China's Policy Shift on North Korea: is it happening?

Recent developments in East Asia have led many world leaders, academics, and analysts to say that China is "getting tougher" on North Korea, including U.S. President Barack Obama on the Charlie Rose Show in June of this year. But Dr. Sunny Seong Hyon Lee put forward his own research to support an alternative narrative.

Dr. Lee described China's relationship with North Korea as one that "invites misunderstanding." Political leaders may say one thing, but actions always speak louder than words. Which actions count, however, and how does one read them? The first example Dr. Lee gave was an article by Deng Yuwen, an editor at The Study Times, an influential journal of the Communist Party's Central Party School. Deng wrote the article for the British newspaper The Financial Times, titled "China should abandon North Korea."  This piece was viewed as evidence that China is getting tougher on North Korea. After all, it was assumed that the article had passed through several layers of party censors to receive approval.  In fact, that was not true.  Party censors had not reviewed his article before publication.  Dr. Lee pointed out that Deng was suspended and subsequently fired from his editorial position at The Study Times. In a later interview, Deng remarked that he himself was "surprised" when his article was published. It is clear that China continues to care about maintaining its relationship with North Korea.


Dr. Lee also outlined several other cases where the Western news has gotten China’s position on North Korea wrong. One was when Reuters reported in February that China had ceased oil exports to N. Korea. This observation appeared soon after North Korea's "satellite launch," widely believed to be a test for an intercontinental-range missile and occurred despite the expressed objections of the United Nations and China. This was, as Dr. Lee described, a "loss of face" for China. Face, or mianzi, is a psychological concept that can be alternatively explained as status defined by others. When North Korea went against China's wishes and carried out the launch, it was disrespectful to China. As a result, oil exports to North Korea stopped. Yet while exports in February did stop, China later resumed oil exports N. Korea, bringing 2013 exports to levels comparable to those in 2012.


Why, however, has China maintained diplomatic ties with North Korea? China enjoys being the principal point of contact for many heads of state addressing the Korea issue. This is a central strategic role that China is unwilling to give up. There are, however, costs to China’s continuing support for North Korea.  One audience member pointed out the U.S. "pivot" of military might to Asia, in part responding the threat North Korea poses, is problematic for China. Dr. Lee responded by saying that China's policy is best understood from a psychological analysis of action, not words. China's present foreign policy does not permit war, domestic economic instability, or nuclear proliferation on the peninsula. When China's relationship with North Korea jeopardizes one of these three interests, causes China to lose face as it did in February, or comes to have more costs than benefits for China, there may be substantive policy change. Until then, China’s basic policy towards North Korea is here to stay.


Dr. Sunny Seong-hyon Lee is a journalist based in Beijing, China, and is the 2013-2014 Pantech Fellow in Korean Studies at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. He frequently reports on China-Korea relations and has appeared on CNN, Al Jazeera, and China Central Television (CCTV).



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