China's Korean Peninsula Policy and North Korea

Shunji Hiraiwa

The Korean Peninsula for China

The Korean Peninsula has a dual meaning for China. First, it is the region where China has a different bilateral relationship with each of its two neighbors. During the Cold War era, North Korea was the only neighboring regime for China. But with the normalization of diplomatic relations with South Korea toward the end of the Cold War, China came to have relations with two Koreas with different regimes. Under the precarious circumstances where it is unpredictable whether the two Koreas maintain stable relations or fall into confrontation, China faces difficulties in handling relations with the two different regimes. Another significance of the Korean Peninsula for China is that the region involves China in international relations evolving around it, as symbolized, for example, by the Six-Party Talks over the North Korea issue, initiated in 2002. Particularly its relations with the United States are of great importance to China. This tendency will become stronger as China's presence in the international community grows. In other words, the Korean Peninsula is increasing its significance in China's international relations with the region or is emerging as an issue involving the United States, rather than only as a region geographically adjacent to China.

On the other hand, what does China signify to the two different regimes on the Korean Peninsula? For North Korea, China is a supporter helping it deal with the international community, especially the United States, and economically, it is a lifeline. At the same time, however, there is a sense of caution that China's influence is growing too large. For South Korea, relations with China are essential for its own economic development; since China has an overriding influence over North Korea, South Korea needs China's cooperation to develop North-South Korea relations to its own advantage. For these reasons, when US-China relations are in a difficult situation, South Korea finds itself in a dilemma between the two superpowers. China maintains a different relationship with these two different regimes. Since the South and North Korea relationship is in a state of division, the two Koreas are fundamentally opposed to each other. Yet, North-South Korea relations change depending on the character of the South Korean administration, on the international situation, and on other factors. China, aware of US moves, will consider the intentions of South and North Korea toward China. It will watch the moment-to-moment state of North-South Korea relations and deal with the two regimes in the Korean Peninsula.

China's Korean Peninsula Policy and US-China Relations

For China, the most significant Korean Peninsula issue viewed from its relations with the United States is the North Korean nuclear missile problem. This is because there is a possibility that not only armed conflicts may occur in the Korean Peninsula, which is adjacent to China, but also that the United States may use the problem as a pretext to strengthen its anti-China missile defense networks. China's basic position on the North Korean nuclear missile problem may be the so-called "suspension for suspension" as proposed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in March 2017: North Korea should suspend nuclear and missile tests, while the United States and South Korea should suspend large-scale military drills, and the parties concerned should in due course seek to resolve the problem through dialogue and negotiations. Unquestionably, North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons is unacceptable to China. Yet, Beijing seems to consider that the use of further pressure would only make North Korea harden its attitude and prevent it from agreeing to change for the better. China believes that a solution, primarily through dialogue, which will however inevitably take time, should be pursued. China would never accept a situation where the Korean Peninsula falls into a state of war. Therefore, China holds fast to its position as a so-called "mediator," urging North Korea and the international community to refrain from taking actions that would create tension.

First of all, given the asymmetry between China and North Korea, the significance of China for North Korea is much greater than that of North Korea for China; structurally, China-North Korea relations change depending on how much China needs North Korea. Therefore, the more China recognizes the North Korea issue as part of its relations with the United States or a US-China deal over North Korea, the more China-North Korea relations will structurally be affected by the state of US-China relations. The meaning of North Korea for China will change depending on the state of US-China relations. In other words, when the United States and China are at odds, the importance of North Korea increases as a buffer zone, and China-North Korea relations become closer. On the other hand, when the US-China relationship is cooperative, the North Korea issue becomes a burden for China. China has to then be tough on North Korea, evoking sense of disapproval from the North --- the China-North Korea relationship chills. China is essential for North Korea as a backer in facing the United States, but at the same time, North Korea abhors China's excessive influence. Therefore, North Korea attempts to ensure China's involvement while being wary of its influence.

The 2018 US-North Korea summit caused a subtle change in this traditional structure of China-North Korea relations. In other words, the possibility of improving US-North Korea relations through direct negotiations between the United States and North Korea has led to the likelihood that China could, depending on the circumstances, become an "obstacle" for North Korea. When the US-North Korea relationship is improving and as long as the US-China relationship is also going well, China could serve as a factor in promoting the US-North Korea relationship. If, on the contrary, the United States and China were at odds, China would likely claim that North Korea should not seek to improve relations with the United States. It is not surprising that North Korea may be afraid that China may use it as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the United States and as a result may consider how to distance itself from China. The US-China relationship has so far been a principal factor in defining the China-North Korea relationship, in addition to which the status of the US-North Korea relationship has now come to define the China-North Korea relationship. President Trump's agreement to a US-North Korea summit has brought about structural changes in the China-North Korea relationship.

The Biden Administration's North Korea Policy and China

The 2020 US presidential election took place when the structure of China-North Korea relations could have changed significantly depending on the progress in US-North Korea relations. President Trump was not reelected, and the Democratic Party candidate Biden took power. Since its inauguration, the Biden administration reviewed the former administration's North Korea policy. The new North Korea policy released on April 30 sets forth the view that the Biden administration will consistently pursue the goal of "complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" through "a coordinated and realistic approach," instead of "focusing on achieving big deals or relying on strategic patience." It is widely believed that, unlike Trump, President Biden will not make a "deal" or inherit the "strategic patience" policy of the Obama administration.

After its inauguration, the Biden administration was quick to hold a meeting with China's top diplomat in Anchorage, Alaska, in March 2021. The bilateral talks revealed the depth of confrontation between the two superpowers over the crucial issues associated with Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Uyghurs while suggesting the possibility of cooperation in areas of overlapping interests, such as issues related to Iran and Afghanistan, climate change, and North Korea's nuclear development. Although the Biden administration, like the Trump administration, was tough on China over trade, security, and intellectual property issues, it suggested the possibility of cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue.

It is unlikely that President Biden will immediately agree to summit talks with Kim Jong-un. North Korea will likely follow the traditional line of dealing with the United States under the patronage of China. That is why the relationship with China is so important for North Korea. As proof of this, at the 8th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea held in January this year, North Korea emphasized closer China-North Korea relations than before. Kim Jong-un used the expression "continuity in the fraternal ties and unity between the Parties and peoples of the two countries which are inseparably bound up with each other," while Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message to Kim Jong-un, "Together with Comrade General Secretary, the two sides stay committed to the political settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue, and jointly safeguard regional peace, stability, development, and prosperity." In 2018 when the first-ever US-North Korea summit took place, Kim Jong-un visited China three times in time with the North-South summit and the US-North Korea summit and repeated summit talks with President Xi Jinping. Nonetheless, there was almost no mention of China in Kim Jong-un's "New Year's Address" on January 1, 2019. Compared to this, the fact that Kim emphasized the importance of China-North Korea relations at the 8th Congress of the WPK indicates the growing importance of China to North Korea under the current situation with virtually no prospect of holding a US-North Korea summit with President Biden.

That said, it is unlikely that North Korea entirely trusts China. As already mentioned, China recognizes that the "North Korean nuclear issue" is an area where it can cooperate with the United States. The sanctions, based on the 2017 UN Security Council resolution against North Korea for its repeated nuclear and missile tests, were extremely severe. Yet, such a UN resolution would not have been adopted but for cooperation between the United States and China. North Korea is aware of this fact. China may contemplate how to utilize the North Korean issue to its advantage in improving US-China relations, while North Korea will seek how to deal with China, watching the progress of US-China relations.

President Moon Jae-in's UN Speech and China: The Four Party Talks Again

Despite the Biden administration's review of US North Korea policy, the relationship between the United States and North Korea has failed to make any significant progress; the situation continues, which resembles the "strategic patience" the Biden administration rejected. Under these circumstances, North Korea, cautious about conducting nuclear and ICBM tests, is building up its other military capabilities. At the 8th Congress of the WPK held in January this year, North Korea emphasized the strengthening of its national defense capability. At the military parade following the Congress, it displayed a new version of SLBM and advanced precision-guided weapons, as if to suggest to the international community its future security policy. North Korea is attempting to acquire not only ICBMs capable of reaching all of the United States but also a more systematic and sophisticated security system by expanding its capability to attack the US forces in South Korea and Japan, as well as the South Korean forces. The Biden administration is calling for dialogue with North Korea, whereas North Korea is demanding the withdrawal of the US policy of hostility, under the pretext of which North Korea gains time to focus on strengthening its defense capabilities. China is not taking a strong stand against North Korea due to the ongoing instability in US-China relations; therefore, it cannot change North Korea's stance. There is no way out of the Korean Peninsula situation.

Under these circumstances, South Korean President Moon Jae-in's speech at the United Nations included suggestions on what would help to discuss China's policy on the Korean Peninsula. In his general debate speech at the UN General Assembly in September 2021, Moon Jae-in called for the declaration on the end of the Korean War, which he had already proposed in the previous year, to be issued jointly by "either the three parties of North and South Korea and the United States or by four parties including China." Moon Jae-in stressed, "When the parties involved in the Korean War stand together and proclaim an end to the War, I believe we can make irreversible progress in denuclearization and usher in an era of complete peace." Kim Jong-un's sister, Kim Yo-jong, Deputy Department Director of the Publicity and Information Department of the WPK, issued a statement saying that "I think that only when impartiality and the attitude of respecting each other are maintained, …can there be …the timely declaration of the significant termination of the war." However, given the stance of the United States and the remaining time until the end of President Moon Jae-in's term in office next May, it must be said that there is little prospect for the fulfillment of Moon's proposal.

In response to this proposal, Chinese MOFA spokesman Zhao Lijian said, "Ending the war state on the Korean Peninsula and replacing the armistice with a peace regime are an important part of the political settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue and the shared aspiration of the international community. China supports all parties' efforts to this end. As an important party to the Korean Peninsula issue and a signatory to the Korean War Armistice Agreement, China will continue to play its role in this regard." He stressed China's proactive stance, which reminds us of the Four-Party Talks that began in 1997. In 1994, North Korea's Foreign Ministry described the Korean War Armistice Agreement as "blank sheets of paper" that cannot guarantee peace on the Korean Peninsula, and called on the United States to conduct negotiations for the establishment of a new peace security system that could prevent the military buildup and the recurrence of war on the Korean Peninsula, stabilize the situation, and ensure solid peace and security in a practically reliable manner.

This statement put in motion a series of behind-the-scenes negotiations. In April 1996, the US-ROK summit in South Korea's Jeju Island proposed four-party talks involving North Korea and China besides the United States and South Korea. Amid the then strained US-China relations due to the third Taiwan Strait crisis, China may have welcomed the opportunity to discuss the Korean Peninsula issue with the United States. Capitalizing on a review of the Korean War armistice agreement, China may have desired to actively engage with the changing situation in the Korean Peninsula. The four-party talks continued to be held intermittently until 1999, but, they ultimately failed to produce any tangible results because North Korea insisted on the withdrawal of US forces from South Korea. President Moon Jae-in's position is that the declaration he proposed this time is a political one. Once a new three- or four-party talks starts, however, North Korea will undoubtedly aim for the removal of US troops from South Korea. While there is no prospect for resuming a US-North Korea dialogue and as North Korea still continues developing weapons, it would be difficult for any trilateral or quadrilateral talks to produce results. However, given the current thorny US-China relations, China may deem it significant to begin multilateral talks. President Moon Jae-in may want to take the opportunity of the Beijing Olympics next February to declare an end to the Korean War. However, China's stance and particularly its relations with the United States will likely affect the future fate of the Korean Peninsula. In this sense, China's moves associated with the Beijing Olympics will be extremely important in considering China's Korean Peninsula policy.

(Professor, Nanzan University)

(Translation by Tsutomu Inuzuka, SSDP Associate.)

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