x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

China's big fear is a 'regime implosion' in North Korea

Study suggests Chinese policy towards Korea has not shifted substantially and its "overriding" interest is peace and stability.

Chinese policy towards the Korean peninsula has not shifted substantially, despite this year's rocket launch, nuclear test and withdrawal from six-party talks by North Korea, according to a report being published today. The study by the International Crisis Group (ICG) suggests China's "overriding" interest on the Korean peninsula is peace and stability and that nuclear non-proliferation, a major concern of the United States, is a secondary priority.

According to the report from the Brussels-based research and advocacy organisation, Beijing is continuing to shelter Pyongyang from such punitive measures as stronger economic sanctions as it fears "regime implosion" in North Korea. "China does not want North Korea to have nuclear weapons," the report said, adding that Beijing is willing to go "only so far" in applying pressure because a bigger concern is avoiding instability in North Korea that could lead to refugees flooding into China or "precipitous" reunification with South Korea.

According to the ICG, Beijing "learnt its lesson" when a strong reaction to North Korea's 2006 missile tests damaged bilateral relations. "Beijing now handles the bilateral relationship and the nuclear issue separately: while strengthening its relationship with [North Korea], Beijing leaves the thornier nuclear issue to the US," the report said. The report said that after North Korea's rocket launch in April, withdrawal from the talks that centre on its nuclear ambitions and the nuclear test in May, a public debate - between Chinese "strategists" keen to take a tougher line with North Korea and "traditionalists" distrustful of the West - led US analysts to believe China was taking a harder line with Pyongyang.

However, the report said this debate had only "prepared the ground" for policy changes that might take place in future. Also, while Washington has said it is willing to attend bilateral talks with North Korea after the Communist state pulled out of the talks, the report agreed with previous comments from analysts that there is North Korea "fatigue" in the United States. The report, "Shades of Red: China's Debate over North Korea," will be made public today.

Han Suk-hee, an assistant professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, said he "pretty much agreed" with the "quite timely" report, the conclusions of which he said contrasted with the generally accepted view. "We have been frequently faced with the argument that China is a growing power so they want to co-operate with the international community and they want to give pressure to the North Korean government. The ICG argument is quite contrary to that argument," he said.

"A lot of people want to believe in a potential policy change in China towards North Korea, but this report says no. I agree with their argument. From my perspective, China will never give up on the North Korean government. They will never let them collapse." The release of the report, he said, would "induce a lot of repercussions" for China, North Korea and the United States. However, Kerry Brown, a senior fellow in the Asia programme at Chatham House, a research centre in London, described the report's conclusions as "nothing earth-shattering".

A bigger issue is "when is anyone going to do anything about" the North Korean regime. "The fact is the Chinese have some responsibility to try to make North Korea change for stability in the region, while other countries don't have that influence. That's a brute political reality." @Email:dbardsley@thenational.ae