China’s improving ties and increased influence with North Korea could reflect a shift under President Xi Jinping to convert the Kim Jong Un regime from a potentially destabilizing liability to a strategic asset to counter U.S. power in Asia.
Chinese politics Professor Suh Jin-young at Seoul's Korea University sees China under Xi attempting to establish itself as a “great power” equal to the United States.
Beijing’s more assertive foreign policy has led to increased tensions with Washington in the South China Sea, where recently the U.S. Navy challenged Beijing’s extensive jurisdictional claims to artificial islands in one of the busiest shipping routes in the world.
The growing competition between Beijing and Washington for power and influence in the region, said Professor Suh, is also at the heart of China’s recent outreach to North Korea.
“In the process of dealing with the United States, President Xi started to reassess North Korea’s strategic value. So China is putting more effort into normalizing relations with North Korea,” Suh said.
The impoverished North is still seen by many in the region as an economic burden that China must support and an unpredictable, unstable neighbor that could ignite a widespread conflict and even a nuclear war.
Beijing is still in agreement with Washington and Seoul that Pyongyang must dismantle its nuclear program.
But China does not share South Korea and Washington’s long-term goal to replace the militarily divided peninsula with a pro-American, democratic, unified Korea on its border.
And Beijing is skeptical that Washington’s policy of containment, diplomatic isolation and sanctions will succeed in pressuring Pyongyang to halt its nuclear development and come back to the “six party” talks.
Under the 2005 “six party” joint agreement with South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan, North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in exchange for economic aid, security guarantees and improved diplomatic ties.
Pyongyang ultimately walked away from the deal and conducted three nuclear tests that resulted in U.N.-imposed sanctions on North Korea and strained relations with China.
Beijing wants a buffer
President Xi recently moved to repair Sino-North Korean ties by sending a high level delegation to North Korea’s founding party anniversary celebration. There are also reports of expanded economic development at the China, North Korea border.
Officials in Seoul have said that Beijing’s influence is in part responsible for the uncharacteristic restraint Pyongyang has since exhibited, cooperating with Seoul in hosting separated families reunions, and not following through on threats to launch a long range rocket or conduct a fourth nuclear test.
In the short term Professor Suh says, Beijing is exerting influence in a constructive manner to split Seoul from Washington’s position that Pyongyang must halt its nuclear program before new talks can begin.
“Denuclearization is a goal which can be reached at the end of a long process, and I think it is impractical for North Korea to declare the goal first,” Suh said.
China’s long-term goal, he says, is to try to stabilize the North to maintain a buffer against a U.S. allied South Korea.
Beijing is also less concerned about the accusations of extensive human rights violations committed by the Kim family regime. China continues to block a U.N. resolution in the Security Council to refer Kim Jong Un and other high level officials in Pyongyang to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity based on a report documenting a network of political prisons in North Korea and atrocities that included murder, enslavement, torture, rape, and forced abortions.
Pyongyang officials have also criticized the U.S. anti-North Korea nuclear position as hypocritical given the American military’s large nuclear stockpile and the more than 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
However there have been recent reports of activity at a North Korea nuclear test site and indications that North Korea is making progress on developing long-range missiles that could reach the U.S. mainland and miniaturizing nuclear warheads to fit on a missile.
A North Korean missile launch, nuclear test or other provocation would undermine Xi’s current outreach and likely realign more closely Beijing with Washington on a North Korea containment policy.
Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.