China's Support for North Korea


By Erich Marquardt

Power and Interest News Report
September 3, 2003

Recent tensions between the United States and North Korea have made clear that Washington is very concerned about political events on the Korean peninsula. Often overlooked, however, is the concern felt in Beijing, where Chinese leaders are fretting over the possible outcomes of North Korea's current foreign policy regarding the United States. While it's possible that Pyongyang's tough rhetoric aimed at Washington could prove beneficial to China, there are also many reasons for concern should the Bush administration decide to take military action in North Korea.

Pyongyang's aggressive foreign policy positions are the product of the country's isolation and constant fear of power loss by Kim Jong Il and his regime. While this fear was evident during the Clinton administration, the election of the especially hawkish Bush administration acted as a catalyst that scared the North Korean leadership into believing that Washington may attempt to perform a "regime change" in Pyongyang. This fear is based upon various comments made by members of the Bush administration in which North Korea was declared part of an "axis of evil" and therefore may be subject to a U.S.-led campaign to oust its leadership. Responding to these pressures, Pyongyang began referring to the development of nuclear arms in an attempt to dissuade the Bush administration from attacking the isolated state. Pyongyang's logic is simple: the more powerful a state is, the more difficult it is for outside aggressors to successfully attack it.

While Pyongyang continues to assert that it is procuring nuclear weapons, its neighboring border state of China is watching with wary interest. China certainly does not want to see North Korea become a nuclear-armed state. If North Korea were to develop a nuclear-arsenal, China's foreign policy leverage with that country would decrease. Other than the U.S. nuclear umbrella hanging over South Korea and Japan, China is the only other state in East Asia that is nuclear-armed. Having to deal with a nuclear-armed Pyongyang would add another major factor into future Chinese foreign policy initiatives in East Asia. Since this would limit China's power, a nuclear-armed North Korea is a situation that Beijing would like to prevent.

On the other hand, Beijing does not want to aid the United States in putting pressure on Kim Jong Il's government in the North. Any such support would increase the chances that the leadership in Pyongyang could collapse or become dislocated by some internal revolt. Furthermore, any major weakening of North Korea's military would increase the success rate of a joint South Korean-U.S. military campaign aimed to unify the two Koreas. This outcome is not one in the best interests of Beijing.

There is also the most worrying factor of a U.S. strike on North Korea's nuclear facilities. Such a strike could result in retaliation on U.S. interests and allies by Pyongyang. Martin Hart-Landsberg, author of "Korea: Division, Reunification, and U.S. foreign policy," warns that a first-strike by Washington on North Korea's nuclear facilities "would likely lead the North to fire missiles or engage in some sort of retaliation." In fact, Hart-Landsberg argues, "There is even the potential that [Pyongyang] would send troops across the DMZ." Furthermore, in the event of such a strike, Washington could end up creating a radiation disaster on the peninsula. Seung Hye Suh, who is an organizer with the group Nodutdol for Korean Community Development, warns that such an attack would have the "potential to spread highly radioactive material not only throughout North Korea but also into South Korea, China, and Russia -- all of which share borders with North Korea -- and even into Japan."

Nevertheless, if Kim Jong Il's government were to lose power, there is the possibility that North and South Korea would be united again, either peacefully or through force. Unfortunately for Beijing, the South Korean leadership in Seoul is an extremely U.S. friendly state in tune with the foreign policy interests of the United States. Having such a government also take seat directly on China's borders, in North Korea, would concern China and add to its fear of encirclement by the United States. In fact, this fear of encirclement is very real.

Using the September 11 attacks as a pretext to move into areas of the world previously unexplored by U.S. military forces, the Bush administration was able to set up military bases throughout Central Asia, including some -- such as in Kyrgyzstan -- directly on China's borders. The U.S. is also more active in Southeast Asia fighting local insurgents in the Philippines. There are also U.S. forces already well established in Japan and South Korea. Add to this environment the statements formulated in the Bush administration's National Security Strategy -- such as the desire to prevent China from becoming as powerful as the United States -- and it becomes clear that the Bush administration is seeking to contain China from becoming a great power and certainly will take every opportunity to prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon in East Asia.

If China were to become a great power and a potential hegemon in Asia, it would seriously threaten U.S. interests there. Similar to the way that the United States threatened and forced European powers from the Americas by drafting and enforcing the Monroe Doctrine, China would also seek to keep the United States from milking resources from Asia. This foreign policy stance by Beijing would be considered untenable in Washington and would certainly lead to a major clash of power and interests in Asia. The last time such a clash took place was during World War II, when the potentially hegemonic state of Japan attempted to project its power throughout the Asian islands and even on the Asian mainland. Tokyo's attempt was blocked by the United States which was willing to fight a major conflict over its interests there.

Therefore, China is well aware of what its future holds. If the unprecedented economic and military might of the Chinese state is ever realized, its destiny as a regional hegemon is virtually sealed. The main power that will stand in its way will be the United States. While this end result is far off, Beijing cannot help but be concerned over the changing political climate on its borders. The best outcome for China in the Korean conflict would be for North Korea to remain as a moderately powerful state, able to deter attack from the South and the United States, but not strong enough so that its strength would limit China's ability to forcefully negotiate with the country. This goal would allow China to continue to develop economically and thus decrease the time it will take for the country to become a great power.

Unfortunately, China cannot have it both ways. It will be difficult to keep the North Korean leadership intact while also keeping it relatively weak. It is for this reason that China is participating in negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington. However, if forced to make a choice, Beijing would act in its greater interests and decide in favor of keeping the United States away from its Korean border even if that means a strengthened North Korea. Moreover, as long as North Korea remains an enemy of Washington, the isolated country will be forced to rely on China for military and economic support. This support will continue to make Beijing an invaluable ally of Pyongyang, at least as long as the United States remains a potent threat. This policy decision would give Beijing time to continue to develop its economy and prepare for its future of projecting its power throughout Asia at the expense of distant great powers such as the United States.

This report was reprinted with express approval from

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