By CHU Shulong
Institute of International Strategic & Development Studies, Tsinghua University
The Chinese perception about North Korea has become increasingly negative in recent years. This can see from official statements, news media, and internet reports and discussions in China. The Chinese government firmly criticizes and opposes North Korea’s nuclear tests, its missile program, and its proactive actions against the South. However, neither the Chinese government nor its general public are hostile towards the North as not many people in China regard the DPRK (The People’s Democratic Republic of Korea) nuclear and missile programs as a threat to Chinese security. The Chinese government still wants to maintain a relatively close relationship with the North, including trade, investment, and other economic contacts. However, China supports and joins the United Nations’ sanctions against North Korea but does not support total or comprehensive sanctions.
- Negative Perception about North Korea
In recent years, many Chinese, including scholars, have become negative about the North Korean regime and some of its policies and actions.
I-1 Negative on the Regime and Some of Its Policies
Most Chinese do not endorse the “Socialist Monarchy” of North Korea. To the Chinese, if a nation is a real communist or socialist country, its leader should not come from one family. If its top leaders only succeed from one family, it is a typical feudalist country. For more than 60 years, the North Korean regime has been succeeded from one family for three generations. This, to the Chinese, is nothing but a feudalistic state, and feudalism was a backward system that world had hundreds of years ago. North Korea having this kind of regime in the 21st century seems ridiculous and backwards to Chinese understanding.
On human rights issues, most Chinese understand that DPRC lacks the basic freedom and protection for its citizens. Since the Chinese government insists on “non-interference into internal affairs” as its fundamental foreign policy principle, then China can do nothing about the human rights problems in North Korea. In addition, China has also been criticized by the Western world on human rights issues.
Certain North Korean internal and external policies have caused negative sentiment among the Chinese. Yet, Chinese government still insists the policy of “non-interference into other countries’ internal affairs”, therefor Chinese government does not interfere about internal matters of North Korea. Despite the non-interference policy, most people in China did not agree with the execution of Mr. Jang Song Taek three years ago. After the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese believed that no person should be punished physically for their political beliefs. In fact, China has not punished any of its politicians in recent years, with the worst sentence being a life-long prison term. Therefore, the Chinese government and its people would not support a North Korea killing of a politician simply because there are political or policy differences.
Some of North Korea’s provocative actions in Northeast Asia, including towards the South, are seen as quite negative to the Chinese. To the Chinese government and people, although it has been revealed clearly whether the Choonan Incident was caused by the North or not, North Korea has always denied its responsibility. The Yeongpeoung Island incident, which killed four people of South Korea in 2011, was clearly a North Korean provocative action which the Chinese government and people strongly condemned. China and the Chinese people have focused on economic development for more than three decades. Therefore, they would prefer for peace and stability in anywhere of the world, then oppose any proactive action that could cause a chaotic situation that could damage the stable environment of China’s modernization.
I-2 Worry about North Korean Nuclear and Missile Programs but not Perceived as a Serious Threat to China
There is growing Chinese fear that the North Korean nuclear and missile weapons may cause a threat to China’s security. China remembers how the “friendly relations” with Vietnam turned into enemy nation and the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war, thenthere is an uneasiness that history might repeat itself. Even more worrisome is the fact that North Korean nuclear testing places are very close to the Chinese border and there may be serious radiation damage in China. The North Korean nuclear testing sites are less than 100 miles from China.
Most Chinese do not share the feelings and perceptions of South Koreans, Japanese, and Americans that the increasing nuclear and missile weapons of North Korea could cause an immediate and serious threat to the national and regional security of China. Because the Chinese understand that North Korean weapons are targeting South Korea and the U.S., not China.
When considering national security, most Chinese see the U.S. and Japan, rather than North Korea, poses a much more serious and immediate threat. American war planes and naval ships flying and patrolling near Chinese territorial air and water are certainly a more direct and serious threat to China’s security, challenging China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity, even humiliating China, much more than North Korean’s weapons and behavior.
- China’s Policy towards North Korea
With the above perceptions and understandings of the national interests of China, the Chinese certainly share some common ground with ROK, the U.S., and others in dealing with North Korean problems, and at the same time, have some major different interests and positions towards North Korea.
II-1 Although China opposes some Actions/Policies but Not the Country. The Chinese Government is not Likely to Give up its Close Relationship with the North, not Abandoning North Korea
There is a fundamental difference between China and the U.S., ROK, and Japan in dealing with North Korea. China has relatively close relations with the North, while the U.S., ROK, Japan have no normal relations with DPRK. In other words, relations between those three countries and North Korea are already the poorworst, so they do not worry about worsening relations with the DPRK. Meanwhile, when China thinks about North Korea, it has to consider what will happen if relations become worse.
If China-North Korea relations become worse, then China will have a hostile country, or even an enemy in on its immediate border area. What then China can gain from that situation? Why should China push an agenda that would only aggravate the situation? The U.S., ROK, and Japan would not criticize China for having reservations towards the North, because every country’s foreign policy is to serve its own interest, first and foremost, not to serve other country’s interests.
China stands against the nuclear and missile programs of North Korea, simply because their programs do not reinforce the security of the North and whole Korean Peninsula. Instead, it increases the insecurity and instability of the region. China opposes the proactive actions that North Korea has been taking against the South, including the Yeongpeoung incident in 2011, but China does not see any clear evidence that North Korea has the responsibility for the Cheonan incident and furthermore North Korea denies it caused the tragedy.
II-2 China Agrees on Some Sanctions but Not a Comprehensive One. China is not Likely to Agree and Join the Total Sanctions Against the North.
Total sanctions include cutting energy supply to the North, prohibiting airlines from flying into China’s space, and banning North Korean ships from going through the ports of other countries which would prohibit commercial goods and investment in North Korea that could damage some of China’s economic interests. These may not be significant to China’s national economy, but will be significant to those Chinese companies trading and investing in the North. In these difficult economic times, these consist of several billion U.S. dollars.
The major concern of the Chinese government is the overall relationship with North Korea, not just the economic interests. However, a comprehensive sanction against North Korea is likely to bring an end to diplomatic relations with the North. The result may be that North Korea may break its relations with China, and thus becomes a hostile neighbor. China does not fear a hostile neighbor of North Korea, but China does not want to create that kind of situation. What would benefit China from pushing the North to become an enemy at its border?
For China, North Korea has been a neighbor and with a close relationship for over a thousand years, including the past sixty years since the end of the Second World War. Therefore, the Chinese government and people do feel the responsibility to give aid to the North when it is needed. This is not something special, it is the same feeling and attitude that the Chinese have towards their other neighbors such as Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos who do not have negative relations with China and who are even poorer than China.
Many countries, especially the government and political parties in South Korea, oppose the North Korean government and want to see a regime change. China does not oppose North Korea and does not care whether there will be regime change or not. China’s primary focus is the stability, with or without a regime change.
- Korean Stability and Reunification
On the issues of national interests and policy on North Korea and the Korean Peninsula, China’s central principle is the stability of the Korean Peninsula. China would like to maintain the stability on the Peninsula and whole Northeast Asia so that China can continue to concentrate in its national economic development and modernization, which has been China’s national priority for decades. Stability does not mean no change, it only means changing stably and peacefully. In fact, China and Chinese people do not worry about changes in North Korea nor the Korean Peninsula, including regime change and inter-Korean relations. What China cares about is that those changes are not threatening the general peace and stability on the Peninsula.
China has been supporting Korean reunification for many decades since the end the Second World War, when Korea was divided. During his visit to Republic of Korea July 2014, President Xi Jinping of China restated that long-standing Chinese official position a couple of times, including during his talks with President Park of ROK. In the Joint Statement between ROK and China, China spoke highly of Republic of Korea’s active efforts in improving DPRK-ROK relations and supports the two sides of Korean Peninsula for their dialogue and reconciliatory cooperation. “China respects the will of the Korean people for reaching the goal of peaceful reunification of the Peninsula, and supports the Peninsula to realize its final goal of peaceful reunification.”
In his speech at Seoul National University on July 5, 2014, President Xi said that China expects to see improved ties between the two nations on the Korean Peninsula, and supports them in finally realizing independent and peaceful reunification. He said that if the two sides of ROK and DPRK continue to push the process of improving their relations, the will of independent and peaceful reunification that Korean people eager to have would be realized. The Chinese people will always be friends that the people on the peninsula can trust.
What President Xi Jinping stated has been the formal and real position of China’s government and people on the issue of Korean Reunification. The reason that China understands and supports Korean reunification is because the Chinese have the same interests, goals, and dream of China’s reunification with Taiwan. It is also the economic interests. When Korea is united, the Chinese believe and expect that the economic and social ties between China and the united Korea would be stronger. With Korea united, there will be a boom of North reconstruction and modernization, that would be big economic opportunity for both the united Korean and Chinese economies. When Korea is united, a united Korea and China can build highways, including fast railways, that will speed the flows of goods and people between the two neighboring countries that will stimulate economic and social cooperation between them.
Security Interest and Concerns: The only worrisome issue and concern among some Chinese on Korean reunification is about the future security of China. The concern is not about the united Korea, but is about the United States and future relations between a united Korea and the United States. The concern, to some Chinese, is whether or not a united Korea will be able to maintain its security relations, including the security alliance with the U.S. The U.S. military bases and troops will be close to the border of China, which might present a bigger threat to China’s security in the future.
Many the other Chinese, including myself, do not worry or share such a serious security concern. First, historically, a reunified Korea has always had good relations with China. In fact, for thousands years, Korea was a united nation, and a united Korea was always the friend of China. Second, even if a united Korea maintains its security relations with the U.S. and American bases/troops continue to stay in Korea, they are not necessarily a threat to China. Whether American military is a threat to China or not does not depend on where they are located, but depends on future Sino-U.S. relations. If relations do go seriously wrong, the U.S. troops in Korea could certainly be a threat to China. But if the bilateral relations have no problems, then the U.S. military forces will not pose a threat to China.
Presently and for the past forty years, since the early 1970’s, the nature of Sino-U.S. relations has been somewhat unsettled and uncertain. In the future, the China-U.S. relations might be worse, but it also might be better. Therefore, whether a united Korea will be a security problem does not depend on Korea, but depends on Sino-U.S. relations.
A united Korea would release the security burden of North Korea from China. North Korea has been a closed country for decades and China has suffered as a result. It caused China to go into the Korean War in the 1950s, caused separation between Taiwan and China since then, and has forced China into multiple crises, right up to the present. Once North Korea disappears, then China’s situation would be much easier and Northeast Asia would also be much more trouble-free.
Many Koreans and other people believe China likes and needs the North as a buffer zone between China and the United States, or even between China and Japan. As discussed early, North Korea has given China more troubles than benefits. China-U.S. relations are not necessarily bad now or in the future, so China does not need that buffer zone in its relations with the United States. China is stronger and will be much stronger than Japan in the future, as it was for most of its previous history of thousands of years. Its does not need North, South, or united Korea to counter a Japanese problem.
Some people would even argue that China needs North Korea, a divided Korea to exercise its role and influence in Asia and the world. The Korean situation has been a major issue that China has worked together with the U.S., ROK, and other countries for decades, and China has exercised some role and influence over it.
Yes, Korea reunification has been an issue that China has exercised some role and influence, but China is a big country, and a big country does not only depend on one area/issue to maintain its regional and global role. Today and in the future, China will continue to exercise considerable influence over many areas and issues in Asia and the world. China does not depend on North Korea to exercise its role and influence, especially since that country has given China more trouble than benefits.
While China has been sincerely supporting the Korean reunification, it can do little to work together directly with ROK to promote the reunification. The reason is because of North Korea. If the North knows and believes that China is working with the South for the goal of Korean reunification, it would mean the end of China-North Korean relations, because everybody knows that North Korea put its regime security as their number one priority. If North Korea believes that China is doing something with the South for the reunification, then North Korea would believe that China is working with the South. This would lead North Korea to believe that perhaps China, with the U.S. would try to end the present North Korea regime. This would be against China’s long-term position, which although China supports the Korean reunification, China still does not oppose North Korea, nor its regime. China wants to maintain good relations with the North as much as possible. It does not want to be an enemy of North Korea. From that perspective, China would not engage in any kind of “counter-contingency” talk with South Korea and the United States, now or in the future.
The above is a prepared presentation for the Global Peace Convention 2017. Changes in actual delivery may not be reflected.
 Li Jiabao and Wu Jiao, “FTA expected this year,” China Daily, July 4,2014, p. A1; “The Joint Statement of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Korea,” Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily), July 4, 2014, p.2.
 “Highlights of Xi’s Speech,” China Daily, July 5, 2014, p.A1; “President Xi Jinping’s Speech at Seoul National University,” Renmin Ribao, July 5, 2014, p.2.