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What to Do About North Korea? Forget Beijing for Now; Bring in Ulaanbaatar

by Elizabeth C. Economy
February 13, 2013

North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly Chairman Choe Tae Bok (L) talks with Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj in Ulaanbaatar on November 19, 2012. North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly Chairman Choe Tae Bok (L) talks with Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj in Ulaanbaatar on November 19, 2012. (Office of the President of Mongolia)


A few months ago, the eminent Chinese scholar Wang Jisi noted that China had achieved “first class power status” and “should be treated as such.” The current situation with North Korea suggests two responses: There is scarcely a more opportune moment for Beijing to step up to the plate; and be careful what you wish for.

Here is what we know about China and the current crisis with North Korea: Beijing doesn’t know what to do. Before North Korea’s nuclear test, the state-supported newspaper Global Times asserted that China should “seize initiative in NK issues” and argued, “…if North Korea insists on a third nuclear test despite attempts to dissuade it, it must pay a heavy price. The assistance it will be able to receive from China should be reduced.” After the test, the official news agency Xinhua argued that the “DPRK’s defiance was deeply rooted in its strong sense of insecurity after years of confrontation with South Korea, Japan and a militarily more superior United States.”  In other words, Beijing was back to blaming everyone else for the DPRK’s actions.

Chinese foreign policy analysts are also divided over how to approach North Korea. As early as December 2010, Chinese scholar Zhu Feng referred to China’s continued support of North Korea as an example of Beijing’s “obsolete ideology” and noted that Chinese thinking on North Korea is “no longer monolithic” and, in fact, “no foreign-policy issue is more divisive.” The BBC’s roundup of Chinese scholars’ views suggests Zhu is right. Ruan Zongze, deputy director of the China Institute of International Studies, stated that China had already “made huge efforts” and “developments on the Korean Peninsula do not just depend on China.” And Fudan University scholar Shen Dingli argued that the United States “will eventually accept North Korea’s nuclear weapons.” Major-General Xu Guangyu, however, said that North Korea’s “military first politics is wrong” and UN sanctions will be unavoidable.

Another thing we know about China and North Korea is that the potential of Beijing’s leverage — the life-sustaining economic, food, and energy assistance it provides to the DPRK—is not in any way influencing North Korean decision-making. In addition to Pyongyang ignoring Beijing’s warnings over the third nuclear test, let’s not forget that late last year a $40 million investment in North Korea by one of China’s largest mining companies went belly-up when the North Koreans reportedly mastered the mining processes themselves and evicted the Chinese workers. The Chinese company is still trying to recoup some of its investment. Moreover, efforts by the Chinese to persuade Kim Jong-un to undertake more significant economic reform have apparently fallen on deaf ears. North Korea appears to be the tail that is wagging the China dog.

While we wait for Beijing’s foreign policy to coalesce, we might look to Beijing’s north for some help. Mongolian officials have regularly hosted their North Korean counterparts for national security and economic discussions. They have even acted as a third party host for delicate negotiations involving the DPRK; most recently in November 2012, Mongolia brought Japanese and North Korean negotiators together in Ulaanbaatar to discuss the long-standing problem of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens. Like China, Mongolia has a long-standing relationship with the DPRK; it was the second country to grant diplomatic recognition to North Korea after the Soviet Union. It is unlikely that a simple talk with Mongolia’s personable President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj will have an immediate impact, but at the very least backchannel lines of communication can be exploited. More insight into Kim Jong-un’s thinking and the broader political situation within North Korea is clearly needed.

Beijing has options—chief among them is adopting tougher sanctions both through the United Nations and bilaterally (such as turning off the spigot of the Daqing pipeline that supplies the DPRK with much of its oil, as Beijing did nearly a decade ago in March 2003). Whatever Beijing decides to do, however, it has likely already realized that in the world of “first-class power,” high-stakes foreign policy, you don’t get points for trying, only for succeeding.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Doug Norton

    “The problem of North Korea”—what to do about a delusional regime (Tom Friedman reportedly called them “batshit crazy” in a recent seminar) with nuclear weapons remains in the too-hard pile for the Chinese and for every other power. But it is especially pointed for America, probably the most likely target if a North Korean nuke is used in a terror bombing, and for China, both politically and geographically intimate with the DPRK. As the Chinese reconsider their policy, I hope they take seriously the relentless logic of a recent NYT Op-Ed by Graham Allison, concluding with his recommendation that the U.S. adopt this declarative policy: “. . . if a nuclear bomb of North Korean origin were to explode on American soil or that of an American ally, the United States would respond precisely as though North Korea itself had hit the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile.”

    Since every nuke has a signature, no one should doubt that the origin of such a bomb would be determined. And it couldn’t be kept secret, even should the USG want that in order to have room to maneuver diplomatically.

    Whether or not the administration follows Allison’s policy recommendation, nuclear retaliation against the DPRK is, it seems to me, the inevitable U.S. response to a North Korean-enabled act of nuclear terrorism, should one occur. I doubt it would be the preferred response of any U.S. administration, but a majority of Americans would demand it, in a justifiable rage that would make our current debate about guns seem nuanced.

    How much do we want to bet that the few individuals who rule North Korea are capable of believing this and being deterred thereby, given the bizarre nature of their world view and their utter disregard for their own countrymen? The Chinese, who risk having a radioactive wasteland on their border and several million dying survivors trying to cross it if those leaders are not deterred, ought to take the possibility seriously. Perhaps I should send copies of my novel, Code Word: Paternity to Chinese foreign policy analysts. Yes, I am plugging here, but when one actually walks through how and why a DPRK nuke could reach terrorists (thankfully still fiction), at the end one finds only a small suspension of disbelief is required to make that possibility extremely worrisome if you govern America or China.

    But, alas, issues are tossed on the too-hard pile because they are, indeed, too hard. Most governments leave them there until an action-forcing event has occurred. Perhaps this third nuke test is such an event. But I am not optimistic.


  • Posted by Contrarian

    Just imposing additional sanctions are not the answer since
    they can end up in more tests from North Korea.

    If China abandons North Korea, that is also a quite risky
    since US & South Korea will try to take
    over the North. The consequences will be a terrible revival
    of the Korean War and loss of China’s investments and commercial interests in the North, as well as the loss of the
    only remaining ally for China. That seems a foolish move.

    The best option for all parties concerned in Korea would be
    to end the state of war in Korea finally with a peace treaty.

  • Posted by Thangleader

    I disagree with the name of this article. Cannot forget the Beijing for now as china is North Korea’s mentor.

    As you know, right after independence day 1.10.1949, China had decided to pour his soldier into Korea war for fight and seek the market-share after 2nd world war. This is a part of a Maoism for “enlarge” or “export” the socialism in the world.

    Mongolia, in the past, was an emperor but now, it’s too difficult to fix or imagine a “power” on this game.

    Until the China wants a change in North Korea, this country must be changed, if not, no way or bla-bla.

    The world can speed-up the pressure on this country but how these elements or decisions can be feasible and valid for leadership of North Korea at the moment? No one cannot answer unless the China.

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