North Korea’s Security Implications for China

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As the linchpin of future stability in Northeast Asia and dictator of the security posture of the peninsula, the actions of North Korea (DPRK) have immense implications for China’s national security and the broader security environment in the region. Beyond the two states on either side of the 38th parallel, China is the most important stakeholder in the final outcome of issues on the Korean peninsula, and thus will continue to be an indispensable actor in any future solution to denuclearization and unification. China’s willingness to play a positive role in finding a solution amenable to all parties will, in large part, depend on Beijing’s cost-benefit analysis of North Korea’s value to China, which, in turn, ultimately rests on the Chinese leadership’s assessment of the security implications of North Korea’s behavior for China. These implications can be divided into direct and indirect, as well as both positive and negative aspects, for China’s leaders to factor into their decision-making process. This chapter will address the security side of the Sino-North Korean relationship by focusing on the rationale behind China’s policy; the growing domestic debate over that policy; the evolving security implications of the policy; and how these changes may affect China’s policy going forward.

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... Ironically, given the circumstances, the North's strategic importance to China can be argued to become higher because of the very cost Pyongyang inflicts on Beijing with its nuclear and missile tests, that is, incurring the forward deployment of the US missile defense system in Asia or furthering US rebalance in the region. See [75], p. 45 and [12], p. 3. security cost and a formal casus belli [11]. Meanwhile, the North's nuclear tests, conducted despite China's repeated stern warnings, have also marred Beijing's global reputation and credibility. ...
... 22 Nevertheless, per Chinese calculations, the costs do not outweigh the benefits China gains from North Korea; hence, China is evidently willing to maintain its relationship despite the North's nuclear tests. Primarily, in a realist view, the existence of North Korea per se remains a great strategic asset to China, as it provides a security buffer against the USA, which stations 23,500 troops on South Korean soil [75]. Another strategic benefit is Rajin, a North Korean port city through which China can easily access the East Sea [17]. ...
... Moreover, China could see a flood of refugees from North Korea crossing the mountains and rivers along the 850-mile border, which is defined as another Bsecurityî ssue by Chinese leaders. Another threat is the chance that North Korean nuclear materials could be smuggled into the hands of the groups Beijing labels domestic separatists or terrorists [75]. In this context, per one report, the costs China pays or would pay to sustain the North is seen an Binsurance premium^to avoid paying bigger strategic, social, and economic costs that an implosion of North Korea could inflict [42]. ...
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After North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in January 2016, China’s response was stern enough for certain China analysts to posit that the Middle Kingdom’s approach to its Cold War ally was changing. In reality, however, China’s imports from North Korea, especially coal, a crucial mineral for the North’s income but banned by United Nations (UN) Resolution 2270, did not decrease. Politically, China also strived to maintain mutual relations with North Korea. Based on its strategic and other cost-benefit calculations, Beijing needs to maintain economic and political ties with Pyongyang and thus has no incentive to seriously observe the U.N. resolution. In this context, China is expected to virtually repeat the gestures it made in the past in dealing with the North. Under these circumstances, sanctioning North Korea through China is not considered a viable option in tackling the nuclear issue; rather, the USA and South Korea should change their policy approach toward this problem.
... Where research has examined China's North Korea policy, it has adopted a range of theoretical approaches which often expect consistency and so poorly account for short-term policy changes. Many studies use realist theory to explain China's policies towards North Korea [7,[16][17][18][19], viewing these as driven by China's concern for security in a dangerous and anarchic international system and also by its great power rivalry with the US [5]. For defensive realists, these security concerns make China seek to maintain a status quo and prevent spirals of tension. ...
... Other studies drawing on realist theory argue that China's policies regarding North Korea are driven by its security competition with the US and the balance of power between these two states. They argue China's security concerns lead it to consistently provide support to North Korea in order to maintain it as a "buffer zone" against external threats, particularly from the US [16,17]. This might account for the longerterm support China has shown to North Korea (including during the Korean War 1950-1953). ...
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During 2016 China’s policies towards North Korea appeared to undergo considerable short-term change, increasingly distancing itself from its neighbour and instead supporting the international community’s response. Existing research has focused on long-term policy change and given little importance to short-term changes in policy, or has drawn on realist and constructivist theories which expect consistency and struggle to account for these changes. This article took an identity discourse approach to understanding the 2016 short-term changes in China’s North Korea policy. It used quantitative computer assisted text analysis methods to measure changes in the dominance of different identity discourses related to North Korea that are produced on the Chinese Internet. It found that around 2015–2016, a previously more dominant “revolutionary” identity discourse lost dominance to a “stakeholder” identity discourse. The article argues that this change made possible the shift in approach to North Korea at the start of 2016 and indicates ways the short-term policy changes at this time may contribute to longer-term change in China’s behaviour.
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The USA has long called for the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation of North Korea. But is this a realistic policy option? In order to address this question, a broader question needs to be answered: What are the primary drivers of North Korea’s interest in nuclear weapons? Most answers to this question take one of two basic positions. ‘Doves’, on the one hand, see North Korea developing nuclear weapons because of the threatening foreign policies of the USA and South Korea. ‘Hawks’, on the other hand, see North Korean nuclear development as driven by factors internal to the North Korean regime, inherent in its personality. The author examines these two arguments against the evidence and finds them both wanting. In contrast, he puts forth an alternative argument focused on the power of the global hegemon, the USA, and its position on the Korean Peninsula. This power and positional alternative is shown to be better reflected in the evidence presented.
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Among the study’s key findings is that, while China certainly exerts influence over its neighboring states, China sees domestic and international security as linked along itsborders. Its focus therefore is on maintaining stability along its borders and facilitating opportunities for economic exchange across theterritorial borders it shares with othersovereign states. If its goals for its relationships with its neighbors are multi-pronged --from serving its goals of domestic stabilityrelated to respondi ng to local interests (promoting economic development within China’s heavily minority frontier regions) tofurthering broad national objectives, such asfeeding China’s enormous appetite for resources to playing to a particular bilateral situation, as in China’s efforts to bolster and even open North Korea’s economy as an aspect of its efforts to diminish Pyongyang’sinsecurity—its range of policy approaches remains limited.
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This analysis examines the little known inherited border disputes that have more or less continuously affected relations between China and the Korean Peninsula since 1950. Though grave, the disputes have never heralded a break in relations.
This book examines relations between China and the Soviet Union during the 1950s, and provides an insight into Chinese thinking about the Korean War, This volume is based on a translation of Shen Zihua’s best-selling Chinese-language book, which broke the mainland Chinese taboo on publishing non-heroic accounts of the Korean War.The author combined information detailed in Soviet-era diplomatic documents (released after the collapse of the Soviet Union) with Chinese memoirs, official document collections and scholarly monographs, in order to present a non-ideological, realpolitik account of the relations, motivations and actions among three Communist actors: Stalin, Mao Zedong and Kim Il-sung, This new translation represents a revisionist perspective on trilateral Communist alliance relations during the Korean War, shedding new light on the origins of the Sino-Soviet split and the rather distant relations between China and North Korea. It features a critical introduction to Shen's work and the text is based on original archival research not found in earlier books in English, This book will be of much interest to students of Communist China, Stalinist Russia, the Korean War, Cold War Studies and International History in general.
In North Korea, the upcoming leadership transition in the Kim Jong-il regime will be a precarious time for the Kim family's hold on power. A collapse of the North Korean government could have several dangerous implications for East Asia, including "loose nukes," a humanitarian disaster, a regional refugee crisis, and potential escalation to war between China and the United States. To respond to a collapse and these problems, neighboring countries may perform several military missions to stabilize North Korea. These include the location and securing of North Korean weapons of mass destruction, stability operations, border control, conventional disarmament, and combat/deterrence operations. Assuming that collapse occurs in a relatively benign manner, military missions to stabilize North Korea could require 260,000 to 400,000 troops. If collapse occurs after a war on the peninsula, or if it sparks civil war in North Korea, the number of missions—and their requirements—would grow. Because of the size and complexity of these missions, and because of the perils associated with mismanaging them, advance and combined planning is essential. Combined planning should include those actors (e.g., China, South Korea, and the United States) that could otherwise take destabilizing action to protect their own interests.
Based on its size, strategic location, and rising economic and military power, China exerts worldwide economic influence and is the leading military and political power in Asia, but Chinese leaders are not inclined to assert influence in world affairs more forcefully.
The common view is that China is North Korea's ally. The two countries share a similar political system and considerable strategic interest in regional international relations. Indeed, this is true to a large extent. This paper, however, analyses the problems in the bilateral relations that are gradually eroding the strategic ties the two countries formed 50 years ago. Its central argument is that, in reality, beneath the surface of the alliance relations the two countries share very few common interests. In fact, the two countries can hardly agree to any matters between them, be it historical ties, ideological stance, political and economic programs, or diplomatic interactions. This heralds an uncertain future for the bilateral relations and thus may further complicate the security situation in the Korean Peninsula.
This paper examines China's role in the Six-Party Talks, a multilateral initiative with the aim of denuclearising North Korea. As North Korea's behaviour has become increasingly provocative, evidenced by the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Incidents and the newly unveiled uranium enrichment plant at Yeonbyon, China's indecision in dealing with the deteriorating situation has dramatically undermined Beijing's ability to continue successfully to play the leading mediator role. Yet if China fails to take decisive action now, the consequences could be dire. Further deterioration in North Korea's behaviour could trigger a nuclear arms race, severely hamper regional economic development and even create a geopolitical split in East Asia, leading to a confrontation between the US, South Korea and Japan acting together on one side, and China, Russia and North Korea aligned on the other. The factors that have prevented China from making further progress in the diplomatic process are many and various and this paper will reveal the complexity of the North Korean issue for China. Foreign academics and policy makers have tended to attribute China's indecision over North Korea to China putting its own security interests first. But this is far too simplistic a picture of the complex relationship that China has with North Korea. There are a host of factors at work that need to be taken into account to understand the present impasse in the diplomatic process. These factors include China's emotional ties to North Korea and empathy with its position as the weakest party in the Talks, the conflicting attitudes within the Chinese government itself towards the North, and the competing interests and lack of trust between the different stakeholders. It seems that for the foreseeable future, the North Korean issue will continue to plague Chinese foreign policy until all the parties involved act as a collaborative body to reach a consensus on how to resolve the situation.
Why Does China Matter See also Taylor M. Fravel and Evan S. Medeiros, “China’s New Diplomacy
  • Robert Sutter
China’s Evolving Relationship with North Korea,” International Institute for Strategic Studies
  • Adam Cathcart
  • A Cathcart
From Comrades-In-Arms to Allies at Arm’s Length Strategic Studies Institute 19, www. strategicstudies institute. army. mil/pdffiles/pub373.pdf. See also Keeping an Eye on an Unruly Neighbor, Working Paper
  • Andrew Scobell
  • North Korea
China’s North Korea Policy: Backtracking from Sunnylands?” 38 North
  • Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt
Coping with a Nuclear North Korea
  • Zhang Liangui
Xi Jinping is officially the leader of the FALSG, but Yang serves as director and manages its day-to-day affairs. See Linda Jakobson and Dean Knox
  • L Jakobson
US government officials are very aware of the impact of BMD deployment on China’s sense of security, and have discussed this thought process publicly
  • JA Bader
For a discussion of China’s treaty with North Korea see
  • Bonnie S Glaser
  • Brittany Billingsley
  • BS Glaser
See also Stephan Haggard, “Drug Update: The Chinese Connection,” Peterson Institute for International Economics
  • SC Greitens
Keeping an Eye on an Unruly Neighbor
  • Andrew Scobell
  • North Korea
  • A Scobell