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Chinese Domestic Policy and Sino-North Korean Relations

A key element in the debate over the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (North Korea or DPRK) nuclear weapons program that has evaded attention is the complex relationship between Chinese foreign and domestic policy. A historical trend exists in the Communist Chinese Party (CCP) that foreign policy decisions are made in regards to pursuing domestic objectives.

The CCP’s purging of Bo Xilai, Party Chief of Chongqing province and potential Politburo Standing Committee member, happens to coincide with North Korea’s renewed testing of a ballistic missile after United States officials claimed that a breakthrough moment had occurred in negotiations. The latter issue received more media and international attention than the first, especially when China announced that they were going to take a harder stance on the Pyongyang regime. The CCP has always regarded foreign policy as a secondary issue or — more simply — a tool to manipulate in pursuing domestic policy. The purging of such a high-profile official reveals division among the top leadership of the Party, which in Beijing’s view threatens domestic stability.

The most important aim of the Communist Chinese Party is to uphold Chinese nationalism, which means that any threat to Party leadership is a threat to China. Therefore, Beijing’s manipulation of foreign policy towards North Korea’s weapons program allows the Communist Chinese Party to pursue its most important national interest by diverting attention away from domestic upheavals. Historically, the purging of high-ranking Party officials has not significantly threatened China’s domestic stability. However, its rapid economic growth over the past three decades has placed a more important emphasis on domestic stability.

China in the twenty-first century has become more integrated with itself and the international community through the growth of the internet and social media networks. The Chinese public is becoming more aware of global and local issues making domestic stability even more important for the CCP’s leadership. In the past, Beijing was able to carry out reckless foreign policy decisions without worrying about the consequences to the public. Now, more than ever, China’s security and foreign policy must take into account domestic concerns. Sino-North Korean relations illustrate this principle to the utmost.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, most of the world’s remaining communist countries have become more open to globalization, even China. However, the DPRK remains one of the few Stalinist totalitarian regimes still in existence. While the rest of the world has become integrated into the new international order, North Korea has chosen to isolate itself. This has led to economic stagflation, which has furthered the communist regime dependency on foreign aid. The economic burden of supporting the banner of communism falls to Beijing, with the Soviet Union gone. This event reinforced the bond between Beijing and Pyongyang. Recent affairs have driven the two countries even closer together. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has resulted in international sanctions against the communist regime, which have decreased the amount of financial and agricultural aid it receives internationally.

As a result, Pyongyang has become more reliant upon Chinese assistance. Support for North Korea amounts to half of all Beijing’s foreign aid, which is not regulated by the United Nations (UN) sanctions. While the relationship between these two countries has not always been the warmest amidst allies, they form a complex bond that reflects the CCP’s internal policy objectives. From the Chinese perspective, the fundamental diplomatic reasoning behind the relationship with North Korea is that it benefits Beijing’s national interests. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not act as an independent government institution such as the United States Department of State. Instead, its decisions must receive the blessings of other government ministries whose overall goal is public security. As a result, the CCP’s foreign policy is made subordinate to the cause of Chinese nationalism. Therefore, Beijing’s support for the Pyongyang is conditional as long as it does not undermine the cause of Chinese nationalism.

Since the early nineties, the situation has become more precarious for China. China has sought to cooperate more with international organizations such as the United Nations, which is in accordance with China’s policy of using soft influence to pursue its national interests. Through committing itself to operating through official international channels, the CCP has been able to benefit from the process of globalization. A few of the advantages that Beijing has been able to prosper from are foreign investment, the International Monetary Fund, and free trade. However, by obligating itself to operate in the new order of things, the CCP has committed itself to adopt a certain international friendly code of behavior, and in that context, it cannot conduct irresponsible behaviors (such as an aggressive foreign policy) in pursuit of self-interest.

The importance of this is that following the death of Kim II-Sung (the first leader of North Korea) in 1994, his son Kim Jong-Il had committed the DPRK to “erratic policies” that resulted in economic stagflation, international economic sanctions, agricultural famine, and social instability that raised global concerns. China has had to tread a dangerous path by supporting the regime. One of the key issues in understanding this point is considering what Beijing’s national interests are in supporting Pyongyang. China’s stated reasons for supporting its ally is that if the regime were to collapse, the CCP would have to deal with a flood of North Korean refugees. Therefore, it claims its support is based on humanitarian reasons.

Historically, China has viewed the DPRK as a buffer state against Beijing’s traditional enemies (i.e. the United States and Japan). Therefore, having international attention attracted towards its ally rather than to itself, the CCP is able to conduct itself more freely. On the issue of a nuclear-armed Pyongyang, some Department of State officials have stated that it is against Beijing’s interest because the volatile nature of the regime could result in a shooting war on the Korean Peninsula that would destabilize the region. Some American diplomatic cables have said that CCP officials have stated that it would even accept a reunification under Seoul’s regime. However, this is based on the assumption that Chinese influence could not curtail its ally’s unpredictable behavior. Another issue that has to be acknowledged is to what benefit the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program has been to Beijing politically.

The assertion has been widely accepted that China cannot check its ally’s obsession with possessing nuclear weapons. This statement is most likely based upon the idea that China’s growing “concern” with the issue has resulted in Beijing not vetoing UN Security Council resolutions that target its ally. Historically China has blocked most of these resolutions. However, these efforts have hardly decreased the CCP’s economic and military aid to its neighbor. As mentioned earlier, assistance to the DPRK makes up half of China’s foreign aid that is not affected by UN sanctions.

China’s military support to its ally remains substantial but it is limited to “small arms.” Due to ever increasing international sanctions, Chinese trade is the only means in which Pyongyang has access to international exports. An important element is that this aid is specifically designed to ensure that the DPRK regime remains in control. An example is that agricultural aid is reserved for the military, CCP officials claim that this is so that international aid can reach the public rather than being hoarded by the government. The fact is that North Korean existence depends solely on Chinese support; Beijing has the tools to force its ally to act responsibly if the CCP desires.

To what extent current Sino-North Korean relations benefit Chinese national interests is illustrated by the fact that while China has announced some reservations about a nuclear-armed DPRK, CCP officials continue to support their ally. North Korea is not bound by policies of domestic stability, and it can and does engage in aggressive foreign policy.

Therefore, Pyongyang can behave in a manner that is characteristic of traditional CCP behavior. By allowing the DPRK to pursue its interest in acquiring nuclear weapons, Beijing has a trump card to play if it needs a distraction from an internal crisis. The death of Kim Song-Il and the elevation of his son, Kim Jong-Un, to the leadership of the DPRK, have attracted international and public attention away from domestic Chinese issues. The “Jasmine Revolution,” which started in the Middle East in February 2011 and spread to China, is one such issue. Chinese “dissidents” were calling for protests against the CCP for a more transparent and accountable government. In the traditional response, Beijing cracked down on human-rights activists and journalists through arrests and threats. While there was some media attention to this issue, it drowned in the continual coverage of similar events happening in the Middle East.

One of the most significant events that this applies to has occurred recently, the purging of Bo Xilai from the CCP. This occurred because Bo Xilai’s police chief, Wang Lijun, attempted to gain asylum at the US consulate in Chengdu after revealing his boss’ connection with the murder of Neil Heywood. Wang revealed that Bo Xilai’s wife, Gu Kailai, was directly involved with Heywood’s murder, a British businessman who had an extensive financial relationship with Gu’s law firm. This incident revealed political and financial corruption amongst some of the highest officials in the Party.

At the same time, an ordeal dealing with the treatment of Chen Guangcheng, a human rights activist who escaped house arrest and sought refuge in the US Embassy in Beijing, also attracted negative attention to Beijing’s domestic policies. These events have revealed widespread political and social instability in the CCP’s leadership of China, which Beijing officials view as a threat to nationalism. The purging of a high-ranking Party official and the treatment of “dissidents” pose a threat to China’s domestic stability. This is where Sino-North Korea relations come into play. At the beginning of the year, United States officials claimed that a watershed moment had occurred in negotiations with Kim Jong-Un’s regime to give up its nuclear ambitions.

However, on April 13, 2012, the DPRK unsuccessfully tested a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, which resulted in a new round of UN and international sanctions against Pyongyang. It is important to note that China supports these new actions attempting to curtail its ally’s nuclear weapons program. This had a two-fold impact on Chinese internal issues. First, international attention was diverted away from Bo Xilai’s purge and the treatment of Chinese “dissidents” towards the more volatile concern over nuclear proliferation. Secondly, China’s responsible behavior of not only condemning the DPRK actions but of imposing sanctions against its neighbor made it appear that the CCP was operating in regards to regional stability. This course of action allowed the CCP to boost its political stability concerns. Therefore, China was able to manipulate its foreign policy towards North Korea to increase its domestic policy objectives.

The overall question remaining is what effect does this have on the future of Sino-North Korean relations. Currently, North Korea went through a transition to a new leader, who has to prove his leadership credentials, especially to the Pyongyang military establishment. It is in Beijing’s interest that North Korea remains in the status quo, where Kim Jong-Un regime remains in place but its nuclear weapons program does not lead to regional instability. If even a minor skirmish war would to break out on the Korean Peninsula, China would not only have an international crisis on its hands but the CCP would lose face domestically in that it could not diplomatically resolve an issue with one its closest allies.

While Chinese foreign policy motives may often be mysterious, history can shed some light on the methodology behind some of its overall objectives.