Following the breakdown of negotiations between North Korea and the US in Stockholm, Sweden, at the beginning of October, some foreign media outlets speculated that this could signal good news for China’s government, which is currently involved in trade negotiations with the US. The logic went that the breakdown could provide China with the opportunity to mediate between North Korea and the US, as well as to consolidate its position in the dynamics of the Korean Peninsula. 

However, the Chinese government has maintained a neutral position, stating only that it hopes North Korea and the U.S. will continue to talk, and has simply emphasized the importance of mutual respect. Yet what is really going on in China, as it witnesses the US-DPRK denuclearization talks? 

“The Chinese government is also uneasy about North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons,” Lee Geun Young, a visiting scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and the first South Korean researcher specializing in North Korea at CASS, told Daily NK in a recent interview at Daily NK’s office. According to Lee, China wants North Korea to denuclearize, but only if the entirety of the Korean Peninsula becomes denuclearized. 

Below is the full Daily NK interview with Lee. 

Q. What, for China, is the ideal outcome of the US-DPRK denuclearization negotiations?

The ideal outcome is for North Korea not to conduct any more nuclear tests, and not to create anxiety among its neighbors and sabotage its relationships. China believes, however, that whether North Korea has nuclear capabilities or not is North Korea’s business. That being said, China’s government has a zero-tolerance attitude towards actual nuclear tests. China believes that if nothing happens in the negotiations between the US and North Korea by December, they are likely to regress to a point even before the negotiations began.

China’s government predicts that North Korea might launch another intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or even conduct another nuclear test. Right now the quantity of nuclear materials that North Korea owns is at a level China can tolerate, so all they ask is that North Korea either complies with the regulations of the international community, or refrain from conducting illegal tests. For China’s government, the most realistic outcome they can hope for is for North Korea to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and quietly come under the watch of the international community.

Q. Does China then propose that the international community officially recognize North Korea as a nuclear power?

That really is the only way to regulate North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. North Korea’s membership in the NPT has already been made official. If the point was to deny North Korea’s legitimacy as a nuclear power, then something should have been done in the late 1990s or 2000s. But there were no measures taken. In the meantime, North Korea’s nuclear weapons have developed to the point where they are now battle ready.

The only measures that seem viable at this point is to bring North Korea into the fold of the international community and encourage it to divert its nuclear development away from weapons and into a direction that is helpful for its economy.

Q. Does this mean that total denuclearization is impossible because North Korea already possesses nuclear technology?

It is, of course, difficult to imagine North Korea actually abandoning its nuclear program. Also, given the low level of trust between North Korea and the US right now, even if North Korea hypothetically did promise to destroy all its nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons sites, there is no way that the US ever fully believe them. The US is demanding that North Korea give up all of its hidden technology, but that’s just not a realistic demand. 

Say North Korea was asked to bring out all of the nuclear warheads it has. But if the US were to say that they’d conducted a separate investigation and found 30 more, it’s not as though North Korea can make 30 more to bring it to them. Ultimately the point is that a minimum level of trust does not exist in the relationship between North Korea and the US. The Chinese government alone cannot bridge this gap in trust. And this is why, therefore, that China believes the only way forward is for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program to come under the regulatory framework of the international community. 

Q. North Korea continues to put pressure on the US, emphasizing a need for a change in attitude and the end of this year as a deadline for negotiations. Even if North Korea were completely dismantle the nuclear weapons sites in Yongbyun and Tongchang-ri, doesn’t the current situation make it easy to doubt the sincerity of North Korea’s moves towards denuclearization?

North Korea is desperate right now. Its economy is in crisis and its level of food security is poor. North Korean leaders wanted material things in the past, but now they want dollars. But right now it’s not easy to control the supply and demand of dollars. Moreover, North Korea lacks raw materials. During the construction of a hotel in Wonsan this summer, North Korea extended the completion date of the hotel, from 2021 to 2022. That is how scarce raw materials are in North Korea. In short, North Korea faces serious issues in fundamental areas of its economy. 

North Korea has paraded around Kim Yong Chol and Kim Kye Gwan as part of its continued emphasis on the end of the year as some sort of deadline [in the negotiations with the US]. I think that they are determined to achieve certain concrete goals by the end of the year. I predict that it will make some decisive move to this end. In any case, North Korea is determined to resolve the nuclear issue somehow. That being said, it will be difficult to achieve total denuclearization in the country when they’ve chosen the end of this year to solve the issue in one decisive swoop. Total denuclearization is an incredibly long process that involves multiple verification processes and other procedures. 

Q. Ultimately, will it be possible to make any sort of progress by the end of the year, in a situation where the US and North Korea have not even agreed on a common definition of denuclearization? And, how does the Chinese government view the US-DPRK denuclearization negotiations?

“Right now, the US and North Korea have different goals. That is, their goals for denuclearization are different. North Korea wants a breakthrough of some sort, while the US thinks that discussion they are having is in and of itself a step forward. In China the general mood is one of low expectations for the negotiations. China doesn’t believe that much will change.

China believes that Trump will be reelected. To be reelected, Trump will attempt to make some big deal. China’s government believes it’s obvious that Kim Jong Un will accept the deal but not give up the nuclear weapons.

In the negotiations between North Korea and the US, China’s position is that it can only speak for itself. It cannot speak on behalf of North Korea to the US. South Korea, for its part, can indicate to the US that it is cooperating with China, and increase its own bargaining power in its relationship with the US. Some people wonder if this isn’t a way to ensure that China is not excluded from the dialogue, and in part this is true. But China also believes that gains for its interests can also mean greater gains for all parties involved. China will always propose and enact deals that represent mutual benefits to all parties. That’s something worth keeping in mind.

Q. North Korea may lack raw materials, but the trade volume between North Korea and China has reportedly increased somewhat recently. 

China will sometimes throw North Korea a bone, but North Korea is always in need of more. North Korea needs foreign capital, but the Chinese government provides products rather than currency. Chinese officials tell their North Korean counterparts that “You don’t have enough food, so we’ll pay in food,” and that sort of thing. In fact, in Dandong (Liaoning Province) you will always see an endless procession of trucks and trains headed into North Korea. It looks like a lot of stuff is going in, but to North Korea it’s never enough. From China’s perspective, it’s a small courtesy. 

In South Korea, the general perception is that traditionally North Korea and China have always been close, and are locked in an strong alliance, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Especially when it comes to this idea of an alliance “forged through war,” Kim Jong Un is fully aware that North Korea is dependent on China, and also believes that the Chinese government’s policies have had a hand in North Korea’s currently underdeveloped state. Both North Korea and China believe that North Korea and China are independent from each other. North Koreans know that they’re getting help from China, but at the same time they believe that they’re always at a disadvantage in trade deals with China. So basically North Koreans mostly believe that they need to improve relations with South Korea.

Q. Wouldn’t China as well as other neighboring countries feel uncomfortable with improved relations between the two Koreas?

China’s government believes that because North and South Korea share one ethnicity, they are liable to reunite when the opportunity arises. China is aware that it will be excluded from the table when relations between the two Koreas improve. This is why the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences created the Northeast Project. Underlining the project is the belief that China, as a massive nation, must be prudent its policies for neighboring countries if it is to continue along its dazzling historical trajectory.

In South Korea, we believe that China won’t like normalized relations between the two Koreas, nor a unified Korea, but China’s government government doesn’t think of reunification in terms of approval or disapproval. China has big aspirations, and because it prioritizes its own goals, it wants a situation where the neighboring countries are not obstructing it from pursuing these goals.

The following is just my personal opinion, but in my view the basic tone of China’s policies towards North and South Korea are the same. There’s a unified policy for the Korean Peninsula as a whole. When China’s government allows tourism to North Korea, it allows tourism to South Korea. When it squeezes South Korea, it also squeezes North Korea. From our perspective in South Korea, it seems like China and North Korea are acting in collusion, but this is not true. Rather, China believes that the US would never allow the Korean reunification that South Korea hopes for. Moreover, it believes that the US desire for denuclearization is not for South Korea’s sake. What the Chinese government wants for the Korean Peninsula is peace without US involvement.

*Translated by Violet Kim

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The Korean version of this interview can be found here