DPRK Briefing Book : Chinese Strategic Considerations and the Dilemma of North Korean Reform

DPRK Briefing Book : Chinese Strategic Considerations and the Dilemma of North Korean Reform

Tom Hart , Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, June 2001.

Introduction: Two theses on PRC-DPRK relations 1

In this paper I put forth two theses. The first is that Chinese policies vis-à-vis the Korean Peninsula are based on a clear-headed, non-ideological assessment of what Beijing identifies as China’s basic strategic interests. Foremost among these are 1) the maintenance of regional stability and peace, 2) the further development of economic and developmental cooperation with South Korea, and 3) the need to manage relations with North Korea so that the latter can be somehow stabilized and, above all, prevented from behaving in such a way as to further alarm and antagonize the United States, for Washington’s responses to North Korean provocation have been detrimental to Chinese interests.

The second thesis is that China’s leaders, after having taken steps to repair relations with Pyongyang – relations which had become badly damaged by dint of China’s recognition of South Korea in 1992 and by their attempts to follow a policy of accommodation with the United States later in the decade – find themselves caught in a dilemma. By successfully making larger and larger parts of the outside world hostage 2 to their perceived ability to unleash a disastrous war to the south as well as to the terrible human consequences of their insanely inept domestic policies, Kim Jong Il and his comrades have made themselves in a perverse sense indispensable. And, as the Chinese have long insisted, the Pyongyang power elite is scarcely amenable to Chinese advice, not to say Chinese dictates, and the domestic situation is not improving. Thus, China’s goals vis-à-vis North Korea are unattainable in the middle to long run, unless Kim Jong Il listens to China’s advice and opts for far-reaching, fundamental reforms.

But the catch is that since both Kim Jong Il and his Chinese would-be mentors understand full well that fundamental reform is equivalent to jettisoning the present system and would therefore spell doom for its power holders, such reforms will not be carried out, and China’s strategic goals will remain highly at risk. This is China’s dilemma in North Korea.

Evidence and argumentation

The recent opening of diplomatic relations between North Korea and a number of EU member countries (normalization being too strong a word), and soon perhaps the EU itself 3 (an “irresistible trend” according to Pyongyang 4 ), has attracted a good deal of attention. Far more significant, however, has been the rapprochement that has come to pass between Pyong-yang and Beijing during the past year and a half.

PRC–DPRK relations became decidedly cold following China’s recognition of South Korea in 1992 and Beijing’s announcement in early 1993 (while Kim Il Sung still lived) that North Korea henceforth would be required to settle its transactions with China in hard currency. 5 These steps were taken after Deng Xiaoping and his friends made a concerted effort in 1991 to convince their old comrade-in-arms Kim Il Sung that Chinese-type reforms might be a good thing for North Korea as well. As previously, Kim totally rejected this advice.

One indication of how serious the post-1992 breach was is that until Kim Jong Il made his surprise unofficial visit to Beijing a few weeks before the North-South Korean summit last June, no personal contacts comparable to those between Deng and the senior Kim were made by either of the grand old men’s heirs. For some eight years neither Kim Jong Il nor Jiang Zemin, ostensibly allies and leaders of neighboring Communist states, had found it convenient to negotiate the short distance between Beijing and Pyongyang in order to meet each other in their capacities of top leaders of their respective countries.

Just how strained Chinese-North Korea relations were after 1993 is open to interpretation. On the surface the winds appear to have blown both hot and cold. Vital food and energy supplies continued to flow southeastward across the border during these difficult years, and Western intelligence agencies reported occasional back and forth movements of technical personnel in some way involved with North Korea’s satellite and missile programs. 6 But on the other hand, as Victor Cha notes, “Chinese behavior on the North Korean nuclear issue in 1993-94 consisted of siding with the U.S. and South Korea on many aspects of the dispute: it opposed North Korea’s reneging on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and counseled it to return to its commitments. Beijing clearly stated that the North Korean nuclear program (in conjunction with its ballistic missile program) was destabilizing for the region and advocated, with its new diplomatic partner Seoul, a non-nuclear Peninsula.” Following that crisis China supported the Agreed Framework without joining it, but opposed any acts of coercion against the North, including UN sanctions for non-compliance with IAEA undertakings. 7 There were even reports of limited border clashes in 1993.

But, again, on the other hand, China took an active part in the so-called Four-Party Talks (six sessions 1997-1999, on the subject of replacing the 1953 Korean War Armistice Agreement, which North Korea had unilaterally declared null and void in 1995) and did not openly clash with its communist ally there. 8

The process of repairing the strained ties between North Korea and China seems to have commenced on Beijing’s initiative. Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan made a five-day visit to North Korea in April 1999, and no less a person than Kim Yong Nam, chairman of the Standing Committee of the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly and number two man in the North Korean hierarchy, returned the visit in June. Kim is quoted at that time as having unprecedentedly and publicly praised China for its economic achievements. 9

The frequency of high-level visits picked up and was sustained. Key CCP party officials soon began to find their way to Pyongyang early in 2000 10 , Kim Jong Il famously paid a visit to the PRC’s embassy in Pyongyang in the spring, and in May 2000 Kim boarded a train to Beijing, where he presumably discussed the upcoming June 20th North-South summit with Jiang Zemin. Jiang has yet to pay a return visit to Pyongyang but one is supposedly scheduled for later this year.

In the meantime Kim Jong Il made a highly visible ‘secret’ trip to Beijing and Shanghai in January 2001, and was said to have come away deeply impressed. Kim was to have made a follow-up visit in May, this time to Shenzhen, but had to cancel due to his son’s problems at Narita, and Li Peng was in Pyongyang on an official visit just a few weeks ago. Following Kim’s Shanghai escapade, speculation has run high as to whether and how soon North Korea will embark on a program of reform similar to China’s, which, according to Kim himself, had brought about ‘cataclysmic’ changes to Shanghai. 11

Two questions may be pondered at this point. What led China to make an effort to restore friendly relations with North Korea in 1999? And what evidence is there that Kim Jong Il and his cohorts actually contemplate basic reforms, whether on the Chinese model or not?

The stock answer to question number one is that Beijing had begun to perceive that North Korea’s tactic of first mounting potential threats to its neighbors (particularly the suspected nuclear weapons program and medium and long-range missile development and sales program) and then in effect offering to back down for a price, was having extremely adverse effects on regional security from China’s point of view. Edward A. Olsen wrote in 1994 that both China and Japan were “pragmatic about the utility of a divided Korea for their respective national interests.” China, because China, in the mid-1990s, valued the U.S. presence to keep a lid on Japanese ambitions. 12 But by 1999 the lid was off. The U.S. and Japan had by then adopted new Defense Guidelines that China saw as involving Japan in the defense of Taiwan, and the U.S. and Japan, had begun cooperating in the development of the Theater Missile Defense system (TMD) in response to North Korea’s missile program, which once again had a bearing on Taiwan. Not much else having changed, these developments were arguably what led Beijing to seek closer relations, seen as perhaps the only way to influence the North Koreans.

Xinbo Wu summarizes what he calls the Chinese perspective this way: 13

The United States and the ROK have asked China to exert more visible pressure on Pyongyang in urging it to undertake serious economic reform. China, abiding by the principle of non-interference in internal affairs, can only offer some advice to the North Koreans. Some in the West also want to see China join … (KEDO), underpinning this body and getting the North Koreans more seriously committed to the frame–work agreement. However, if Beijing does so, it will reduce China’s credibility with Pyongyang and China’s shrinking influence with the DPRK will further decline. For the sake of managing the Korean issue, it is better for China to keep its unique position and influence the DPRK “in a Chinese way.”

Overall, China’s role on the Korean issue can be summarized as the following:

– to maintain normal relations with the DPRK and ROK, thus help create a constructive environment for the management of the Korean issue;

– to keep its traditional ties with the North, providing it with limited but significant economic aid, encouraging Pyongyang to implement more effective economic policy and more pragmatic diplomacy;

– to act as a useful mediator in the “four-party talks” and help set up a new peace mechanism on the peninsula;

– to support both Koreas to pursue peaceful unification without foreign interference.

China’s leaders are pursuing what they identify as China’s primary strategic interests, and as far as the Korean Peninsula is concerned, this has resulted in policies that (a) are on the whole relatively benign ‘status quo plus’ policies which harmonize reasonably well with those of the other major regional powers including South Korea and the United States, and (b) that are in effect more or less precisely what Beijing declares them to be – namely, measures that aim to achieve a relaxation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula, to maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, and to support a long-term process leading to the ‘ultimate peaceful and independent reunification of the Korean Peninsula.’

But how realistic are China’s hopes for success in this strategy? The answer to this seems to hinge on the prospects for North Korea’s stabilization and reform. An important factor in favor of success is that most other countries, East and West, have opted for essentially the same strategy. It is arguable that the result has been a sort of stabilization of the Pyongyang regime, at least temporarily, but can the strategy stabilize North Korea? Only if fundamental reforms take place, and only if the transition to another type of system does not lead to “cataclysmic change”. Is this possible?

Some South Koreans think so. There is in Seoul an understandable yearning for successful North Korean reforms leading to an eventual normalization of conditions on the Peninsula. And the hope is that Kim Jong Il is the man to bring them about.

Positive signs. Following Kim’s Shanghai tour Choson Ilbo published an article by Kim Min-pae entitled “Kim Jong-il’s remarks during his visit to China: He asked his entourage ‘Can you do that too?'” The article seizes upon comments Kim reportedly made in Shanghai, “allowing a glimpse” in the commentator’s words, ” into his ‘pondering during his visit to China'”. Kim is to have said: “I visited Shanghai 18 years ago, and all I remember from that time is the Huangpu River. Everything has changed. Shanghai has undergone a cataclysmic change in a short period and has become a modernized city.” In Beijing Kim met Jiang Zemin and “officially recognized China’s success” by saying “The state of Shanghai’s development is proof that the policy of reform and opening up adopted by the Chinese Communist Party has been correct.” “He thus hinted at his intention to adopt a similar reform policy in North Korea.” Kim admitted further that “We have failed with all of these cutting-edge agricultural methods, but here it is really amazing.” This demonstrates how much thought he is giving to developing agricultural techniques to break away from food shortages… .” When Chairman Kim heard that the Shanghai International Convention Centre, where he stayed, had been completed in 11 months, he asked those who accompanied him: “Can you do that too?” According to a ROK Government official, Chairman Kim asked his assistants: “Do you think we can build a city like Shanghai as well?” 14

President Kim Dae-jong was similarly impressed. Chongwadae [president’s office] spokesman Park Joon-young told the press on 17 January that President Kim Dae-jung had said that North Korea is pursuing a great change and is a “follower of China” which has succeeded in introducing market forces into its planned economy. “North Korea is aggressively heading for the road of reform and openness. I think the North is apparently aiming to be ‘another China'” President Kim had told the National Security Council. Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade put it more modestly:

It is very meaningful that Chairman Kim Jong-il of North Korea’s National Defence Commission visited China to inspect Shanghai, the symbol of China’s economic reform, and meet with Chinese leaders. We see reform and openness as a trend of the era and believe that the development the Chinese government achieved through economic reform policy will serve as a reference to North Korea’s economic development. (Yonhap news agency, Seoul, 20 Jan 2001).

However, in marked contrast with these hopeful views, the North Korean press downplayed the reform angle and focused instead on the newly improved relations between China and North Korea, referring somewhat cryptically to unrevealed agreements (“The two sides acknowledged that since the leaders of the DPRK and China met in Beijing in May last year, each sector of the two parties and the two countries has made active efforts to implement the issues that the leaders of the two parties agreed upon”), alluding to past difficulties (“The great leader Comrade Kim Jong-il’s historic visit to the PRC served as a remarkable turning point in consolidating and developing friendly ties between the DPRK and China” … “The people of the DPRK and China have strengthened friendship and unity over a long period of time in a history full of bitterness and trials.” … “The DPRK-China friendship, which has overcome all kinds of ordeals in the course of history, will infinitely be strengthened and developed by the joint efforts of our two parties, two countries and two peoples,”) delivering a mild back-handed insult (“We sincerely hope everything will go well in China,”) and ending by rejoicing at how well things were going at home:

Currently, our people are persistently accelerating the general onward march for the victorious advance of the socialist cause and the nation’s prosperity. Our people overcame the manifold hardships and trials; successfully ploughed through the socialist road; and are achieving the nation’s independent development. This is a lofty fruition of the great leader Comrade Kim Jong-il’s accurate line and policy, his refined political method, and wise leadership.” 15

In short, a perusal of meetings, speeches and statements during the past six months suggests strongly that a sort of assiduously achieved reconciliation has taken place. The rhetoric is full of hints that a great deal of animosity has – ostensibly – been put aside. And substantial evidence that Kim Jong Il is planning to make North Korea into `another China’ is non-existent.

It is noteworthy that the sort of rhetoric, uniformly indulged in the official North Korean press (none other exists), often seems badly out of sync with what one might be led to expect. Another example is the vituperative America-bashing that followed Washington’s recent announcement that the U.S. is now interested in resuming talks with the DPRK.

This may mean nothing more or less than that the Pyongyang propaganda bureaucracy is firmly under the thumb of hard-line reactionaries – which would be comparable to the situation in China in the early 1970s when cultural revolutionary radicals controlled the CCP Propaganda Department and China’s mass media while the behind-the-scenes political reality was to a much greater extent characterized by the moderating influence of the army and surviving administration bureaucrats sympathetic to Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. The fact that Kim Jong Il and North Korea still haven’t launched an honest-to-goodness reform may not be due to skepticism or died-in-the-wool reaction, but rather to the danger of making a try before the reactionaries can be neutralized; once again, this was the case in China between Sept 1976 and November 1978 (other non-parallels aside). Kim Jong Il would not likely dare speak openly about such problems to any outsider and especially not to the Chinese, nor would the latter divulge such an admission even if it did come.

All this serves as a reminder that analysts (in the West at least) still are forced to regard the North Korean political system as a nearly opaque black box. The South Korean press does on occasion publish reasonably compelling ‘kremlinological’ analyses on the significance of which North Korean leaders were or were not selected to accompany Kim Jong Il on his two most recent China trips 16 and one assumes that South Korean intelligence analysts do the same, but it seems wise to bear in mind that there is no open political debate in North Korea, that most officials still tend strictly to adhere to officially sanctioned phrases and ideas, and that there are no known even ‘loyally oppositional’ alternative leaders or policies. So one can only guess at what new policies, if any, may be in the making.

Summary observations and hypotheses

This much seems clear:

– South Korea looms far more important in Beijing’s estimation than North Korea does. Chinese-South Korean relations, if not entirely untroubled, are genuinely advantageous to both sides, and cooperation is both substantial and reasonably well coordinated.

– The North Korean power elite is in Beijing’s estimation almost certainly regarded as reactionary, chauvinistic, severely pressed but also clever, and therefore unpredictable, and its behavior in the 1990s encouraged or enabled the United States to pursue policies clearly detrimental to Beijing’s interests. Pyongyang must therefore be ‘engaged’ and past animosities overcome in order to quiet things down. This has recently been accomplished, but the Chinese-North Korean relationship is a mutually grating, reluctant patron-proud mendicant relationship, and such ‘cooperation’ as can be observed is chiefly in the form of Chinese grants and subsidies, plus classic protestations of traditional good neighborliness and Party-to-Party solidarity.

– China’s leaders are more sanguine than many in the West with regard to suffering and environ–mentally destructive developments in North Korea. They have been behaving in a tacitly cooperative manner vis-à-vis other regional powers but have consistently refused to bow to appeals to exert pressure on Pyongyang. This is presumably because the Communist leadership in Beijing understands, based on experience, that Pyongyang’s willing-ness to accept privation on the part of the North Korean people is practically boundless, and that most forms of pressure will therefore be without effect and thus counter–productive.

– China often pursues its strategic goals – whether they can be described as generally speaking benign or not – in a outwardly contradictory manner, such as when she helps upgrade North Korea’s weapon arsenals. And China’s goals are often pursued ruthlessly, such as when local authorities openly collude with their North Korean counterparts in turning back starving refugees and dissidents.

– Finally, recently established common EU policy guidelines 17 and this spring’s modest efforts on the part of the EU top leadership to lend support and if possible facilitate efforts to achieve a North-South reconciliation reflect full awareness of the fact that real progress will only come as a result of the efforts of the Koreans themselves and by taking due cognizance of the interests of the major foreign powers, including China.


  1. I have been asked, as a European participant in the conference “Change on the Korean Peninsula: The Relevance of Europe”, to prepare an introductory statement on China’s role on the Korean Peninsula as viewed from Europe. ‘As viewed from Europe’ can be interpreted in three ways: How official Europe – i.e., the EU – interprets China’s role; or how European scholars interpret China’s role – assuming they constitute a reasonably coherent group distinguishable from, say, American or Korean scholars; or, finally, how I personally interpret China’s role, as a perhaps less than fully representative individual European observer. I have chosen the last interpretation.
  2. The second of these alternatives, especially, is not addressed in this paper. I do cite the views of a small number of European academics regarding China’s role in Korea, but no attempt has been made to characterize ‘European academic thinking’ on the subject. I limit myself, moreover, to a single comment on the formal ‘EU thinking’. What follows, therefore, is a personal analysis, though readers will quickly discover that it differs very little, if at all, from the mainstream academic view.

    While both official and academic views and prescriptions vis-à-vis North Korea can and do vary sharply, analyses of China’s role and role behavior seem much more often to be in basic agreement. Views essentially similar to those presented in this paper are, to name a few, Victor D. Cha, “Engaging China: Seoul-Beijing Détente and Korean Security, “Survival, Spring 1999, Vol. 41, No. 1; Xinbo Wu, “Managing the Korean Issue: A Chinese Perspective”, Korea and World Affairs, Spring 2000, Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 79-91; Jonathan D. Pollack, “China and a Changing North Korea: Issues, Uncertainties and Implications”, paper for Conference on North Korea’s Engagement-Perspectives, Outlook, and Implications, co-sponsored by the Federal Research Division, Library of Congress and the National Intelligence Council, Washington, DC, February 23, 2001, available at http://www.nwc.navy.mil/apsg/papers/Pollack-NORTH-KOREA-PAPER.htm [8.6.01] .

    What I refer to here as the mainstream view is summarized in William J. Perry’s October 1999 North Korean policy review in which he characterizes this ‘perspective on China’:

    China . China has a strong interest in peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and is aware of the implications of increased tension on the peninsula. China also realizes that DPRK ballistic missiles are an important impetus to U.S. national missile defense and theater missile defenses, neither of which is desired by China. Finally, China realizes that DPRK nuclear weapons could provoke an arms race in the region and undermine the nonproliferation regime which Beijing, as a nuclear power, has an interest in preserving. For all these reasons the PRC concerns with North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs are in many ways comparable to U.S. concerns. While China will not coordinate its policies with the U.S., ROK, and Japan, it is in China’s interest to use its own channels of communication to discourage the DPRK from pursuing these programs.

    (U.S. House of Representatives, Hearings, Committee on International Relations, “Review of United States Policy Toward North Korea: Findings and Recommendations”, October 12, 1999. Available at http://www.state.gov/www/regions/eap/

  3. China, South Korea, the United States, Japan, several humanitarian NGOs, and now, to an extent, the EU.
  4. “EU to establish diplomatic relations with Democratic People’s Republic of Korea “MIDDAY EXPRESS News from the Press & Communication Service’s midday briefing, 14/05/2001. The European Commission, in consultation with the Member States of the European Union, has decided to establish diplomatic relations between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the European Communities. It is hoped that this will facilitate the European Union’s efforts in support of reconciliation in the Korean Peninsula, and in particular in support of economic reform and easing of the acute food and health problems.
  5. According to the KCNA news agency remarked in a radio broadcast February 24, 2001 “… [I] nternational concern for the DPRK [emphasis added] is growing deeper as days go by and it has become an irresistible trend for many countries to desire improved relations with the DPRK. This is quite a natural and normal process. The normalization of the relations between the DPRK and various countries in the world would make a positive contribution to ensuring peace and security, not only in northeast Asia but the rest of the world. The DPRK government will as ever make a positive contribution to the humankind’s common cause of global independence [not interdependence, note!] by developing friendly, cooperative and good-neighbourly relations with all the countries in the world that respect its sovereignty and are friendly towards it.” In fact EU member states France and Ireland have so far found the trend resistible. The so-called trend is furthermore more properly described as a strategic decision, taken at the Seoul ASEM meeting in October 2000 and later formally adopted as an EU policy recommendation.
  6. See Nicholas Eberstadt, “North Korea: Reform, Muddling through, or Collapse?” in Henriksen, Thomas H., and Kyongsoo Lho, One Korea? Challenges and Prospects for Reunification (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1994). Fortunately for North Korea, the Chinese apparently realized that Pyongyang would be unable to meet this demand and never followed through on it.
  7. See Bill Gertz, “China Assists North Korea in Space Launches”, The Washington Times 23 February 1999, at http://www.washtimes.com/news/news1.html
  8. Victor D. Cha, op. cit.
  9. The Four-Party Talks were suspended on recognition that no progress was likely until North Korea and the U.S. managed to improve their mutual relations.
  10. Xinbo Wu, op. cit.
  11. One visit was by Zeng Hongqing, an alternate Politburo member, head of the Party Secretariat’s Organization Department and Jiang Zemin’s right hand man. Another was by Dai Bingguo, head of the International Liaison Department of the CCP Central Committee. North Korea being a fellow communist country, relations are handled, except on formal occasions, on a party-to-party basis by the ILD rather than by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Curiously, relations with countries ruled by Social Democratic governments also come under the purview of the Party ILD.
  12. The word Kim used was reportedly chonjigaebyok. ‘Cataclysmic’ can be a somewhat equivocal term in English.
  13. Edward A. Olsen, “Korea’s Reunification: Implications for the ROK-U.S.: Alliance,” in Henriksen, op. cit.
  14. Wu, op. cit., p. 87.
  15. On what it actually took for China to ‘solve its food shortages’ see John McMillan, “What Can North Korea Learn from China’s Market Reforms?” available at http://www-irps.ucsd.edu/irps/faculty/northkorea.html . On what Kim Jong Il is actually doing, right now, to solve North Korea’s food shortage, see Aidan Foster-Carter’s terrifying report “Great Bulldozer” on Kim’s ‘rezoning program’ in The Far Eastern Economic Review, April 19, 2001.
  16. North Korean newspaper Nodong Sinmun, carried by North Korean radio on 23 January. BBC Monitoring: Central Broadcasting Station, Pyongyang, in Korean 0132 gmt 23 Jan 01.
  17. Choson Ilbo . See “South Korean paper analyses North’s delegation to China”, text of report by South Korean newspaper Choson Ilbo web site on 21 January 2001.
  18. The official EU External Relations website at http://europa.eu.int/comm/external_relations/ north_korea/intro/news.htm lists three documents with respect to North Korea and many more regarding South Korea. The former are
  19. 14/05/01 EU to establish diplomatic relations with Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

    30/04/01 Supporting international efforts to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula

    15/06/00 Statement by President Prodi on Korean Peninsula – North-South Summit

    Only the second of these makes any mention of China. It contains this statement: The EU realizes that – apart from the two Koreas – the key players in international diplomacy towards the Peninsula are the surrounding countries (China, Japan, Russia) and the US. For obvious reasons, Seoul regularly discusses developments on the Peninsula with these countries, and co-ordinates particularly closely with the US and Japan. In the same way, the EU frequently exchanges views and information with all these countries and with other regional players engaging with the DPRK. This ensures that EU policy is informed by the fullest possible understanding of the political context and formulated with due regard for the position of other interested parties.