Dealing with a Sore Lip: Parsing China’s “Recalculation” of North Korea Policy

Chinese media went wild—as wild as censored media gets—immediately following North Korea’s third nuclear test in February 2013. Global Times criticized the event as a failure of China’s North Korea policy, while Weibo was flooded with frustrated comments that called for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and even the punishment of North Korea by cutting off Chinese oil and food aid.[1] What was more surprising was the number of Chinese elites and high-level officials who openly voiced dissatisfaction with the nuclear test and the overall state of the Sino-DPRK relationship. The most salient example was Deng Yuwen, deputy editor of the Central Party School’s Study Times, urging China to “abandon” North Korea in the Financial Times, which was then immediately translated into Chinese and widely circulated.[2] This rhetoric, coupled with the quick passage of United Nations Security Council Resolutions 2087 and 2094, led some to predict a major Chinese policy shift vis-à-vis North Korea; even President Obama commented that China is “recalculating” its policy.[3]

Can this all be true though? The answer is yes and no. Yes, we are seeing a fundamental debate on China’s North Korea strategy at the highest levels of leadership. Yes, we are seeing a much more active China in nonproliferation efforts—tightening a grip on customs and North Korean banks following 2087 and 2094.[4] While these are noteworthy trends, it is premature to conclude that at the end of this hubbub a drastic policy change will emerge. No, China will not “abandon” North Korea, at least not in response to the recent nuclear test. And no, China will not fundamentally shift its current risk-averse approach. Instead, the key to parsing China’s “recalculation” is not to regard the debate as a dichotomy between retaining and abandoning North Korea, but to think of Beijing’s policy as having evolved from a one-dimensional policy based on a “friendship sealed in blood” to a multi-dimensional one that seeks diverse strategies—including punishments—to manage different types of risks surrounding the Korean peninsula.

Wishful Thinking?

The Korean peninsula has always been a geopolitical hotspot. Meiji Japan viewed Korea as “the dagger pointing at the heart of Japan,” meaning the seizure of the peninsula by a foreign power could pose security threats to Japan.[5] Chairman Mao referred to the relationship with North Korea as chunwangchihan, an idiom describing how the teeth will be cold after losing the lip covering it. Thus the prevailing logic for much of the 20th century was that North Korea was crucial to the integrity of China’s northern border, preventing hostile foreign powers from using the peninsula as a launch pad for invasion. This relationship—even as Pyongyang became increasingly belligerent and as academics pointed out the declining geopolitical utility of the alliance after the Cold War—was often adorned with shows of ideological camaraderie and photos of clinking glasses during state visits. Even after North Korea’s second nuclear test in 2009, the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group (FALSG) led by Hu Jintao decided that it would view the North’s nuclear program as separate from the Sino-DRPK relationship.

Given the historic nature of Sino-DPRK relations, the discrepancy in rhetoric before and after the third nuclear test and the harsh public comments recently made by CCP and PLA officials have led some to believe a major policy shift is at hand. Parsing these comments, however, reveals two strands of thought: the first involves specific comments about urging the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, while the second suggests the direction of the overall Sino-DPRK relationship. Analysts should not be so quick to translate the first type of comments as insinuations of a policy change, as this could be a mere continuation of the 2009 FALSG guidance that already acknowledges the importance of denuclearization of the peninsula, but distinguishes Chinese efforts on nonproliferation as distinct from Chinese attitudes towards North Korea as an ally. In short, there is a danger in reading too much into statements about denuclearization as signifying a fundamental policy change towards Pyongyang.

For example, Mao Xinyu, PLA Major General and the only grandson of Mao Zedong, stated in an RFI article, “North Korea should take the path of denuclearization, peace and development. it is the wish of the Chinese people.”[6] The author of that article added that Mao Xinyu had previously held a friendly attitude towards Pyongyang. He also quoted a Beijing diplomat, who thought it was notable that Mao Xinyu, a key individual of the hongerdai (Second Red Generation), took a public stance on North Korea’s nuclear problem. The author concluded that these were important indications of Beijing changing its policy towards North Korea. Voice of America Korea, in an article titled, “China, Possibilities in Adjusting North Korea Policy,” also listed several comments by senior Chinese officials to corroborate the analysis.[7] Such comments included PLA Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo’s statement that China and North Korea’s relationship is not a military alliance,[8] and PLA spokesperson Hua Chunying’s pronouncement that China will implement UNSCR 2087 and 2094.[9]

However, other PLA officials simultaneously agreed on the need for denuclearization as well as an enduring Sino-DPRK alliance. PLA General Liu Yuan, in an interview with China News Network, agreed with UN sanctions on North Korea, but at the same empathized with North Korea’s need for self-protection against South Korea and the US.[10] In the same interview, PLA Air Force General Huang Yuejin also said that sanctions must happen, but wished that their imposition would help the Korean peninsula to remain peaceful. Luo Zhaohui, Director-General of the Department of Asian Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, summed up the mood in Xinhua stating, “we resolutely oppose North Korea’s nuclear test but also recognize that North Korea has a reason to be concerned about its security…through conversations and mutual understanding, we must aim for the long-term stability of the Korean Peninsula.”[11] These comments indicate that it is not uncommon for officials to argue for denuclearization, but also value the status quo of the Sino-DPRK relationship. Thus, comments by officials such as Mao Xinyu or Yin Zhuo are notable in the strength of the language but not particularly useful in analyzing whether China is considering a policy change.

More significant is the debate about the potential abandonment of North Korea, a discussion started mostly in academia and social media. Along with Deng Yuwen’s article in the Financial Times, several Chinese foreign policy scholars have argued for a policy change, including Minxin Pei, Zhu Feng and Liu Jia.[12] On the other hand, some have argued against abandonment, including Qiu Zhenhai of Tongji University, and Chen Fengjun of Peking University.[13] Traditionally, these academic debates on North Korea have stayed within the public forum without much of it being translated into policy. This time, however, senior CCP official Qiu Yuanping, as deputy director of the Central Foreign Affairs Office, revealed CPPCC[14] conversations to the press in which delegates explicitly debated whether to retain or abandon North Korea, and as a leading power, whether Beijing should fight with or talk to Pyongyang.[15] Though such discussions at the policy level may have occurred before, it is rare for CCP officials to leak such information to the public. The revealing of such a discussion is significant in that it links the solution of denuclearization to regime change, contrary to the latest FALSG guidance from 2009.

Yet, one wonders why the Chinese government, which still states that it values stability on the Korean peninsula according to Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s statement, revealed such a sensitive debate to the public. One also wonders whether the leadership would have been more secretive and deliberate in its public affairs strategy had it been serious about making an important, bold strategic change such as revoking the Sino-DPRK alliance. Finally, one wonders whether China’s top leadership would really want to switch from a risk-averse stance on North Korea to a risk-seeking one, especially at the very beginning of the new Xi Jinping administration. Amidst this hubbub, one cannot rule out the possibility that letting the “abandonment debate” run its course is intended to signal a warning to North Korea to behave better rather than serious consideration by top leadership to scrap the alliance and seek unification of the Korean peninsula. The threat of abandonment, rather than real abandonment, may be more useful in inducing changes in Pyongyang’s behavior.

So What Exactly Is Being Recalculated?

The key to parsing China’s “recalculation,” contrary to fixating on the current flow of the debate, is not to regard the discussion as a choice between retaining and abandoning North Korea. Perhaps from a long-term strategic planning perspective, a dialogue may start on the comparative utility of living with a nuclear North Korea as opposed to a unified Korea. This is not a topic that can be decided overnight at a FALSG meeting, but will need to incorporate inputs from different institutions and factions of the Chinese government. Nor will such a major decision emerge as a response to the North’s third nuclear test; China is certainly angry, but it may be premature to think that this is the endgame in the Sino-DPRK relationship.

A better framework to make sense of what’s happening in Beijing is to regard China’s North Korea policy as having evolved from a one-dimensional policy based on a “friendship sealed in blood,” to a multi-dimensional one that seeks diverse strategies—including punishments—to manage different types of risks surrounding the Korean peninsula. Rather than framing the conundrum as a choice between being risk-averse and risk-seeking, this frames the problem as risk minimization. In weighing the several risks associated with the Korean peninsula, small but significant recalculations are possible.

First, shielding does not lead to stability. Stability is a policy objective. Shielding North Korea is a methodology. China may have experienced a classic mismatch between means and ends when efforts to maintain the status quo by propping up the internal regime ended up propping up the North’s nuclear program as well.

Second, UN sanctions do not necessarily cause instability. Previously, there was the notion that UN sanctions might put too much pressure on North Korea which may then lead to regime collapse, at which point, a massive refugee influx would paralyze China’s northern provinces. While drastic measures such as cutting off oil and electricity for extended periods of time may hurt Pyongyang’s governing abilities, stopping the flow of critical missile and nuclear components as well as diamonds and yachts will have little connection to a refugee crisis. The recalculation may be in a different understanding of sanctions and experimenting to find the right degree rather than completely ruling out the tool.

Third, uncertainty does not lead to stability. China may consider Kim Jong Un to be a new risk factor, especially if reports that he had a row with his uncle and Vice Chairman of National Defense Commission, Jang Song Thaek, over conducting the third nuclear test are true.[16] Previous Chinese leaderships had gained an understanding of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il after many years of observance and personal interactions. Thus, this new uncertainty may require more active diplomacy—including pressure tactics—to influence Kim Jong Un’s decisional framework.

As a result, while China may still value stability as a policy objective, it may diversify its means to achieve that objective, such as by enforcing UNSCR 2087 and 2094 more effectively. Recent reports indicate that the Chinese government has tightened customs inspections in Dandong and Dalian.[17] North Korea relies on most of its sea transport through the Singapore-Dalian-Nampo route, but as China limited the operation of relevant logistics companies from 20 to 2, only 2-3 vessels pass now through this route weekly compared to the 7-8 per week that did before.[18] China not only froze assets in two North Korean banks which are not even listed on UNSCR 2087 and 2094,[19] but also started a crackdown on illegal financial transactions by unlicensed North Korean banks that China previously turned a blind eye to.[20]

The use of such pressure tactics, however, does not necessarily mean that China views sanctions enforcements as mutually exclusive from other Sino-DPRK cooperative efforts, especially in joint economic development. On March 27, Jilin Province announced that it seeks to increase Sino-DPRK trade 13 percent annually until 2020, by investing in rail and road infrastructure connecting several cities in the province with the Rason Special Economic Zone and Chongjin in North Korea. Jilin Province will also invest in tourism, developing the tri-border region among China, Russia, and North Korea.[21] The announcement is a continuation of existing Sino-DPRK joint efforts in economic development projects, and is unlikely to be heavily affected by increased enforcement of UN sanctions. Not only are these joint projects viewed as a boon to the economy in China’s northeast provinces, but also a softer tool to gradually induce economic reform in North Korea. China is fundamentally risk-averse in its approach to North Korea, and will seek to “shape” its neighbor gradually from various angles rather than employing drastic measures stemming from drastic policy changes.

As we continue to closely watch Chinese behavior, a couple of indicators could confirm whether this “recalculation” is a temporary response to the third test or a long-term trend. One clear indicator would be consistent and additional implementation of sanctions such as freezing key North Korean bank accounts. Another would be more evidence about tightened Chinese enforcement of export controls and sanctions at its borders of key material and technology related to North Korea’s nuclear program. A more indirect indicator would be whether China and the US can form a pragmatic, cooperative relationship based on a mutual need to manage risk on the Korean peninsula, namely China’s willingness to selectively put pressure on the North and a US willingness to engage in diplomacy designed to meet Chinese interests. The need to manage risk on the Korea peninsula could potentially be a strong common ground that overshadows certain sensitivities in Sino-US relations. After all, no one likes to have a sore on the lip, especially when it festers.

[1] “ 朝鲜半岛风急,中国更需战略定力,” 环球时报 (Global Times), February 16, 2013, Please note that since then, the wording on the English version of this article has been modified to be much less critical of China’s previous North Korea policy, though the original Chinese language article remains unchanged. The English version of this article is available here: “China needs to adhere to NK Policy,” Global Times, February 16, 2013, Examples of such tweets include “US’s sanctions on North Korea is the right move; tolerance on North Korea is like raising a baby tiger,” “We should cut off all aid to North Korea,” “North Korea’s nuclear test near the Chinese border is a threat to China, not US.” Cited in: Eun-ji Jung and Soojung Kim, “Angry Chinese public calls for “abandonment of North Korea” after nuclear test.”Dailian, February 19, 2013,

[2] Deng Yuwen, “China should abandon North Korea,”Financial Times, February 27, 2013,

[3] “Transcript: President Obama’s Exclusive Interview With George Stephanopoulos”ABC Good Morning America, March 13, 2013,

[4] Multiple South Korean media reported that Chinese leadership, via the Ministry of Transport, sent down a letter to relevant customs agencies and logistics companies asking for strict enforcement of UNSCR 2087. At the same time, the Ministry of Finance began to crack down on illegal financial transactions by North Korean banks which beforehand went largely unenforced. See: “China, Pressuring North Korea by ‘Playing By the Rules,’” Yonhap, March 19, 2013,

[5] Andre Schmid, “Colonialism and the ‘Korea Problem’ in the Historiography of Modern Japan: A Review Article,” The Journal of Asian Studies, 59.4 (2000): 951-76.

[6] Fang Hua (), “Examining Beijing’s North Korea policy change (看北京对朝鲜政策的变化)” RFI, March 10, 2013,

[7]Sung-won Baek, “China, Possibilities in Adjusting North Korea Policy,” Voice of America Korea, March 12, 2013,

[8] “ 尹卓:我不同意”中日必有一战 (Yin Zhuo: I don’t agree that there will be a war)”Yangcheng Wanbao, March 9, 2013,

[9] “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on March 8, 2013” FMPRC, March 10, 2013,

[10]“刘源等军方代表谈朝鲜问题 (Liu Yuan and other generals on the North Korea problem),” China News Network, March 8, 2013,

[11] Luo Zahohui interview, Xinhuanet, February 28, 2013,

[12]Minxin Pei, “中国不可能阻挠朝鲜半岛统一” Xinhua, January 28, 2013,;  Zhu Feng, “朱锋:朝鲜核试验 中国生了多大的气” Lianhe Zaobao, February 16, 2013,; Liu Jia, “中国的对朝政策为何被动?”, Lianhe Zaobao, Feburary 13, 2013,

[13] Qiu Zhenhai (Weibo, March 1) and Chen Fengjun (Global Times, March 14).

[14] Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

[15] Jane Perlez, “ 中国称不会放弃朝鲜” New York Times China, March 1, 2013,

[16] “Jang Song-Thaek and North Korean miitary officials fight over nuclear test,” Chosun-Ilbo, March 14, 2013,; “Jang Song-Thaek no longer seen in public,” Seoul Shinmun,  March 29, 2013,

[17] Hyung-kyu Choi, “China Limits North Korean Vessels Passing Dalian,” Joongang Daily, March 13, 2013,|article|default.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Jung-Eun Lee, “China Starts Independent Sanctioning of Two North Korean Banks,” Dong-A Ilbo, March 19, 2013,

[20] Examples of such banks include Danchun Commercial Bank, Chosun Guangsun Bank, Chosun Daesung Bank, and Hwanggeum Samgakju Bank. “China bans ‘illegal transactions’ of North Korean banks within its territory,” Yonhap News, March 19, 2013,

[21] Il-Keun Park, “Jilin Province seeks to increase trade with North Korea by 13% annually,” Hankuk Ilbo, March 27, 2013.

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