In the beginning of September, North Korea announced that it had successfully tested its fifth and potentially most powerful nuclear warhead. Despite international condemnation, North Korea (DPRK) claims to have made a number of technological advances that threaten international security—not least among them the mounting of nuclear warheads to ballistic missiles. The September nuclear test was the second one the country has conducted this year, and it came just a few months after the North Korean government claimed to have successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb in January.
The international community has tried to denuclearize DPRK since its withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003. The Six-Party Talks, involving North Korea, South Korea, China, the United States, Japan, and Russia, were initiated that year to peacefully end North Korea’s nuclear program, and continued until 2008. Nevertheless, little progress was made during these talks due to the North Korean regime’s unpredictability and its unwillingness to follow through with its promises. The North Korean government officially broke its 1994 promise to denuclearize when it launched its first nuclear test in October 2006.
After DPRK’s most recent nuclear test, China faces an increasingly difficult dilemma, and its government is in the process of weighing two great threats: on the one hand, a nuclear DPRK ruled by an unpredictable tyrant, and on the other, a destabilized DPRK, prone to internal collapse and a target for Western intervention. Presumably, China wants North Korea to be neither nuclear nor unstable, but preventing the country from spiraling in one direction or the other seems almost impossible.
A fully nuclear North Korea could use nuclear threats as leveraging tools, compelling other countries to satisfy its arbitrary demands. If the DPRK’s supreme leader decided to use nuclear weapons against South Korea or the United States, China would inevitably be entangled, faced with the need not only to assert its dominance in East Asia but also to prepare for multilateral retaliation against North Korea. In short, the possibility of nuclear war would be very, very real.
On the other hand, a North Korean regime collapse—the implosion of Kim Jong-un’s central government as a result of economic paralysis, depletion of resources, or international pressures—would present many geopolitical challenges for China. First, China would be compelled to deal with a massive influx of refugees and the ensuing humanitarian crises. Second, the Korean Peninsula would be very likely reunified under the Republic of Korea (ROK), since most countries would want a stable and reasonable government to replace the unpredictable regime. The mere possibility of reunification, despite the debate about its likelihood, is such a great threat to China that is willing to go to great lengths to avoid it. Chinese officials believe that reunification could hurt their country’s interests. Since the ROK currently aligns itself with the US and allows the stationing of American troops, reunification could further the US policy of “containing” China. Both of these consequences of a decapitated DPRK are serious enough to China that it must seriously weigh them against the threat of nuclear war.
Based on the China’s conduct toward the DPRK in recent years, it seems to prioritize maintaining the nation’s stability over preventing its nuclearization. Though the nuclear tests have strained North Korea-China relations, China maintains most of its diplomatic and economic ties with North Korea. This October, China congratulated North Korea on the seventy-first anniversary of its ruling party. It also sent Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin, the chief Chinese representative of the China-DPRK Joint Committee on Border Issues, to discuss humanitarian relief for North Korea after Typhoon Lionrock struck the Korean Peninsula. In addition, China continues to account for 70 percent of North Korea’s total trade, and the UNSCR 2270 sanctions have hardly impacted China’s economic relationship with North Korea. These sanctions were passed in response to North Korea’s prohibited nuclear test on Jan 6, 2016 and include a ban on exports of coal from the DPRK, except for humanitarian purposes. China has exploited this humanitarian loophole and continues to purchase coal and other minerals from North Korea, despite critics’ warnings that this undermines the effectiveness of global sanctions against North Korea.
Having verbally condemned North Korea’s nuclearization, China clearly wants a denuclearized North Korea to sustain regional peace and avoid a potential nuclear war. But China’s physical proximity to the DPRK and its concerns about its own geopolitical dominance make it unwilling to do any more than comply with the DPRK-related UN Security Council resolutions and encourage dialogue among relevant parties. China also seems reluctant to back any actions against DPRK’s nuclear tests that are not proposed by the UN Security Council or under the framework of the Six-Party Talks.
China understands that it exerts significant economic influence over North Korea and can, if it wants to, use harsher sanctions to push the DPRK to concede to international demands for denuclearization. Yet it does not want to risk destabilizing North Korea and causing a regime collapse for geopolitical reasons. For this reason, China is opposed to more severe sanctions, continues its trade with North Korea, and prefers dialogue and negotiation to stronger tactics. None of these soft measures oblige North Korea to denuclearize in any way. In fact, they do not even act as deterrents to further DPRK nuclearization and militarization: another ballistic missile test conducted by North Korea, though failed, was reported this October.
Based on China’s responses and actions so far, it seems to prioritize the stability of DPRK over everything else, despite the threats of North Korea’s increasing leverage against China and nuclear warfare. If North Korea conducts more nuclear tests in the future, or if the international community finds a reason to exert more pressure on China to take more concrete steps against North Korea, the balancing act will become even harder for China to perform.
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