How China thinks about North Korea

There has been a lot of talk in the US and by President Donald Trump about how China owns the North Korea issue, and how only China has leverage over North Korea. We just finished reading an amazing report “China’s Engagement of North Korea: Challenges and Opportunities for Europe” by the Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute (SIPRI) on China’s attitudes and approach to North Korea. This report is a valuable contribution to the field, as it fills in the major gap US scholars and think tanks have in understanding China’s thinking on this important issue. It’s a long read, but worth the time as it goes beyond the superficial analysis of “China does not want refugees flooding its border if North Korea collapses”.


While written for an European audience, it is useful for US audiences who struggle to understand why China refuses to adopt US positions on the issue. The report explores debates within China on the issue, capturing a diverse range of viewpoints and policy influences.


Some of China’s observations


1.     North Korea’s economy is growing and lives are improving because of limited emerging market forces

2.     North Korea seeks to differentiate its economic experimentations from China

3.     Economic development is hampered by continued emphasis on Songun (or military), sanctions, lack of foreign currency and a lack of investor confidence

4.     Growth of a market economy is limited by sanctions

5.     The need to address North Korea’s security concerns, hostility perceptions and economic concerns to achieve denuclearization

6.     Related to pt 5, a general consensus on the need for sanctions and negotiations to achieve a resolution


Some key debates from the report


1.     Tensions between China's focus on stability and denuclearization and whether there is a need for China to choose one over the other

2.     The extent to which North Korea is committed to economic development if it conflicts with regime stability

3.     The importance of SEZs in an economic development process, but questions over how motivated DPRK is in making SEZs successful (see pt 4)

4.     The role of China's economic engagement as a pathway to denuclearization (in conjunction with addressing North Korea's threat perceptions and in developing strategic leverage) vis-à-vis sanctions

5.     Arguments within China to end foreign aid, especially of crude oil, to North Korea

6.     Whether denuclearization is possible


Overall, Chinese views reflects the complex relationship China has with North Korea, given the extent of economic engagement between both countries, their geographical proximity and breadth of interactions, and China’s own experiences in “reform and opening up.”