Games Nations Play – China and North Korea


By Ruhee Neog

Strategic analysis is only as good as the data it is based on, and the informational black hole that is North Korea makes it a dangerous and unpredictable player on the global stage. Alongside it stands China, North Korea’s most significant ally. It is widely believed that only China, in its capacity as friend and associate, has the necessary leverage to manage North Korea’s petulance and push it towards denuclearization.

South Korean intelligence agencies have revealed that North Korea is in the process of enriching uranium at four undisclosed locations, apart from the Yongbyon facility unveiled last month. In addition, Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, has reported that a tunnel is under construction in North Korea and is likely to be completed by March next year, giving rise to fears of a possible nuclear test. These developments occur against the backdrop of North Korea’s increasing belligerence and provocative behaviour, symbolic of the country’s seemingly sole basis for foreign policy formulation – brinkmanship. US cables disclosed by WikiLeaks make a case for Chinese support for a reunified Korea under a benign South Korea. However, other cables suggest that even China is not entirely privy to North Korean intentions. The questions then are: How far are these reports to be believed, given that enunciation of support for Korean reunification did not come from a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, which is the most powerful decision-making apparatus in China? Will China comply with international expectations and take a harsher stance on North Korea because it continues to defy international safeguards on all its nuclear possessions?

The contention of this article is that while China might be frustrated with North Korea’s confrontational tactics, it is unlikely to dissociate itself and explicitly side with either North Korea or the United States. Much has been made of a Chinese official referring to North Korea as ‘a spoilt child’ and another endorsing the idea of a reunified Korea. However, these should not distract attention from China’s enduring support for North Korea despite increasing North Korean intransigence. While it might increase pressure on North Korea to exercise greater restraint, it will simultaneously ask for a resumption of the six-party talks, which the US, Russia, South Korea and Japan are not agreeable to restarting. In keeping with its status as a rising power with both international obligations and domestic interests, it will adhere to the middle ground as best it can.

China’s interests in maintaining viable relations with North Korea, while voicing periodic concerns about North Korea’s nuclearization to placate the US can be partially explained by Xiao-kang, the domestic policy that aims to create a burgeoning middle class by 2020. John S. Park of the United States Institute for Peace speculates that this policy is largely ignored by analysts as a factor in China’s policy formulation on North Korea. The eventual goal of the policy, as envisioned by Den Xiaoping around the late 1970s, is to close the economic and social gap between various provinces in the hinterland and the periphery. Towards this end, Chinese investments in North Korean mineral resources and the acquisition of favourable terms of trade are designed to stabilize some of China’s least developed provinces, such as Liaoning, Heilongjiang and Jilin, which border North Korea. In this scenario, a nuclear North Korea’s aggression will hardly serve China’s best interests.

Two key elements of Xiao-kang dictate China’s foreign policy agenda: stability on its borders and immediate neighbourhood, and peace with the US without compromising its ascension to power. Within this context, John S. Park writes that China has four policy directives to address internal social stability and formulate its policy towards North Korea: Nonproliferation in the continent, resolution of differences through discussion, sustainable peace in the Korean Peninsula and a consideration of North Korea’s security issues. An unfriendly North Korea is thus inimical to this end.

In addition, as a rising power, China is critical of the US’s alleged ‘policy of encirclement’ whereby the incumbent superpower seeks to establish closer links with countries in China’s immediate neighbourhood, like India, Vietnam and South Korea. With a reunified Korea, there is a likelihood that the US would further entrench its influence in the peninsula, right up to China’s border with North Korea. In an ideal situation, North Korea would function as a friendly buffer state against US military dominance in the South. Also, signs of a succession struggle in North Korea, besides a resurgence of the military, indicate the possibility of a new, emerging power structure. This precludes an outright Chinese condemnation of North Korean actions as it might lead to estrangement from the potentially new power base of a country that is notable for its unpredictability.

Ruhee Neog, Research Officer, IPCS, may be reached at [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

One thought on “Games Nations Play – China and North Korea

  • December 21, 2010 at 11:16 am

    A well written and erudite article! The only thing I see possibly missing is how China is always trying to buy time so that it’s goal of creating a huge middle class by 2020 is achieved. That’s why it is always interested in discussions about North Korea, most of which are meaningless. China is not interested in doing anything that anybody else wants it to do since it is on a longterm mission, its on mission. Anything that comes along is simply a distraction. Most countries don’t seem to have any longterm plan other than maintaing either democracy or maintaining an authoritarian state. China does want to provide for its people but at the same time never give up its one party state. This explains why it behaves the way it does.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *