Does China Offer a Solution to North Korea’s Nuclear Agenda?

Elise Antel is a Spring 2016 Intern at the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh. She is currently enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, studying Business Administration. Her post below discusses North Korea’s nuclear arms agenda and the role China could play in mitigating the situation.

image_1On February 7th 2016, North Korea announced the successful launch of the long-range satellite Kwangmyongsong-4 (KMS-4) into the earth’s orbit. With this announcement, it became clear that the carrier rocket which propelled the KMS-4 satellite into orbit has the potential to double in use as a delivery mechanism for a nuclear weapon. With tensions already high due to North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in early January, the U.N. Security Council has once again condemned the tests as a “clear threat to international peace and security.”

Regional powers, including the Republic of Korea, the United States, Japan, and China quickly voiced oppositions to North Korea’s most recent provocations. However, China is particularly feeling the pressure as the international community increasingly demands that the country leverage its influence over North Korea to dissuade the regime from further pursuing its nuclear policies.

The relationship between China and North Korea remains complicated as China continues to support the DPRK to some extent, both economically and through certain policies. In 2014, China-North Korea trade increased to $6.39 billion, and North Korea has become highly dependent on China for economic aid and investment as sanctions from the rest of the world limit North Korea’s economic activity. China also maintains a policy of repatriating North Korean refugees forcibly back to their home country and recognizes these North Koreans as economic migrants rather than political refugees, bringing harsh criticism from human rights groups. China additionally cooperates with Pyongyang’s initiatives that send North Korean labor abroad to work and bring foreign currency back into the DPRK.

As a response to the launch on February 7th, South Korea, the U.N., and NATO are calling for even stricter sanctions against an already heavily restricted North Korea. However, there is little belief that any more new restrictions would be effective as a deterrent to new nuclear action, since little of North Korea is not already affected by heavy sanctions. Despite this, the strong influence of China could offer a method of discouraging Pyongyang due to the harsh economic repercussion that would occur if China imposes restrictions. Although China is a member of the U.N. Security Council on North Korea and has actively voiced its opposition to Pyongyang’s nuclear program, China has reason to go against strong policy that may lead to the ultimate fall of the Kim Regime in Pyongyang. A collapse of the Kim Regime would leave China in a vulnerable state as they would lose their buffer against U.S. presence in South Korea and would have to devise a method of dealing with the influx of people migrating out of North Korea and into China. For China, enforcing denuclearization too strongly comes with the risk of a collapse of the current regime and is not within their interests.

The response of the United States reflects the importance of China’s relationship with North Korea. The Senate unanimously passed legislation on February 10th which requires investigation into “sanction-able conduct” by the DPRK, including proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, human rights abuse, and cyber security attacks. However, it additionally requires investigation into any party which condones or participates in these behaviors in any way. The strong economic partnership between China and North Korea as well as the policy of repatriation of North Korean refugees places China in the scope of those to be examined under this legislation.

image_2The belief that North Korea remains completely isolated is outdated and misleading in the present, discredited by the strong economic and political ties with China: the one ally that really matters. The actions of Pyongyang are directly linked to the survival of the Kim regime and China’s connection prolongs that survival. Yet, the belief that China is the complete solution to the problem simply fails to acknowledge that it is less costly for Beijing to tolerate North Korea’s bad behavior than to risk losing their buffer state.

In the immediate future, it seems plausible that policy-makers in China will continue to emphasize the priority of maintaining the current balance of power while verbally supporting negotiations with North Korea over denuclearization. But if China is not willing to exert its influence over North Korea, will other regional powers be successful in discouraging future launches and nuclear tests?

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