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China-DPRK Relations: A Return to a Strategic Relationship?

by Scott A. Snyder
January 22, 2010

Following North Korea’s second nuclear test in May of 2009, Chinese analysts did not hide their frustration with Pyongyang. China signed on to a robust UN Security Council resolution condemning the tests, but stopped short of making compliance with the resolution obligatory. Despite the toughness of the resolution, China has had wiggle room not to implement the resolution aggressively. Aside from two high-profile cases involving exports of sensitive materials and a joint venture with a North Korean company with which the UN Security Council banned economic interactions, it is hard to find cases where China is aggressively implementing UN sanctions. While noting Chinese frustrations, several analysts (International Crisis Group, Bonnie Glaser, Han Suk-hee) remarked that maintenance of regional stability remains China’s bottom line.

Since adoption of UNSC Resolution 1874 last June, there have been no reports of Chinese efforts to board suspicious North Korean ships, despite several cases in India and the Middle East. Likewise, an airplane with suspicious cargo was forced to land at Bangkok’s Don Muang airport, but despite North Korea’s reliance on flights over China, it is virtually impossible to imagine forced Chinese inspection of North Korean planes carrying suspicious cargo.

In contrast to a notable drop in Sino-DPRK top-level interactions with Kim Jong Il following North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test, Chinese high-level exchanges with Pyongyang increased in 2009, culminating in Premier Wen Jiabao’s Pyongyang trip in October. Ostensibly, one of Wen’s missions was to persuade the North Koreans to return to the Six Party Talks, but Kim Jong Il said that depending on progress made in U.S.-DPRK bilateral talks, North Korea may return to multilateral talks, including the Six Party Talks. Wen’s promise to build a new bridge from China to North Korea across the Yalu River raised concerns in Seoul about whether Chinese aid might undermine the effectiveness of UN resolutions, while top-level military and public security exchanges in November and December (detailed in the latest issue of Comparative Connections) suggest that the Sino-DPRK component is no longer a “normal” relationship, but is taking on a renewed strategic value.

Most recently, China has announced a personnel reshuffle in which former ambassador to Japan Cui Tiankai will take over Wu Dawei’s portfolio as China’s representative to the Six Party Talks. Three years after appointing America-hand Liu Xiaoming as the PRC’s ambassador to the DPRK, management of Sino-DPRK ties is being placed back into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party with the appointment of Liu Hongcai, a vice minister-level representative from the International Liaison Department, as China’s top representative in Pyongyang. Traditional party-to-party ties are pre-eminent, with the PRC foreign ministry once again taking a back seat in Pyongyang. South Korean media are carrying reports that China is taking advantage of North Korea’s economic dependency to gain strategic access to North Korean port facilities adjacent to Jilin province, with recent reports (yet to be adequately confirmed) suggesting that China has struck an agreement to finance construction of a railroad from landlocked Tumen to the North Korean port city of Rajin.

These developments create difficulties for the Obama administration’s strategy of promoting sanctions while also enhancing regional cohesion to pressure North Korea. Moreover, North Korea’s “peace offensive” seems designed to play on Chinese strategic mistrust of the United States by challenging a long-term U.S. presence in Asia. Without constructive Chinese efforts to work in tandem with North Korea’s neighbors and the United States to insist that Pyongyang has no choice BUT to return to talks, the situation will remain a stalemate. The United States may insist on North Korea’s denuclearization, but as long as China is willing to tolerate a nuclear North Korea, even one that continues to be an inherent source of regional instability, the Obama administration is likely to find further bilateral engagement with North Korea to be unsatisfying and ineffective.

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