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

Kim Seong Hwan  |  2016-10-14 11:06

The following is the full transcript of a recent Daily NK interview with Park Jong Cheol, head of Gyeongsang University's Institute for Peace and Unification Studies.

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 North.

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 nukes. 

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 grounds. 

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 Kims 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 Chinas 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 Koreas 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 North? 

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.

*Translated by Colin Zwirko
*Edited by Lee Farrand

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