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April 12, 2013

Will China Shift Its Stance on N. Korea?

by VOA News

Weeks of threats by North Korea against the South and the United States have provoked strong criticism from countries around the world. However, the response from Pyongyang's longtime ally China has been more nuanced.

During a recent phone conversation with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China would not allow any troublemaker at its doorstep. Similar warnings came from Chinese president Xi Jinping who said that “no country should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain.”

Neither comment specifically mentioned North Korea, reflecting Chinese officials' reluctance to criticize the North directly. But in state-backed media, the language has been more blunt.

A commentary on China's bilingual state newspaper, the Global Times, said on Friday that it is imperative for China to adjust its policy toward North Korea. However, the paper also said abandoning Pyongyang is not an option for Beijing's leaders.

“North Korea is not a chess piece for China,” the Chinese version read.

On Thursday, the same newspaper lashed out against North Korea's “hardline and deceptions,” saying Pyongyang's extremist posture is endangering regional peace.

The varying viewpoints in official newspapers hint at the internal debate and deep concern that leaders and the public have over a military confrontation on the Korean peninsula.

Wang Dong, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Strategic Studies at the School of International Relations at Beijing University, says China recognizes the risk brought about by North Korea's actions.

“We are at a very dangerous point, and any kind of miscalculation or accident might just lead to a disastrous war,” he said.

Wang said that although North Korea and China had a very special relationship in the past, that does not mean Beijing will tolerate more provocations.

“We have to think really seriously about whether North Korea has become a liability to our strategic interests, and personally I think that because of what North Korea has been doing in recent years, it has created increasingly more damage in China's strategic and security interests,” he said.

After North Korea conducted its third nuclear test last February, Beijing signed U.N. sanctions to stop investment to North Korea that might be used to develop nuclear weapons. But Chinese officials have been wary of taking further actions against a neighbor whose economy deeply relies on Beijing's investment and aid.

Bolder stances have come from Chinese scholars.

Earlier this year, Deng Yuwen, a prominent journalist at a Communist Party weekly, argued in a Financial Times essay that North Korea had become a liability and China should abandon it. Following the publication of the commentary, Deng was suspended from his post.

Wang Fan, a professor of International Relations at the China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, acknowledges that there is divergence of opinion among his fellow North Korea observers over whether China's alliance with North Korea will in the long run serve Beijing's purposes.

But he said that especially in this moment of crisis, China cannot abandon its exchanges with North Korea.

“Exchanges do not mean at all that we accept North Korea's status as a nuclear country,” Wang said, “they do not mean at all that we believe that North Korea's actions right now are correct.”

Wang added that only by continuing contacts with North Korea can China influence the country to tone down its rhetoric and stop provocations.

But mounting pressure from the Chinese public might, in some analysts view, force Beijing's hand into rethinking their alliance with North Korea.

“[Among the Chinese public] there is a growing dissatisfaction and anger towards North Korea and what North Korea has been doing,” says Beijing University professor Wang Dong.

He says that in the long run, that public dissatisfaction could give confidence to Chinese leaders to adopt a new approach to North Korea.