China’s thinking on North Korea

The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, lauded China last week for joining Washington in what is probably the toughest response North Korea has faced in twenty years. But such praise may well have been premature. Last week, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Beijing opposed any unilateral punishments against North Korea.

The grim reality is that Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un decided that North Korea must have nuclear weapons, and that China has thus far decided that, as far as Beijing is concerned, the benefits of that program outweigh the costs.

China has made many pledges on North Korean sanctions in the past, but has always failed to honor them and to systematically enforce its commitments. China may be keeping the regime afloat through its provision of economic and military resources—better after all to feed North Koreans in North Korea than risk a massive refugee exodus into China if the regime collapses—and can rationally justify this as a good investment on these grounds.

Front and center on the cost side of the ledger is Beijing’s concern that North Korea’s nuclear tests, missile tests, saber rattling and occasional limited uses of force will cause South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear weapons to deal with the menace that Pyongyang represents. This is the outcome that China above all seeks to avoid.

Short of this, but still deeply problematic, is that North Korea’s provocations push Seoul and Tokyo deeper into Washington’s embrace. For a country bent on, at minimum, increasing the costs of U.S. influence in East Asia and/or impeding U.S. activity in its littoral seas through anti-access and area denial capabilities and actively expanding its influence and territory, improving Washington’s security relationship with Japan and South Korea is the last thing Beijing wants.

Beijing has thus far decided that the benefits of a nuclear North Korea outweigh these costs. But as Pyongyang pushes closer to its ultimate goal of being able to target the mainland United States with strategic nuclear missiles, these calculations will become harder.

[The National Interest]

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