China Leadership Monitor

China’s North Korea Dilemma

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ever since North Korea began to acquire the elements of a nuclear weapons program in the late ’80s—but especially since Beijing became mediator of the ill-fated Six Party talks in 2003—China's leadership has been faced with an exquisite dilemma: how to encourage or prod its strong-willed, highly volatile Stalinist neighbor to give up the bomb and open up to politically threatening reforms while sustaining the cooperation and support of a seemingly impatient, often internally divided and potentially threatening United States.  Judging by public PRC statements and commentary, Beijing has grown increasingly frustrated over its inability to persuade, cajole, or pressure its erstwhile North Korean friend and ally.  As a result, China's leaders have become more supportive of tougher international actions toward Pyongyang and less willing to silently endure, downplay, or excuse the North's vitriol and provocative behavior.  They appear more tolerant of harsh domestic criticisms of North Korea (and even of elements of Beijing's own approach), far less inclined to present themselves as the North's ally, and more willing to coordinate their approach openly with Washington, Japan, and South Korea.  Nevertheless, Beijing's core strategic interests, beliefs, and objectives, along with its suspicions and uncertainties with regard to Washington, almost certainly remain largely unchanged, and hence its highly risk-averse approach to maintaining stability remains paramount.  This article identifies the most salient elements of change and continuity in China's approach to North Korea in order to gain a more precise understanding of the range of interests, assumptions, fears, and hopes that will most likely influence the PRC leadership's future behavior.