North Korea has made a habit of intentionally provoking its neighbors—including China, its sole remaining patron—and then offering conciliatory gestures to the international community. This means that North Korea has repeatedly taken actions that harm China’s national interests, but Beijing has continued to support Pyongyang.

It is time for China to break this cycle and reconsider how it engages North Korea. Shifting to a policy rooted in regional cooperation will offer China the best odds of effectively securing its own national interests, including promoting tangible steps toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Testing China’s Patience

Pyongyang, despite its opaque and erratic nature, is remarkably predictable. It has repeatedly defied efforts by the international community to restrain North Korean excesses and remained uncompromising in its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The effects of these actions have been severely detrimental to China’s interests. North Korea’s intransigence, for example, heightens regional tensions at a time when China desires regional stability. It also raises doubts about China’s commitment to being a responsible global power when Beijing seems to resist efforts to rein in its North Korean ally. In addition, Pyongyang’s behavior further entrenches U.S. bilateral military alliances in the Asia-Pacific that Chinese strategists perceive as a form of encirclement. North Korea’s refusal to give up its nuclear-weapons program also elevates Chinese concerns that nuclear weapons might proliferate throughout the region to such countries as South Korea or Japan.

China has demonstrated its dissatisfaction with North Korea’s behavior—and especially its nuclear pursuits—on a number of occasions. Beijing initiated the Six-Party Talks as a forum for regional powers to discuss denuclearizing the peninsula, vocally criticized North Korea’s nuclear program, voted for UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 (in 2006) and 1874 (in 2009) condemning Pyongyang’s nuclear tests, and implemented internationally approved sanctions on North Korea. But despite these reprimands, China provided critical support to the North Korean regime from 2009 through 2012. Motivated by fear that the government in Pyongyang was on unsteady ground and might collapse, especially after Kim Jong Il had a stroke in 2008 and initiated the succession process, China has consistently contributed to North Korea’s stability.

North Korea’s strategy of provocation and reconciliation is extremely dangerous, fraught with risks that are highly contingent on how regional powers—especially China—respond. Pyongyang can afford to be just provocative enough to make its point or secure its particular objectives, but it must avoid incurring a severe Chinese backlash that can negatively influence its material well-being. North Korea hopes that China’s concerns about causing instability or regime collapse in Pyongyang, coupled with persistent strategic distrust between China and the United States, will continue to constrain Chinese responses to North Korea’s intransigent behavior.

However, North Korea may have overestimated China’s patience and crossed a redline with its recent regionally destabilizing provocations. In 2012, North Korea revised its constitution to declare itself a “nuclear-armed state,” and in February 2013 it conducted a third nuclear test. Beijing’s actions since this test clearly indicate an unprecedented level of irritation with Pyongyang. In the past, China practiced a form of quiet diplomacy, holding difficult discussions with North Korea behind closed doors. Lately, China has been far more public in its condemnation of Pyongyang’s obstinacy. In April, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon that Beijing opposed “provocative words and actions from any party in the region” and added that the Chinese leadership would “not allow troublemaking at the doorsteps of China.” Chinese President Xi Jinping echoed this sentiment in a speech the next day that was widely believed to be referencing North Korea.

China has expressed discontent with North Korea not only through statements but also through actions. Earlier this year, Beijing voted in favor of UN Security Council Resolution 2094, which condemned North Korea’s third nuclear test. China then went even further and suspended business operations with North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank, even though such measures were not stipulated by the UN resolution. These actions, even if they are not substantive enough to carry real political or diplomatic costs for North Korea, are extraordinary.

There are indications that North Korea recognizes it has gone too far and understands it has dangerously tested the limits of China’s patience. In an effort to mend the damage to the Sino–North Korean relationship, Pyongyang has launched yet another charm offensive—including sending special envoys Choe Ryong Hae and Kim Gye Gwan to Beijing and offering to participate in talks with both South Korea and the United States.

China should be skeptical of these sorts of olive branches. North Korea has offered many such gestures to appease Beijing in the past, yet Pyongyang fundamentally remains intransigent on its nuclear-weapons program. So long as North Korea believes it can engage in provocative behavior without suffering any dire consequences, it will not deviate from its current strategy.

Possible Chinese Approaches

China has six potential policy options in its future dealings with North Korea: maintaining, rebalancing, abandoning, reforming, interfering, and cooperating. 

1. Maintaining

China could opt to maintain the same approach to its dealings with North Korea as it did prior to the third nuclear test, simultaneously condemning Pyongyang’s nuclear program and supporting its regime. But this policy no longer serves China’s national interests since Beijing has proved to be unable to stop Pyongyang’s provocations and its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Beijing’s primary motivation for supporting Pyongyang and refusing to openly criticize it has been its fear that the regime could fall—especially after Kim Jong Il’s stroke and after his death in December 2011—but North Korea’s internal situation is now less uncertain. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has consolidated his grasp on power, largely reestablished the preeminence of the ruling party over the army, and appointed members of his inner circle to influential positions. The young leader now enjoys the same absolute authority his father did in a state structured around the Suryong system, which virtually deifies the head of state. China should be less concerned about the regime in Pyongyang collapsing for reasons of internal instability and can afford to modify its North Korea policy. 

2. Rebalancing

Rebalancing, sometimes referred to as normalizing, would involve Beijing becoming strategically closer to South Korea while reducing North Korea’s trade dependence on China. This approach is both unlikely and contrary to China’s interests.

China already underwent a diplomatic revolution by shifting from a “one Korea” policy to a “two Koreas” policy in 1992 when Beijing established formal diplomatic relations with Seoul. China has since tried to maintain a balanced approach toward the two Koreas by preserving its historical friendship with the North while developing its trade relations and a strategic cooperative partnership with the South.

China will not rebalance this policy for a number of reasons. First, South Korea is intimately tied to the United States through a military alliance. It is highly unlikely that Beijing would be willing to step into the role that Washington currently fills and provide a security guarantee for South Korea.

Second, strategic distrust between Beijing and Seoul remains prevalent, despite South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s amiable visit to China last month.

Third, it is not in Beijing’s interest to reduce North Korea’s trade dependency on China. This dependence may not afford Beijing any influence over North Korean policy, but the trade relationship enables China to economically develop its northeast. Trade can ultimately revitalize China’s landlocked provinces of Jilin and Heilongjiang if they leverage their geographic proximity to North Korea and use it as a transit corridor to the East Sea (or Sea of Japan).

3. Abandoning

Another option would be for China to nullify the 1961 Sino–North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty and cease providing any assistance to North Korea in the form of food, fuel, or funds. This is the most unpopular option among Chinese leaders, who dismissed Deng Yuwen from his post as deputy editor of Study Times, the journal of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Party School, for advocating just such a policy.

Abandoning North Korea would not serve Chinese interests as it would likely result in a turbulent and unpredictable future for the North Korean regime. The current order in Pyongyang has persisted for the past two decades solely with the support of China. Pyongyang may be on more stable ground domestically than it has been in years past, but the loss of its role remaining international patron would still trigger a regime collapse. And if the regime collapsed, Beijing would likely face a host of undesirable developments, including a flow of North Korean refugees into China and the loss of the North Korean buffer zone that has long served as an additional line of defense for China in a historically vulnerable region.

This course of action would be particularly dangerous if regional actors—especially China and the United States—were unable to cooperatively develop a contingency plan to respond to a North Korean regime collapse. There would be a high risk of misunderstanding, collision, and potential escalation between these actors as they reacted to the crisis that could result in disaster. But until these major regional players move past their diplomatic constraints and are able to work through their strategic distrust of one another, no such planning will occur.

4. Reforming

Alternatively, China could attempt to compel North Korea to pursue economic reforms. However, Beijing has long attempted to promote economic reform in Pyongyang by offering such enticements as development aid and special economic zones, and these efforts have been unsuccessful. Given this reality, China is unlikely to convince North Korea to reform anytime soon.

In many instances, North Korea has disingenuously pledged to undertake economic reforms, paying lip service to Chinese demands to mend Sino¬–North Korean relations and secure additional bilateral assistance from China. So far, no substantive economic reform has occurred. In his first official speech on July 26, 2012, Kim Jong Un pledged that North Koreans would “never have to tighten their belts again” and emphasized the need to “improve the livelihoods of the people and build an economically prosperous country.” However, the young leader has shown no indication that he is willing to pursue a new path for North Korea’s economy.

Pyongyang’s resistance to engaging in economic reform may be traced to the regime’s very core. The personality cult built around the Kim dynasty means that North Korean doctrines are inherently additive and inclusive—new policies cannot contradict or replace established ones. Kim Jong Il’s policy of Songun, or “military first,” for example, did not contradict his father Kim Il Sung’s policy of Juche, or “self-sufficiency.” Kim Jong Un cannot afford to propose a new economic system that marks a significant departure from his family’s legacy as doing so might undercut the authority of his father and grandfather and thus his own claim to legitimacy. For that reason, North Korea will continue to adhere to Songun and Juche, which will entail attempting to undermine the prospects for denuclearization and promoting its internal economic development without adopting reforms.

5. Interfering

Another approach would be for China to directly interfere in North Korea’s internal affairs. But doing so would contradict China’s stance on noninterference—a keystone of its diplomatic position—and be impractical due to North Korea’s ideological and strategic resistance of outside meddling.

Chinese leaders enshrined the precept of noninterference in the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence established in the 1950s to govern relations between states. Since the formulation of this doctrine, Beijing has staunchly opposed any attempts by the international community to interfere in states’ sovereignty and vetoed numerous UN Security Council resolutions on the basis of noninterference. China cannot afford to openly interfere in North Korea’s internal affairs, as doing so would undermine its credibility and legitimacy as a champion of traditional state sovereignty.

North Korea is also unlikely to allow any outside actor—including China—to meddle in its internal affairs. Pyongyang has staunchly opposed any subordination to powerful neighbors and developed its Juche ideology in order to resist having to “serve the great” as past Korean kingdoms did in their dealings with the Chinese empire.

China’s influence over North Korea should not be overestimated. Even though Beijing is Pyongyang’s sole patron, the Sino–North Korean bilateral relationship deteriorated significantly when China established diplomatic relations with South Korea. It has continued to degrade in recent years as China has moved toward economic modernization. When it comes to North Korea, Beijing has a toolbox with only one tool—a hammer. China could certainly trigger a regime collapse by abandoning Pyongyang, but it is less capable of exerting the more nuanced influence on North Korea’s behavior that would induce it to reform. 

6. Cooperating

Beijing is unlikely to adopt a strategy of maintaining, rebalancing, or abandoning North Korea because these options would be contrary to China’s own national interests. Reforming and interfering are not feasible and therefore unrealistic options. That leaves Beijing only one potential policy approach—cooperation.

This approach involves China further collaborating with regional actors—especially the United States—in its interactions with North Korea. Adopting a common position and agenda with other Asia-Pacific powers for dealing with North Korea is the most feasible strategy for China to serve its own national interests. This approach does not entail a fundamental strategic change but rather a tactical shift in the modes China uses to promote regional stability and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Sanctions, incentives, and strategic patience have all failed to prevent North Korea from disrupting regional stability and enhancing its nuclear arsenal. An underlying deficiency in all the failed measures is the absence of strategic consensus among regional powers. Regional actors have repeatedly undermined one another’s efforts. While then U.S. president George W. Bush was listing North Korea as part of the “axis of evil,” then South Korean president Kim Dae Jung was promoting the Sunshine Policy, which called for greater political contact between the two Korean states. While newly elected South Korean president Lee Myung-bak was cutting off aid to North Korea, China was increasing its aid provisions to Pyongyang. This lack of cohesion has left North Korea to continue on as usual, free of any significant international pressure.

So long as China remains divided from other regional actors on the matter of North Korea, Pyongyang will continue to behave with impunity and there will be no tangible progress on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. And the North Korean regime—which has proven itself to be a brilliant diplomatic player over the years—remains committed to driving wedges between China and other regional actors. Pyongyang will benefit if it can keep Beijing from cooperating with these powers, particularly Washington. For North Korea, a common Sino-American strategy toward Pyongyang represents a worst-case scenario as it would deprive North Korea of its traditional leverage. Pyongyang’s current efforts to ameliorate tensions with Beijing, for example, are likely intended to forestall any such regional cooperation that could lead to a multinational consensus on how to pursue North Korea’s denuclearization.

A Collaborative Future

Reaching consensus on a North Korea strategy will not be without challenges. Competition is normal in international relations, and, as a rising power, China will undeniably experience some tensions with the United States. However, competition does not inevitably preclude cooperation. A win-win situation that provides absolute gains to both great powers—such as the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula—is feasible as long as relative gains are balanced. China can afford to work more cooperatively with other regional actors in pursuit of their common interests, which uniformly include the denuclearization of the peninsula.

Any multilateral cooperative agreement between China and other regional actors for addressing North Korea should at a minimum reflect a common position in their expectations before any form of engagement with Pyongyang begins. This shared position should include agreement on four points: no nuclear recognition, no more nuclear weapons, no more nuclear tests, and no nuclear proliferation.

During two summit meetings this June, Xi Jinping agreed with both Park Geun-hye and U.S. President Barack Obama on the importance of regional stability and North Korean denuclearization. Defining this common objective was a very good first step. However, it must be followed by concrete actions, such as the establishment of a common agenda and strategy between regional actors. This sort of cooperation would send a clear message to North Korea that China has little tolerance anymore for provocations that harm Chinese national interests. 

Antoine Bondaz is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and a program coordinator at the Paris-based Asia Centre.