North Korean Nonproliferation: A US-China Missed Opportunity

This article is a winner of the 2016 China Focus Essay Contest. The other winning piece, which focuses on climate change cooperation, can be found here. The 2017 essay contest will open in March. Congratulations Sara!

On January 6, 2016, residents of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region of the Jilin Province in Northeast China woke up to rattling bedframes and shaking freeways, wondering if Mount Baekdu, an active volcano along the shared Sino-Korean border, had erupted. Only later in the afternoon, when news reports popped up on WeChat, a popular Chinese messenger app, did most discover the magnitude-5.1 “earthquake” was manmade. North Korea had conducted its fourth nuclear test since 2006.

Despite a tenuous fifty-year ceasefire, which paused the Korean War, the international community’s efforts to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear aspirations and coax the Hermit Kingdom into the international economic and political fold have demonstrated little consistent progress. During the Cold War, North Korea was once the economic superior to its U.S.-supported Southern half and the bulwark of the Communist alliance between North Korea, the Soviet Union and China. Now, North Korea has withered into a nuclear-armed economic wasteland and international pariah.

Until a few years ago, North Korea served as a critical buffer zone for China against the encroachment of American influence and advancement in Asia. However, China increasingly grows weary from its dealings with the North, while grudgingly realizing the need to cooperate with the U.S. in opposing further nuclear escalation. An unstable “rogue state” armed with nuclear weapons and with limited loyalty to other countries poses a threat not only to sworn enemies such as the U.S., South Korea, and Japan, but arguably the entire international order including China, its northern neighbor. A few decades ago, the world powers, especially through Sino-American cooperation, could have prevented North Korea from developing a nuclear program and encouraged its adjustment in the global community. However, today, the North’s nuclear armaments are a firm and grim reality as denuclearization of the Korean peninsula looms as a missed opportunity.

Granted, the woes caused by the international deadlock of yore and North Korea’s zealous pursuit of nuclear weapons are blatantly clear in hindsight, but it is unreasonable to blame countries for pursuing their own near-sighted strategic interests. At the time, China faced international censure against its actions in Tiananmen Square as internal turmoil threatened the transitioning Chinese state in the late 20th century. Thus, regional stability reigned supreme, with far-sighted policy falling to the wayside. Ideologically aligned with China, North Korea provided a much-needed buffer zone against the democratic South and U.S. military forces stationed on the Korean peninsula. Meanwhile, the U.S., fiercely anti-communist and engulfed in a Cold War with the Soviets, was immersed in a conflict with Iraq and its nuclear program, which was deemed a higher priority. In such a tumultuous period, North Korea no doubt sought nuclear weapons as a guarantee against any foreign intervention such as U.S. support for anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua. To make matters worse, the sudden and chaotic collapse of the Soviet Union compounded declining Chinese support to make a nuclear deterrent against international aggressors urgent and essential for North Korea. Despite negotiations such as the Six Party Talks, the countries involved failed to meet the strategic needs of each member involved, leading to lackluster progress ending with the ultimate collapse of discussions in 2008.

Beijing’s uninspiring enforcement of sanctions against the North and reluctance to push Pyongyang has long drawn criticism from the international community. As such, without complete Chinese cooperation, international sanctions against the North remain ineffective in cutting off Pyongyang’s revenue.

However, after years of diluting sanctions against the North, China supported stronger UN sanctions in early January 2016 after confirmation of North Korean nuclear testing. In fact, locals involved in inter-regional trade claim that China clamped down on cross-border trade with North Korea even before the UN officially issued stronger sanctions. According to Chinese customs data, trade between North Korea and the Jilin province declined almost 15% in the first quarter of 2016, compared to the prior year. Along with tightening its economic stranglehold on the North, Beijing ramped up security measures. Chinese security forces stationed along the Chinese-North Korean border grew in number. The Chinese police apprehended foreigners even before they neared the shared border and restricted tourists from taking photos of the region. Even international NGOs long established in humanitarian projects with North Korea expressed frustration, as they were subject to more rigorous security procedures and delays.

Northeast China, especially Yanbian, enjoys preferential policies including those favoring minority groups, coastal regions, and a specific ChangJiTu (Changchun, Jilin, Tumen) National Cooperation Zone. China recognizes Yanbian’s security implications to the point that even economic policies specifically extended to the Western region of China curiously also include Yanbian. In the fall of 2015, a high-speed railway connecting the Jilin province’s capital Changchun with Yanji, the largest city in the Yanbian region, opened up for public use, cutting travel time between Beijing and Yanji from over 24 hours to 9 hours. News accounts also reported plans to construct a more central location for the airport and expand railways connecting to Mount Baekdu. Consistent infrastructural improvements and investment in the northeast such as these reinforce evidence of the central government’s keen interest in the region. Despite this, Beijing imposed sanctions regardless of its domestic interests in developing Northeast China.

North Korean turmoil and the subsequent sanctions, similar to the effect of nuclear fallout, radiate outwards, engulfing Yanbian and other nearby northeastern communities. The repercussions of international sanctions are not limited to the Hermit Kingdom, but also impact Chinese businesses and civilians that make their livelihood trading with North Korean partners. Beijing understands that sanctions harm its own citizens and undermine regional development, yet Pyongyang’s recent provocations incited China to go forward with implementing stringent measures. Unfortunately for those expecting the recent sweeping sanctions to draw Pyongyang to relinquish its nuclear program, China will not pressure North Korea to the point the regime will collapse.

Recently, China has expressed growing frustration with North Korea and has been increasingly cooperative with international sanctions; however, its current strategic interests still lean in favor of strengthening Beijing’s influence in the Asia Pacific through policies such as the “Silk Road Economic Belt’ and maintaining the status quo on the Korean peninsula. North Korea’s nuclear program enters Beijing’s security calculus, but not directly with Pyongyang, as in U.S. security purposes. Rather, it centers on Beijing’s perspective of the U.S. pivot to Asia.

Explicitly, U.S. military forces in South Korea and Japan deter North Korean aggression and protect America’s allies, but its location also provides easy access to what would normally be China’s field of influence. Pyongyang’s nuclear provocations invite increased U.S. military presence in the Asia Pacific as seen in the deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to Guam in 2013. Whereas the U.S. could be denounced as unnecessarily interventionist in the absence of a North Korean threat, the nuclear experiments warrant U.S. military presence.

China disapproves of North Korea’s nuclear program, but it even more vehemently opposes greater U.S. involvement in the Asia Pacific. This is why Beijing raged over U.S.-Korean discussions on deploying THAAD on Korean soil earlier this year. THAAD would provide the U.S. with the range to detect and engage all kinds of ballistic missiles in all phases of their trajectories, restricting much of China’s missile capability and drastically changing the balance of power in the Asia Pacific. THAAD stationed on Korean soil would render the North Korean buffer zone obsolete and in Beijing’s perspective, opens the doorway to U.S. encroachment of Chinese territory. Even more importantly, China fears the possibility that a THAAD system staged in Seoul would allow the U.S. to link missile defense systems planted in American ally countries to encircle and contain China. To date, preserving the Pyongyang regime for the purpose of regional stability and an anti-western buffer zone has best served Chinese interests. THAAD has the potential to change the calculus.

On June 22, 2016, after a series of failed tests earlier in the year, North Korea again incited international fury by launching two ballistic missile tests in spite of intensified sanctions and demands to halt its nuclear program. At this critical junction as China gauges the balance of its security interests, Washington can encourage partnership by reassuring Beijing of America’s interest in mutual benefits and upholding both countries’ strategic interests. The U.S. would do well to capitalize on Beijing’s unease over THAAD and persuade China about the benefit of ending Pyongyang’s nuclear program permanently. Without a nuclear North Korea, Washington would find it challenging to justify a defensive THAAD on China’s doorstep. Consequently, the U.S. would rid itself of an existential threat, while China avoids THAAD near its borders and benefits from the possible withdrawal of U.S. troops from neighboring countries. Without such progress in denuclearization, THAAD, combined with U.S.-Korea-Japan joint anti-ballistic missile defense exercises, future North Korean nuclear experiments and Chinese retaliation against the U.S., open a Pandora’s box of military escalation. In that case, Yanbian is in for a lot of belt tightening and earthquakes in coming years.


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Sara Lee

is a co-winner of the 2016 China Focus Essay Contest. She holds a BA in political science from UC Berkeley.

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