lowest level in history. Last July, Xi Jinping became the first Chinese head of state to visit South Korea before first travelling to its long time North Korean ally. On Wednesday, Russia announced that the North Korea’s leader has accepted an invitation to Moscow this May to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe (although it is not known if the DPRK will send its official Head of State, Kim Yong-nam as its representative), which would mark Kim Jong-un’s first visit abroad as leader of North Korea (although a recent report has Indonesia inviting Kim to that country’s Bandung Conference in April).

China has offered the DPRK  recent diplomatic support, at least publicly, over the latter’s suspected role in the December Sony cyberattack, as well voicing its opposition to a United Nations Security Council debate on referring the North Korean government to the International Criminal Court (ICC) on human rights abuse charges. Yet Pyongyang continues to frustrate its long-time ally by refusing to cease its nuclear weapons program and missile testing, two programs which the DPRK sees as vital in discouraging potential military action that would likely result in the dissolution of the current regime. China’s concerns of a destabilized North Korea, resulting in a potential refugee crisis on its borders, or a United States-led occupation of a unified Korea, means that China will continue to have a vested interest in the current government in Pyongyang remaining stable, thus continuing as the DPRK’s primary economic trading partner. This over reliance on Beijing has frustrated North Korea in recent years, as it’s recent overtures to once close allies (Russia) and long-time adversaries (Japan, South Korea, and the United States) offer evidence that it is seeking to diversify its “economic portfolio” in order to give itself more options, allowing it to operate more freely from Chinese pressure. The likelihood of the DPRK finding a viable replacement for its current primary economic trading partner appears slim. The most likely candidate for such a country is Russia.

As part of “Putin’s Pivot”, which is meant to counter the American shift of economic and military interests into Eastern Asia, Russia has in recent years sought to enhance its reputation with a number of states in the region–including North Korea. Such measures have included Russia’s writing off of nearly ten billion dollars in debt that has lingered since the Soviet era, as well as a pledge by Russia to invest over one billion dollars into a trans-Siberian railway that would eventually link North and South Korea, allowing for Russia to export gas to South Korea’s ever-expanding economy. Russia and the DPRK have also recently agreed on creating and expanding a number of bilateral projects, including North Korea agreeing to issue multi-entry visas to Russian citizens, the formation of a bilateral business council, and the surprising announcement that Russian businesses conducting trade through North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank could make payments in the Russian ruble currency.

Yet for all of the positive developments that have taken place within the past year between the two states, Russia’s interests and domestic political realities will place limitations on how far Moscow can (or even wants to) enhance its ties with the DPRK. The global fall in oil prices has placed Russia’s resource dependent economy into a a state of crisis, as Moscow is currently tapping heavily into its foreign currency reserves, facing high levels of inflation, and raising interest rates in the attempt to stave of growing domestic frustration within Russia. Pyongyang should not be expecting “no strings attached” economic packages from Russia in the near future—packages that were something of a regular occurrence from China until the recent fallout resulted in a decline in trade in 2014 between the two countries, marking the first decline since 2009.

Russia-Sino relations were  described by Russian President Putin in 2014 as being at an “all time high”, a statement that was backed up by a massive $400 billion dollar gas deal between the two countries after decades of negotiations. It is immediately apparent that Russia’s economic interests with China dwarf that of any it currently does, or even would have with North Korea. Yet while China would likely appreciate in sharing the diplomatic headaches that come with being one of Pyongyang’s primary economic trading partners, Beijing’s ability in at least nominally restraining that country’s provocative nuclear and missile programs rest on it remaining as North Korea’s primary benefactor and trading partner. Therefore, while Russia will still seek to enhance ties with Pyongyang, it will not do so to the extent that it would be willing to jeopardize its current (and potentially much more lucrative) state of affairs with Beijing.

These political realities do not offer a great deal of leverage for North Korea’s leadership’s attempt to formulate a drastic diplomatic shift away from China at the current time. While it can continue in its attempts to enhance its historical relationship with Russia, there will be limitations to the benefits Moscow can provide. Pyongyang’s most recent attempts at presenting an olive branch to South Korea is also ripe with roadblocks–none of which is larger than Seoul’s security partner, the United States, which views such overtures with a great deal of skepticism. From the perspective of Pyongyang, its current set of economic alternatives from shifting away from China are murky at best, and more than likely highly restrained. Sooner than later, its leadership might have to return to China, hat in hand, if it wants to retain its grip on power in the Hermit Kingdom.

Brian Benedictus is a Washington D.C.-based foreign policy analyst specializing in East Asian security issues. He is also an Asia-Pacific Desk analyst for Wikistrat. Brian owns the blog Warm Oolong Tea. Image credit: CC by Roman Harak/Flickr.

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