Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula: China has its Limits with North Korea

Hina Pandey
January 19, 2020


Image Courtesy: Dana Summers, Tribune Content Agency

Does the New Year hold a new promise for resolving the North Korean nuclear conundrum after President Trump’s offer to resume talks with North Korea, which were stalled post their Stockholm meeting in October 2019? Maybe not! As DPRK does not seem too pleased with the birthday greetings sent by President Trump, while the North Korean leader has acknowledged the courtesy, the message is clear- personal equations and outreach between both leaders do not imply any significant shift in the negotiating strategy towards the larger goal of denuclearization. It is clearly conveyed that “he (Kim) would not lead his country on the basis of personal feelings”, as cited by the adviser to the North Korean foreign ministry in his statement. 

Additionally, can China now possibly influence the stalled talks to steer in the direction of denuclearization? Unfortunately, the recent nuclear posturing from DPRK, which includes withdrawal from the voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing and long-range missiles, also challenges the prospects of such a possibility. Moreover, it is recently reiterated by the Supreme Leader that “the world will soon witness a new strategic weapon”. It is to be recognized that the failure of US-DPRK talks has led denuclearization efforts to deteriorate further. 

Clearly, the failure of US-DPRK diplomacy has once again made China relevant in resolving the nuclear conundrum in the Korean Peninsula. At least, a space for third party intervention has undoubtedly been created. In fact, those who observe nuclear affairs in this context have often argued that China can exert substantial pressure on North Korea towards giving up its nuclear capability because of its economic clout on the country. In any case, China had remained opposed to North Korean nuclear capability since 2009 and had consistently opposed all its nuclear tests and launches. Thus, the policy of maximizing economic pressure is somewhat in line with China’s own attitude towards the larger nuclear issue. However, on the other hand, the reality remains distinguished- as recent Chinese (along with Russian) bid at the UNSC actually suggested “the UNSC to lift some sanctions on Pyongyang on December 17, 2019“, as reported by The Global Times. One can argue that the Chinese rationale for such a policy emanates primarily from its own priorities, which places the possibility of the economic collapse of the North Korean State with more urgency than the possibility of a nuclear use or accident. Thus, China continues to argue in favor of preventing any instability in the region, especially a complete economic breakdown of the State. However, it is worth pondering over, what would the outcome be like, if China comes completely onboard with maximizing sanctions approach? Would that compel DPRK to change its nuclear behavior and possibly give up its nuclear weapons pursuit, as advancing nuclear capability would invite stricter measures? 

While, in the short term, this would make for a sensible approach to some, however, in the long term, this might prove to be counterproductive as the Chinese influence, no matter how substantial, does not alter North Korean resolve or its threat perceptions. As this has maintained elsewhere that if one has to derive any lessons from the DPRK’s nuclear behavior of the past three years, one might conclude that the country is not ready to give up on its nuclear capability. More so, not yet and not without any reciprocal American commitments that would ensure no security threat to its country in future. Additionally, it is to be noted that the DPRK has repeatedly showed its nuclear resolve through its nuclear tests and continued advancement of its nuclear capability. In 2016, post the nuclear tests, the state-run news agency reiterated, “… history proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasured sword for frustrating outsiders’ aggression…”. In fact, in 2012, the DPRK’s website has officially stated that “…the new preamble asserts that Kim Jong Il made the DPRK into an indomitable and nuclear state…”

A similar resolve has been shown by North Korea post the failure of the recent Trump-Kim talks at Stockholm in 2019. It has categorically been stated that “…there will never be such negotiations…in which we proposed exchanging a core nuclear facility of the country for the lift of some United Nations sanctions…“. Additionally, one can argue that North Korea’s careful watchfulness of how President Trump handled the landmark Iranian nuclear deal might have added to North Korean resolve. To be sure, Iran agreed to contain its nuclear program under the JCPOA, but what happened later acts as a deterrent on North Korea to enter any terms of denuclearization with the US. However, there was an opportunity a hand for denuclearization when a North Korean leader received an audience with a sitting US President! 

In the current phase, the killing of Quassem Soleimani might translate into DPRK not making explicit nuclear threats, but does it kill the nuclear resolve completely? Possibly not. Thus, addressing the issue of DPRK’s own resolve remains fundamental to bringing about any change in the nuclear dynamics of the Korean Peninsula. Additionally, on the aspects touching China-DPRK relations, it is expected that their bilateral relations would witness more robustness. Xi, in his recent visit to North Korea, has conveyed that, “…as a good comrade and neighbor, no matter how the international situation changes, the CPC and the Chinese government have held and will always hold a firm position on consolidating and developing China-DPRK relations…”… “…will unswervingly support…DPRK to …focus on developing economy and improving people’s livelihood…” Indeed, China enjoys a considerable influence and will continue to do so, but when it comes to North Korea’s resolve in giving up its capability, Chinese influence would have its own limits.

*** The author is currently a research scholar at the Center for US, Canadian and Latin American Studies at School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi ***