The Washington Quarterly

China and the Korean Peninsula

The unfolding international crisis concerning North Korea?s nuclear weapons program has focused global attention on China?s relations with its rogue neighbor. President George W. Bush and other world leaders have personally sought the Chinese government?s influence and pressure on Pyongyang, only to be given the nebulous reassurance that China seeks a nonnuclear Korean peninsula and that the problem must be solved peacefully. China?s position is indeed central to resolving the crisis, but governments and analysts alike seem vexed to understand China?s assessment of the situation, opaque positions, and apparent unwillingness to use its presumed leverage in tandem with others.

Understanding China?s calculus requires, at the outset, recognition that North Korea has been a long-standing headache for China. This is not the first time since the Chinese Communists came to power in 1949 that they find themselves in a difficult international quandary over the behavior of their erstwhile comrades in North Korea. Ever since Kim Il-sung?s forces invaded the South in 1950, China has repeatedly found its own national security interests affected and compromised by the provocative and confrontational policies pursued by the Kim dynasty and Pyongyang regime.

It is true that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its North Korean counterpart have had long-standing ties and that the late Kim Il-sung was educated in China and was once a member of the CCP. It is also true that the two countries once had a formal alliance and mutually described their relationship as one of ?lips and teeth.? And it is true that China probably has better relations with the Democratic People?s Republic of Korea (DPRK) than any other country on Earth. Despite these facts, however, the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang has been severely strained for many years, particularly since Kim Jung-il succeeded his father in 1995. Thus, from Beijing?s perspective, the current crisis over North Korea?s withdrawal from the 1994 Agreed Framework and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as well as the DPRK?s resumption of its nuclear weapons program, is only the latest chapter in a half-century of North Korean brinksmanship brought on by domestic desperation and disregard for its neighbors? interests and preferences.

Beijing considers the latest crisis an extremely serious situation, but permanently short-circuiting Pyongyang?s nuclear ambitions is only a piece of a larger and more complicated puzzle for China. Despite China?s strong and long-stated policy in favor of a nonnuclear Korean peninsula (both North and South), halting North Korea?s nuclear program is not the ultimate end that China hopes to achieve. China?s calculations, interests, and goals are more long term and more complicated. The United States and other involved nations must understand these perspectives and complexities if they are to effectively attain China?s cooperation.

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