Conflicts in China's North Korea policy

Posted in China , Koreas | 21-Jul-09 | Author: Cynthia Lee| Source: Asia Times

A female North Korean soldier guards the banks of the Yalu River near the Chongsong county of North Korea opposite the Chinese border town of Hekou, northeastern China's Liaoning province May 31, 2009.

Like past economic sanctions by the United Nations, the success or failure of Resolution 1874, which calls for clamping down on the alleged trading of banned arms and weapons-related material by North Korea through stepped-up inspections of suspect shipments by sea and air, will depend on Chinese cooperation.

As the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) becomes increasingly reckless in its foreign policy, the need to reverse the trend of Chinese non-compliance has become ever-more urgent.

China, however, has already expressed reluctance towards the policy of interdiction and protested mandatory sanctions during Security Council deliberations. The UN in June passed Resolution 1874, which allows inspections of air, ship and land shipments in and out of North Korea, in response to North Korea's nuclear and missile tests in May. If China's early actions are any indication, Resolution 1874 will likely follow the path of its predecessors and flounder due to Chinese non-support. What does China stand to gain from a nuclear North Korea and the survival of the Kim Jong-il regime?

From the time of ancient kingdoms, Korea has been a "shrimp among whales", a strategic military location so tantalizing that no great Asian power has been able to resist a forceful invasion. Chinese foreign policy towards the two Koreas is then partly an inheritance from its imperial era and aims to prevent a foreign foothold in Korea.

Unless of course, it is China's own.

Unfortunately, a unified Korea, resulting from the dissolution of the Kim Jong-il regime, would not only implicitly recognize US supremacy in the region (current efforts are Western led and conceived). It would also present ample opportunity for the development of a strong foreign presence, particularly the US's. As South Korea's most powerful and generous benefactor, the US has the resources to help unite two nations whose levels of urban and economic modernization are jarringly different and bound to pose difficulties in the case of reunification.

The possibility of a strengthened US presence so close to its borders is troubling for China more so than the presence of any other nation. A US presence in Korea would not only guarantee its regional hegemony (a prize which an ambitious China has been hungrily eyeing) but also create Chinese insecurities over possible US military involvement in the Taiwanese issue. As long as this current policy prevents this scenario, it is likely to be considered effective.

The other oft-cited rationalization is the prevention of a potential refugee crisis triggered by the collapse of the Kim Jung-il regime. The crisis may precipitate UN involvement (which protects refugee rights under its charter) as well as pose a serious threat to the nation's "One China" policy.

A domestic policy the authoritarian regime takes seriously, "One China" is aimed towards maintaining the territorial integrity of this vast and ethnically diverse nation (the Chinese Community Party or CCP recognizes 55 ethnic minorities).

One group, almost 2 million ethnic Koreans, occupy an area of the Chinese-North Korean border once part of the Korean kingdom, Koguryo. The Chinese fear that, in the event of a refugee crisis, the ethnic Koreans living in this area "may undergo an identity crisis as China nationals through frequent contact [with the North Koreans]".

Many of these Koreans already long for the "Korean dream" promised by popular soap operas, and some 300,000 have immigrated to South Korea as low-wage workers in search of that dream. Should they undergo this identity crisis, ethnic Koreans may push for separation from China and seek instead to integrate (or at the very least ally) with Korea where greater civil freedoms and economic opportunities lie.

Lending further credence to such a possibility, China's claim to this region is tenuous and largely disputed by scholars who claim the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture once belonged to the Korean kingdoms, Koguryo and Balhae.

In 2002, China mounted a large-scale campaign entitled the "Northeast Project" to deflect these claims even as the project seriously cooled relations with South Korea. Its willingness to risk key diplomatic relations suggests that the CCP fears broader consequences from a Yanbian rebellion: the strengthening of the various separatist movements in China and the weakening of an already fragile legitimacy.

As the author Andrew Nathan eloquently put it, "The Chinese system suffers from a birth defect that it cannot cure: the fact that an alternative form of government is more legitimate."

Therefore, to retain the appearance of legitimacy, it must repress opposition, maintain a front of good governance, and suppress any threats to the CCP's jurisdiction over China's vast territory. This policy is in some ways an effort to undercut any future form of a challenge.

Closely tied to domestic concerns is the long-standing Chinese policy that it does not interfere in the affairs of a sovereign state. In an increasingly globalized world where transnational organizations wield significant power, this argument is a rare and dying breed. But it is a crucial one: in a nation where rampant human-rights violations occur, denial of an outsider's right to interfere in sovereign actions is necessary for its own attempts to deflect criticism of brutal authoritarian practices, foreign attempts at human-rights interference, and international calls for democratization.

The CCP then sees criticism of North Korea as the beginning of a slippery slope that could end in a human-rights intervention and/or democracy movements in its own state. The current DPRK policy not only ensures consistency among Chinese policies but helps to stabilize the current regime for the time being.

Just as any policy must have its own equilibrium of gains and losses, China's preferential treatment of North Korea has its drawbacks. To start, what international prestige China gained by hosting the six-party talks, which include North and South Korea, Japan, the US and Russia, disintegrated as North Korea withdrew from the negotiations and emerged more dangerous and reckless than ever.

While the Barack Obama administration in the US has prioritized Chinese cooperation as part of his North Korean policy, it is unclear how long US patience towards a reluctant China will last. The prestigious Center of New American Democracy for its part has argued against allowing China to determine the timetable of America's North Korean foreign policy, and the Obama administration reserves the option to internationally rebuke China for failing to be a "responsible stakeholder".

The loss of international prestige as a powerbroker and potential criticism from the Obama administration pose serious threats to the "Peaceful Rise" public relations campaign it has mounted since 2002. A campaign designed to generate acceptance into the international community and to justify its economic actions (such as foreign acquisitions), the "Peaceful Rise" has facilitated the economic growth of China (on which CCP legitimacy is based) and represents a significant monetary and political investment. It remains for China to consider then whether the loss of a key policy's legitimacy is a worthwhile value trade-off.

Chinese inaction creates another loss to which the Peaceful Rise is loosely tied - regional hegemony. China has long been an ambitious country, and its current wave of nationalism has roots in the Maoist calls for a return to greatness.

Over the years, as the US-centric San Francisco system declined and key nations like South Korea expressed anti-Americanism, China attempted to realize that goal by seeking hegemony in the Asian region. These attempts are now complicated as the US reasserts its hegemony by strengthening its alliances with distraught players like South Korea and Japan.

Japan furthermore has taken renewed US leadership in the region as an opportunity to push for normalization. Normalization, or re-militarization, of Japan constitutes a political move likely to inflame Asian nations once victim to Japan's imperial aggression. China, in particular, has vigorously protested the normalization of Japan, which it sees as not only a national security threat but also as an attempt to increase Japanese prospects for a regional hegemony.

While there is evidence to suggest that US is too uncomfortable with Japanese normalization, the US's restored position as regional hegemony automatically renews Japanese importance in the region as America's most trusted ally, therefore diminishing Chinese claims to regional leadership.

Regional leadership aside, China's current reluctance to take a tougher stance may destabilize the entire region by setting off a regional arms race. The North Korean regime has expressed no qualms over the sale of their nuclear technology to other nations, even those with dangerous and oppressive regimes. In fact, some analysts have argued that North Korea's astoundingly belligerent display of missile and nuclear technology in recent weeks may be a perverse form of advertisement from a regime badly strapped for cash.

As the threat of proliferation in Asia becomes heightened, non-nuclear nations will likely argue for and seek nuclear weapons of their own. A serious threat to China's own national security (it is particularly vulnerable as it shares its border with 14 other nations), an Asian arms race is a sobering prospect.

Most nations in this region are unpredictable, autocratic, and vulnerable in one way or another. Combined with high poverty and low education levels, there are no assurances that nuclear proliferation with follow the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) paradigm of Western proliferation. Deterrence through MAD simply may not work or rogue nations bound by heavy sanctions may sell their technology to other states and worse, to non-state actors.

Equally disturbing is the reality that the Asian region is one marked by high levels of mistrust (which are owed largely in part to its complicated and violent history). Once proliferation begins, mistrust amongst the political actors will make it difficult to stop - to say nothing of Asia's lack of an effective regional architecture and thus a central, impartial organization to conduct proliferation efforts.

Asia's inability to unite and act in the face of a proliferation crisis will bring international organizations and the US to the backyard of China. In recent years, China has supported the development of a regional architecture that excludes the involvement of these actors. China, like numerous Asian countries, believes that US and international influence over regional matters has been far too deep and lengthy. US and international involvement then will pose significant problems for China's regional vision.

As North Korea continues its dangerous and nonsensical path, China's response to the heightened threats will be crucial for the success of DPRK deterrence. Yet the odds are not in the free world's favor.

While China is no longer the DPRK's infallible ally (indeed new reports suggest its growing impatience with the regime), China is likely to place more value on the negative consequences this policy has for possible separatist movements and for domestic legitimacy than on any other.

The CCP's first and utmost concern will always be its own survival, and the threats to CCP legitimacy may be real and immediate enough to make the other value trade-offs worthwhile. Actions of the CCP suggest that they are. Much of what the CCP stands to lose from its current position have been key to its foreign policy - a campaign for a "Peaceful Rise", regional hegemony over Japan, and a peaceful Asia independent of US string-pulling. It is not likely that the CCP is trading them in for anything less than the regime's own survival.

Cynthia Lee is a student of political science at Columbia University.