Following Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test in February, tensions are building on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea’s increasingly aggressive actions have led to tighter sanctions on the regime and have strained relations between Pyongyang and its closest ally, Beijing.

In this Q&A, Chen Qi explains what these developments mean for the region and the China–North Korea relationship. He says Beijing and Washington can work together to help bring stability to the Korean Peninsula.

What is behind rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula?

North Korea’s third nuclear test, conducted earlier this year, prompted the United Nations to pass Resolution 2094, which condemned the test and called for the immediate cessation of all Pyongyang’s nuclear activities. Shortly thereafter, North Korea announced that it was nullifying the 1953 armistice with South Korea, vowed to restart its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, and threatened war with Washington and Seoul.

Chen Qi
Chen Qi is an expert on U.S.-China relations, global governance, and China’s foreign policy. Chen runs the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy’s U.S.-China Track II dialogue.
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Without Resolution 2094, Pyongyang would not have nullified the armistice. North Korea’s primary purpose in doing so was to express its anger and directly confront the UN Security Council. Its message is that it will not compromise or yield to external pressure and sanctions. North Korea criticized Washington’s hostility in sanctioning North Korea’s right to launch satellites and missiles and also called out other countries for supporting increased U.S. and UN sanctions.

What do Pyongyang’s recent actions reveal about its nuclear plans? Is North Korea preparing for military confrontation?

Pyongyang’s reaction to the UN resolution indicates that even in the face of intense international pressure, there still is no chance that North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons program in the near future. Resolution 2094 will not compel North Korea to admit it was wrong, destroy its missile and nuclear facilities, and open the country to inspections by the international community. If sanctions and UN resolutions were capable of compelling Pyongyang to take these steps, North Korea would not have conducted the nuclear test in the first place.

North Korea has adopted an aggressive posture. This means that it is even less likely to abolish its nuclear program, as doing so would decrease the threat it poses to other countries.

But Pyongyang is adopting this aggressive posture and rhetoric to push the international community to squarely address its demands, not to start a war.

These developments have certainly dealt a blow to stability on the Korean Peninsula and a psychological shock to people in both countries. But there is no genuine threat of North Korea going to war against the United States or South Korea. Doing so would bring Pyongyang a great deal of trouble that it is not ready to take on.

In addition, North Korea’s aggressive rhetoric will not significantly impact its relations with other major powers like United States, Russia, and Japan. None of these powers will go to war with Pyongyang because of its recent announcements.

What role has China played in recent developments? 

China backed Resolution 2094 in order to indicate that Beijing does not support Pyongyang conducting nuclear tests and to express its disappointment and unhappiness with North Korea. In doing so, China made its position on this issue clear to the international community: Beijing opposes North Korea’s nuclear tests and strives for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

China also supported Resolution 2094 because it was relatively balanced. While it condemned North Korea for conducting nuclear tests, it also expressed the hope that all parties would return to the Six-Party Talks to resolve tensions on the Korean Peninsula and address North Korea’s nuclear issue.

Does this represent a shift in China’s policy toward North Korea? 

No, its stance is not a significant shift. In the past, China has always sided with the international community on sanctions and in expressing dissatisfaction with North Korea. Beijing has repeatedly asked Pyongyang to cease nuclear tests and engage in dialogue, and on many occasions—bilaterally and multilaterally, in private and public—China has gone through considerable trouble to oppose North Korea’s nuclear tests.

China has also sought to balance its critical stance on Pyongyang’s nuclear program by maintaining normal trade relations with North Korea, in accordance with international norms. It has done so because Beijing has a vested interest in preventing tensions from rising in the region.

But China’s typically balanced posture toward North Korea is being increasingly challenged.

What factors are putting pressure on China’s North Korea policy?

Beijing’s top priority has always been ensuring the stability of the North Korean regime and society. Its second priority has been preventing tensions on the Korean Peninsula from turning into war. Its third priority is denuclearizing North Korea.

These priorities have factored into Beijing’s stance on Pyongyang’s nuclear tests. Since China’s top priority has been the stability of the North Korean regime and society, Beijing has tolerated the nuclear tests. However, if China’s agenda were to shift and denuclearization were to become the top priority, Beijing might sanction North Korea. This kind of change would be monumental and would signal that China is not concerned about maintaining Pyongyang as a nominal ally.

This shift has not occurred, but Beijing’s policy on North Korea is indeed under increased pressure, both internationally and within China. Pyongyang’s nuclear development has increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula and generated significant problems for China’s diplomatic relations with other countries. Beijing’s unique relationship with North Korea has resulted in other countries pushing China to take action. Beijing has to constantly be on the defensive.

On the domestic front, the main challenge is the shift in China’s public opinion toward North Korea. There is a widening gap between what the Chinese elite and ordinary people think the country should do with North Korea.

The elite, including government officials, developed the balanced relationship of maintaining economic relations while expressing disapproval of North Korea’s nuclear tests. But now China’s ordinary citizens—and even some members of the elite—are calling this policy into question. Beijing’s North Korea policy is losing official support, and more scholars, like Xi Jialin, are starting to write articles questioning it and criticizing North Korea.

Is China’s North Korea policy likely to change in the near future?

Although some have speculated that China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, might alter Beijing’s policy toward North Korea, this is unlikely to occur anytime soon. Domestic affairs, rather than diplomatic matters, have taken priority during China’s leadership transition.

Beijing has not had enough time yet to carefully reconsider its North Korea policy. As a result, Xi’s remarks have not been very clear. The government is simply dealing with how to respond to the situation rather than creating a new comprehensive policy. It is difficult to say whether China’s relationship with North Korea is moving in a positive or negative direction—or if China will even change its policy.

In reality, the current uproar is temporary. Once the tension subsides, the situation will return to normal, and Sino–North Korean relations will continue as usual.

The overall regional dynamic also decreases the likelihood that Beijing will dramatically alter its North Korea policy. China faces external security issues with the United States pivoting to Asia and ongoing tensions with Japan over territorial disputes in the East China Sea. Beijing knows that joining the side of denuclearizing North Korea and raising economic sanctions on Pyongyang would not slow the U.S. move into Asia or get Japan to back off of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.

If changing its policy on North Korea does not benefit its strategic interests, why should China cooperate? Until these issues are resolved, Beijing is unlikely to change its policy.

How can regional powers cooperate to mitigate tensions on the Korean Peninsula?

It is widely believed that if enough major powers cooperate to pressure and impose sanctions on North Korea, it will force Pyongyang to denuclearize. But the previous sanctions did not have any impact on North Korea. Some scholars and government officials argue that they had some effect, but all in all, imposing sanctions has not produced results. Using this coercive approach toward North Korea has only strengthened the leadership and citizens’ will to resist change.

The United States, Japan, and other major powers need to change their hostile approach. North Koreans need to feel secure, and the leadership must feel strong.

The alternative approach is for major powers to appease and wear down the North Korean leadership to weaken the resistance of the leaders and the people. By accepting North Korea first into the international community and then resolving any security concerns Pyongyang has, regional powers can then work with North Korea to sign peace treaties and develop economic ties. Trying to oust, contain, or pressure the North Korean regime, as the United States is doing, will not work.

Washington needs to take the lead in making genuine efforts to stabilize the Korean Peninsula and change the regime’s image as the last remnant of the Cold War. President Barack Obama should gather the courage to change the United States’ North Korea policy.

But U.S. domestic politics make it quite difficult for Washington to change its posture toward Pyongyang. Many congressional representatives and U.S. citizens do not want to decrease pressure on North Korea.

China can help resolve this tension. Beijing should use every possible opportunity to engage in dialogue with the United States at all levels in order to create mutual understanding on the North Korea security situation. Once this is achieved, Washington and the U.S. public will support a different kind of approach to Pyongyang.

This article was published as part of the Window into China series