For stability on Korean Peninsula, focus must be on concerted effort among regional powers

Park Jong Cheol, head of Gyeongsang University’s 
Institute for Peace and Unification Studies

Daily NK [DNK]: You have been researching China-North Korea relations and Korean Peninsula
issues for quite some time now. I know it is difficult to summarize, but could
you please describe what you think is the fundamental basis for the North Korea
policy of China’s President Xi Jinping?

Mr. Park Jong Cheol [Park]: Since the Korean War, China-North Korea relations have been
maintained as a sort of ‘nervous alliance’, with China’s goal being to
maintain and reinforce the status quo of a divided peninsula. We can see
that they have preferred a policy aimed at maintaining a stable Korean
Peninsula through strategic patience, though they seem to be facing a dilemma
regarding how to deal with and prioritize their relationship with a weakening
North Korea.

More specifically, after the Korean War, Mao Zedong and
Khrushchev helped Kim Il Sung by concentrating on the North’s economic
development and national security. So in effect, two nations (China and the
Soviet Union, but especially the occupying Chinese forces) were maintaining
their influence with Kim Il Sung. Kim then chose to focus on the simultaneous
development of heavy and light industries, agriculture, and the military,
particularly with the goal of setting up an independent national defense force.
However, the economy was failing to keep up with such ambitious plans. Mao told
Kim to reduce the size of his military to 280,000 men and concentrate on the
economy instead, but the advice fell on deaf ears. On September 18th, 1956, at
the 8th CCP National Congress, Mao even told USSR Vice Premier Mikoyan that Kim
“ignores 100% of our advice and will only heed 70% of [Soviet]
advice”. This statement highlights the mutual distrust between China and
North Korea that existed even at that time, which I think continues today. Their
relationship deteriorated over the course of the Korean War, the August [1956]
Incident, and the Cultural Revolution. China has even been enforcing
international sanctions against the North, but has throughout the years failed
to exhibit substantial control over them. As such, China has learned to live with
the high degree of autonomy that the North indeed possesses. 

But still we ask ourselves why the two countries continue to
nurture their alliance. The answer lies in the theory of realism in
international politics, where a country utilizes others in the struggle for a
balance of power. More than on the basis of a shared ideology, China and North
Korea base their alliance on mutual benefits achieved through economic
cooperation and maintaining a balance of power. This is reflected also in the
modern China-US competitive relationship where Xi Jinping refuses to abandon
North Korea on the basis of its strategic value, which supports the idea that
China’s alliance with the North will continue. 

However, Xi is faced with the dilemma of how to restrain Kim
Jong Un’s military provocations such as the recent nuclear test while at the
same time inducing or encouraging their economic, societal, and cultural
development. Xi seems to be trying to persuade Kim to give up his ‘Byungjin Line’
(simultaneous economic and military/nuclear development), but even if Kim refuses
to accede, Xi will reluctantly continue to tolerate Kim regardless. In the
current state of global affairs, where China and the US are moving towards
establishing a new order of great power relations, it appears as if Xi has the
greatest influence over the fate of the Korean Peninsula, whether it be towards
peaceful coexistence of the North and South or back to a new kind of cold war.

DNK: There is also the opinion that China is taking the lead
within the new G2 in handling the problem of North Korea. What do you think
about this?

Park: Yes, it is correct to say that within the China-US
relationship, a strategy has been established to deal with Korean Peninsula and
nuclear issues. Historically China, as the ‘middle kingdom’, saw themselves at
the center of a global empire, and this mindset survived through to the
establishment of the PRC and until today. This is also aided by growing global
recognition of the geopolitical importance of the Korean Peninsula. But when
Mao established his ‘New China’ and settled relations with Stalin, the Korean
War swiftly changed the dynamics of relations between the US, China, and the
Soviet Union. 

During the Cold War, China was less concerned over their
alliance with the Soviets than their relations with the increasingly hegemonic
United States. What I mean is that both in the past and today, China has seen
the US as its most significant rival. So it is only natural to believe that
establishing a joint policy over the Korean Peninsula is in the best interest
of the decision makers in both Washington and Beijing.

DNK: Recently North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test. Does
this put China in an awkward position, considering their preference for
maintaining the status quo regarding North Korea?

Park: Well before considering China, I think South Korea is in an
even more awkward position. We must take responsibility ourselves for solving
the issues of the nuclear test and the disintegration of North-South relations.
We must closely analyze our own incompetence in dealing with the North and come
up with a viable solution ourselves. We need to employ creative diplomacy in
order to bring our plan and position to our neighbors and elicit a joint
solution led by South Korea. 

China is now placing more of an emphasis on the geopolitical
importance of North Korea, with its own defense and global political strategy,
especially regarding their relations with the US, at the forefront of their
reasoning. It might seem that the North’s strategic value for China decreased
after the end of the Cold War, but as their competition with the US ramps up,
the Korean Peninsula has found renewed importance as a major strategic aspect
between the US and China. In Xi’s view, North Korea’s fifth nuclear test is not a
major problem for their own Korean Peninsula policy but rather for their rivals
in the South, the US, and Japan. In other words, China sees the failure to
prevent another nuclear test not as its own responsibility, but as a result of
the failure of US-led sanctions and other restrictive policies towards the

Kim Jong Un is focused on many things at once, including
further development of nuclear and missile capabilities, maintaining his grip on
power and the current system, and his ability to employ threats and negotiation
tactics with rival states. Kim continues to see the value of their nuclear
capabilities in negotiations with the South or the US due to the inconsistency
in the state policies of those countries from administration to administration,
as the outgoing Obama and Park administrations will pass off responsibility to
new administrations that could potentially wish to change the terms of past
agreements with the North. Kim will likely continue with nuclear development
and especially miniaturization towards nuclear ICBM capabilities through to
next year’s presidential election in the South. The next administrations must
face the possibility of a situation where they are negotiating with not only a
nuclear North Korea, but one with a drastically increased threat range of those

What this means is that each day that our government along
with China, the US, and others continue to stand by, the potential cost of
failing to properly deal with the North increases. Time simply is not on our
side with this matter. As it stands, no one has come up with a suitable plan to
stop Kim in his quest for official recognition as a nuclear state, which means
we must look towards new ways to prevent the next nuclear test. But we must at
the same time work together to refrain from such severe actions as a preemptive
strike on the North’s facilities.

The problem of North Korea’s nuclear tests is not temporary.
It is rather a dilemma that highlights the geopolitical security threat that
the Korean Peninsula has come to represent. Kim Jong Un knows this and uses
such considerations to maximize the value of his actions and in turn his
nation’s standing and political power. However, Xi Jinping likewise points to
joint US-South Korean military drills as an equally destabilizing factor. Thus
China will again likely push their familiar recommendation for denuclearization
and a peace treaty between Washington and Pyongyang.

DNK: It seems that China does not see the fifth nuclear test as a
game changer. Do you think our government needs to use its military cooperation
with the US and Japan for example to increase pressure on China to enforce
comprehensive economic sanctions on the North?

Park: Again, Xi thinks joint South Korea-US military drills are
just as destabilizing and unproductive as the North’s nuclear tests. But he is
also keeping a close eye on Japan and their cooperation with the US and the
South due to Abe’s potentially troublesome view of historical events. Xi seems
most concerned with Abe’s shift away from a pacifist constitution and thinks
the US and South Korea’s invitation to Japan’s self-defense forces to participate
in the joint drills (in the name of collective security) could lead to further
development of Japan’s military particularly in terms of offensive capabilities.
He sees the possible transformation of Japan’s defense forces into a full-blown
national army as a primary long-term concern, with inter-government cooperation
between the South, the US, and Japan as more of a short-term concern.

This year’s additional UN sanctions (Resolution 2270) on the
North increase the possibility that Xi will institute proper enforcement by
China. However, Xi is separating the issues of economic cooperation
and sanctions over nuclear weapons. Since Resolution 2270 includes
exceptions on humanitarian grounds, it is likely that China, which sees itself as
a responsible world power now but one that still values North Korea, will both
agree to improve sanctions enforcement and at the same time continue economic
aid to the North based on these exceptions.

DNK: The UN also recently presented their plan to take “further
significant measures” following the latest nuclear test. One tool in the UN
resolution details the ability to sanction 3rd party financial institutions or
private enterprise that do business with the North in what they call a
‘secondary boycott’. Do you think institutions within China will be subject to
such sanctions?

Park: As a responsible world power, China will abide by the UN
Resolution. As I said though, China’s position as a world power, together with
the dilemma over their alliance with the North, makes for a somewhat
unpredictable situation. Even though the North’s nuclear tests present a
problem to Xi, they also highlight China’s unique and powerful position as a
key player in Korean Peninsula issues. But our government’s task of gaining
China’s approval towards such a ‘secondary boycott’ is no small mountain to
climb. Furthermore, the actual implementation and enforcement of secondary
sanctions is a difficult task involving many variables.

First, there is the contentious and grueling task of
identifying the criteria and targets of the secondary sanctions. Cooperation
between the US, Japan, and South Korea will be relatively easy but the opposing
viewpoints of China and Russia present a problem towards a smooth process,
which is exactly what the North is counting on. Next, there is the fact that
after decades of failed negotiations by the US and others, leaders in the North
are quite experienced in the art of negotiation and thus will be duly prepared
for the next round. Third, we have seen continued unofficial trade and
smuggling operations between China and North Korea which are extremely
difficult to regulate. We can also expect players involved in joint enterprise
projects between the two countries to find more indirect methods of trade and
interaction. But most importantly, if such sanctions end up directly hurting
the economic well-being of the people of North Korea, China and Russia will
likely take the opportunity to officially dispute the measures on humanitarian

An oil storage and pipeline facility in Dandong owned by a subsidiary of China National
Petroleum Corporation. Oil deliveries to be transferred to North Korea are received at
 this facility in Basan.

DNK: Your current work over China’s oil pipeline to North Korea
is gaining attention these days. Could you please briefly introduce your
research and tell us if you maintain your position that despite the recent
nuclear test, it is difficult for China to halt the flow of oil to the North?

Park: Despite emerging conflict with the Soviet Union starting
with a border dispute in late 1950, Mao resolved to swiftly pay back the loans
received from the Soviets during the Korean War, which of course led to the
starvation of millions in China. The two were also vying for the support of Kim
Il Sung in the North, where Mao began to provide food supplies to Kim, and then
oil in 1962. In late 1989 at the height of North Korea’s economic performance,
China was providing them with 2 million tons of crude oil, and since the
so-called “Arduous March” or great famine in North Korea in 1997, China has
been providing the North with approximately 500,000 tons annually. We can
assess that this is the minimum amount required to run North Korea’s
industries. The pipeline is essentially the lifeline of the North’s industrial
facilities and military machinery. This means that cutting the lifeline would
also represent a severing of Kim’s ability to exert control over the North, and
would simply be very damaging to their relations. 

We must also be cautious of the unintended consequences of
such an action, unlikely as it is, since Xi does not consider it a viable
option. First, there is the possibility of expanded unofficial trade and
smuggling routes into North Korea with the current shale gas revolution and the
ability of the country to stem some of the demand shortages in the region.
Second, even if the pipeline is cut, it will still be extremely easy for crude
and refined oil to find its way across the border, and the price would actually
go down as well. It would be possible to sanction the pipeline, but after
relations warm again between China and North Korea, it is likely that the flow
of oil will resume and this time by even cheaper methods such as by train or
lorry. Third, according to interviews with actual traders on the ground in
China, such methods of smuggling in gasoline and other products is already
quite common.

The oil pipeline is being maintained out of strategic
objectives. Just as with the May 24th measures (after the Cheonan sinking) and
the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, cutting the pipeline would serve
as a heavy blow, but at the expense of China’s ability to influence the North.
Not only does the pipeline represent a lever on Kim Jong Un’s control of the
country, but it is also significant in enabling Kim to mobilize his army in
response to the joint US-South Korea “Key Resolve” military drills. If China
had thought the nuclear tests were dangerous towards its own national security,
it would have put a stop to them already. But since the 2nd nuclear test in
2009, Hu Jintao and then Xi Jinping have continued to act as political and
economic guardians of North Korea. So if this fifth test was not seen in China as
the ultimate violation of their trust, then it is not likely that a severing of
the pipeline would be in the works. And even if they did so, I believe that the
oil would again flow to the North through the ‘livelihood’ exception of the UN
sanctions or simply under humanitarian pretext. Today China imports oil from many
countries with which it is working to build indigenous oil industries, but it
is still exporting to the North. Though 500,000 tons of oil may be a drop in
the bucket for China, it is still tremendously valuable to the North. 

DNK: The unexpected fifth nuclear test placed China in an awkward
position regarding its opposition to the THAAD missile system deployment on the
Korean Peninsula. What do you think about this notion that North Korea has
further complicated China’s position? 

Park: This past August saw the indefinite postponement by China of
an annual meeting between Chinese and South Korean economic organizations. Xi
is again separating the issues of the THAAD deployment and the nuclear test and
does not see THAAD as a viable bargaining chip towards reigning in North Korea.
Militarily and technically speaking, THAAD would provide better radar and
interceptability to the South and others, but it seems that Xi is most
concerned with its X-Band radar capabilities and the possibility of the US using
this technology to collect sensitive information about China’s activities. Some
in the Chinese press are admitting that the decision to deploy THAAD was a
direct result of the fifth nuclear test, seemingly a reflection of the opinion of
the Chinese authorities. It looks like Xi will continue to press simultaneously
for the North’s denuclearization and the withdrawal of the THAAD system from
the South. 

DNK: China is emphasizing a policy of denuclearization in order
to maintain stability on the peninsula, and it is important to note that just
like the US, China has vowed never to allow the North to officially become a
nuclear power. What is the reason for China’s tepid response to the North
declaring itself a nuclear power? 

Park: The North’s denuclearization is actually one of the key
factors of China’s policy for a stabilized peninsula. America’s deployment of
nukes to the South in 1957 and China’s subsequent withdrawal of its army from
the North a year later is a prime example of this (though of course there
is also the opinion that strife within the Socialist Bloc at the time was the
deciding factor in ensuring a halt to a nuclear arms race on the peninsula).

China indeed moved swiftly to approve the UN resolution
against the North for their nuclear and missile tests, but it is important to
understand that they still see the joint US-South Korea military exercises and
the THAAD system deployment as a significant threat to their own security. They
agree with the South’s approach to solving the nuclear problem as a domestic
issue, but they clearly reject any strategy which involves military
intervention by the US. Most of the researchers I met though in China believe
that it is not so clear as to what China considers their ‘red line’ regarding
North Korea.

Even before the North’s first nuclear test, many vehemently
believed and were even calling for China to draw the line in the event of such a
test and abandon Kim Jong Il. But we can see that China did no such thing, and
after the fifth test, they are still supporting Kim and criticizing their rivals’
military exercises. Some researchers in China now think that within this
dilemma, China does not hold any significant military or diplomatic bargaining
chip. If the five nations in the 6-party talks (other than North Korea) agree
to military and other sanctions, then the sanctions stand a chance at success,
but we simply do not seem close to the possibility of proper cooperation
between the five at the moment. 

DNK: Even though China commonly supports international
cooperation over various issues, they take a passive approach to issues
regarding the North Korean system. What do you think is the reason for this
discrepancy? Does it simply come down to their commitment to maintaining the
status quo?

Park: Xi Jinping is worried about somehow reconciling both China’s
responsibility as a world power and their alliance with North Korea. He wants
people to know that his country will work earnestly with the US and South Korea
through the UN and fulfill its duty as a responsible world leader. But in fact
China’s participation in the UN resolution has not been earnest, and they are
instead using the resolution to call for both sanctions and dialogue at the
same time. Our government is considering whether to use the sanctions as an
opportunity to either pressure or to lay siege to the North Korean system. Xi
on the other hand is asking nations to remain objective and practice moderation
with regards to solving the nuclear problem, though our press and government
seem to be dismissing such calls. 

Again, Xi is promoting the idea that it is the US and South
Korea that are a threat to the status quo, with their joint exercises, US
introduction of various weapons technologies to the region, and of course THAAD
deployment. Considered as part of Obama’s “pivot to Asia”, it is not only North
Korea that seems to be the target, but also Xi’s ‘Chinese Dream’ of expanded
presence in the region. In this way, China feels threatened on all sides, with
the status quo being upset by the US and South Korea in addition to the North’s
nuclear development. Xi is focused on improving China’s military preparedness
due to the US having fortified the South with advanced military technologies,
and thus is engaged in its own series of military exercises. 

Also, though Xi probably dislikes Kim Jong Un, I think it is
not so easy for him to force a change in the North’s system, where Kim is still
failing to initiate serious economic development. I believe there are a few
reasons for the limited effect of sanctions. The first is that UN Resolution
2270 includes vague wording regarding exceptions for items that would damage
the “livelihood” of the North’s citizens, which the US is citing to block
sanctions over certain medical supplies. The North also continues to enjoy a
supply of oil from China to the tune of about 500,000 tons per year. There is
too much room for interpretation of this exception, which makes it difficult to
properly fulfill the intentions and goals of the resolution. The second is that
though China has officially agreed to participate in enforcing sanctions, the
situation on the ground along the 1,300km-long border is quite different. And
third, even with various attempts over the years by China to control the North
through economic sanctions or other measures, none have yet succeeded. North
Korea’s economy is not heavily dependent on foreign trade, and furthermore
there aren’t really many examples of chronic sanctions successfully changing
national political systems. Instead, as with Iran, I prefer a system where
sanctions lead to dialogue over exchanging lifted sanctions for the abandonment
of nukes and a promise to cease threats and provocations.

Joint US-Chinese long-term sanctions could bring about the
collapse of the Kim regime, but the people who would be hurt most by this are
the ordinary citizens. If a situation arises similar to the famine in the mid
90s where refugees are fleeing in large numbers to northeast China and
elsewhere, the security of border regions of China will become a chief concern
for the region as well. With Kim Jong Un’s attempt to move away from the Songun
(military-first) system back to a Sondang (party-first) system, it appears that
Xi will also support the move and urge the North not to return to its
military-first past. Since the 2nd nuclear test in 2009, China’s leaders have
preferred to separate the North’s nuclear weapons from other North
Korea-related problems. It seems that when it comes to the dilemma of how to
deal with Kim, for now they are sticking to a policy of stabilization first and
denuclearization second.

Finally, from the South’s perspective, China has displayed a
contradictory strategy regarding the North’s nuclear and missile tests since
2006. I believe this really comes down to China’s tendency to call for strong
international cooperation but then shy away from addressing the urgent problems
facing the North’s system. Then again, Xi sees America’s intervention in Korea
as a global issue and one which should be tackled according to a policy of
maintaining the security of each nation and the balance of power in the region.

DNK: One could say that cooperating with China is necessary
towards achieving denuclearization and eventually reunification. How do you
think the South can influence China over to their side and away from the

Park: After the 2nd nuclear test in 2009, our government initiated
its own sanctions and the May 24th measures which actually inspired
international cooperation, even with China, to take action and participate in
sanctioning the North. But the problem is getting worse as the North improves
their nuclear weapons technologies, and China and South Korea need to more
clearly reveal their intentions. Our government is focused on sanctions and the
possibility of collapse, while China’s is focused on dialogue, their relations
with the US, and the possibility of reform and opening up in the North. But the
diplomatic rhetoric here is disconnected from the reality. We have our alliance
with America on one side and our strategic partnership with China on the other.
With China though it’s not one based on ideology but rather on the mutual
benefits provided by the partnership. However, with significant disagreements
over THAAD, our ability to share focus on the mutual benefits of a
denuclearized North are diminishing and our relationship is getting weaker.
What we need now, with favorable options disappearing for our neighbors as
well, is a concerted effort to reduce threats towards each other and focus
instead on the mutual benefits of cooperation.

Our current hope is that China uses the benefits of trade to
influence North Korea. Xi is already trying to draw South Korea to its side
through the significant trade relationship between the two countries. But
competition between the US and China, specifically over North Korea policy, is
becoming an even more influential factor. We can expect the US and China to
continue to play tug-of-war with the Korean Peninsula, each constantly
pressuring us in the South either way until the beneficiaries on both sides
feel satisfied enough with their national and economic security to offer up a
comprehensive solution. Only then will we finally see reunification. 

DNK: Finally, many believe that the North’s nuclear missile
ambitions could eventually become the trigger of sudden upheaval in the
country. Though we must be prepared for any sudden internal problems or system
instability, what is your diagnosis of the current strength of the North’s
system and their ability to handle economic sanctions going forward?

Park: Of course we must be prepared for a vast range of
possibilities when it comes to a sudden change on the ground in the North.
First of all, we will not easily be able to control the situation on our own
strictly as a Korean Peninsula issue, with our alliance with the US, Abe’s
movement in Japan to alter their “Peace Constitution”, and China’s 1961 “Treaty
of Friendship” with the North all inviting the possibility of foreign
intervention. We cannot discount the prospect of repeating the nightmare
resulting from the last time the powerful nations of the world were invited to
the Korean Peninsula to help solve our problems. Knowing our likely inability
to maintain an independent response, we must do everything we can to avoid a
sudden collapse in the North. 

For example, as K-pop and South Korean broadcasts become
increasingly popular among North Korean citizens, they may become more
outspoken and eventually rise up to try and establish a real people’s
government. This presents an opportunity for the South to remind Kim Jong Un of
the real possibility of collapse due to either this or a leadership challenge,
which could lead to a desire to negotiate some kind of substantial reform or
joining with the South. It would also prevent the direct intervention of the
US, China, and others and allow the South, with aid from the others, to
independently manage the situation. But if we go the military route, attacking
the North’s facilities for instance, not only will we see an increased US
military presence, but there is also the possibility of China bringing in aid
troops or peacekeeping forces under the pretense of the 1961 treaty. Japan,
too, may use the pretext of regional instability to fall in behind the US
troops, using their Defense Force as rear support and once again entering
Korean waters. Though there are many scenarios of a sudden change in North
Korea, our government must guard against foreign military intervention and
bolster our capabilities to manage and control the northern half of the peninsula
if such an event were to arise.

On the other hand, we must also be thoroughly prepared for
the possibility of a durable Kim regime which strengthens its grip on power, in
which case we must be willing to exercise a policy of dialogue and cooperation
with the North. In other words, we still need to worry about how to ‘deal with
the evil dictator’ in case he sticks around. We need to recognize that since
Kim Jong Un came to power in 2009, the economy of the North has improved to a
certain extent. Some parallels can even be drawn to Deng Xiaoping’s initial
experiments with reform and opening in China. From the baseline requirement of
freezing their nuclear program, Kim could return his country to the
international community and induce reform and opening for the people,
especially if we are willing to assist through such nonpolitical spheres as
economic development and cultural exchanges, triggering contagious interest in
South Korean entertainment media among the people.

Finally, we should recall the process of East-West Germany
cooperation and dialogue and how it stemmed from the people of East
Germany courageously standing up against the Honecker dictatorship, armed with
the knowledge of their sister nation to the West and the cultural amenities
they enjoyed. If we were able to freely travel to the North or if we expanded
joint economic (industrial) complexes, we would see an even greater spread of
South Korean culture. We already see [South Korean] Choco Pies and Shin Ramyun in the
jangmadang (markets, official or otherwise) and the popularity of “Gangnam Style”, dramas like “Descendants of the Sun”,
and entertainment programs like “Real Man” in the North. Those living along the Chinese border are even more
knowledgeable, using smartphones to search the internet for South Korean news
reports about the nuclear tests, UN sanctions, or the defection of Deputy
Ambassador to the UK Thae Yong Ho. These are the tools of subversion that the
North Korean authorities fear the most, because these citizens are gaining a
new and positive image of the South. Though perhaps still loyal to the Kim
regime, they are increasingly expressing their disdain for socialism (or its
present iteration in the North) and their desire for freedom. The youth of
North Korea hold the potential to induce reform and
opening in their country and thus deserve our attention.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email