international analysis and commentary

North Korean behavior, Chinese pressures, and the Syrian danger


After several months of alarming, provocative measures coming from North Korea during the winter and spring, the past few months have produced milder, even conciliatory, behavior from the government of Kim Jong Un. To some extent, this is a familiar pattern to those who monitored Pyongyang’s actions during the regimes of Kim’s father and grandfather. Periods of belligerent saber rattling are typically followed by calmer periods, marked by protestations of peaceful intent and an expressed desire for better relations with the outside world, especially the United States. Unfortunately, the conciliatory phases do not last, giving way to new episodes of confrontation. That dreary cycle has repeated on a seemingly endless basis over the decades.

Consequently, we should hold the applause about the latest instance in which the North Korean leadership appears to be seeking reduced tensions on the Peninsula.  Granted, Pyongyang’s rhetoric has become noticeably less strident since April, when nervous publics in South Korea and Japan worried that a miscalculation by the Kim regime might plunge the region into war. North Korea’s actions in late 2012 and early 2013, most notably the test of a long-range missile, a new nuclear test, renunciation of the armistice agreement that had ended the Korean War in 1953, and the closing of the joint economic facility with South Korea at Kaesong, understandably created jitters.

Since then, the verbal threats have ebbed, and Pyongyang has restored its military hotline with South Korea and held negotiations with Seoul to re-open Kaesong. North Korea also has proposed new talks with the United States. Perhaps more important, Pyongyang halted work on a launch facility for longer-range rockets and has ceased threatening to conduct more nuclear tests. In addition to those steps, the North has quietly expanded its economic connections to the outside world. Reuters reported in early June that both the Chinese renminbi and the US dollar are used far more widely in North Korea than ever before – often displacing North Korea’s own currency even for routine economic transactions. 

Although some of these changes may simply reflect the usual cycle of confrontation and conciliation, there is another factor that appears to be playing a role. It is probably not coincidental that the halt to shrill threats and belligerent actions followed high-level meetings between Chinese and North Korean officials. Beijing’s patience with Pyongyang has been fading for some time. Chinese leaders were miffed that North Korea repeatedly ignored Beijing’s warnings not to conduct new missile or nuclear tests. Indeed, there appears to be a growing debate within China’s political and opinion elite about relations with Pyongyang. As I discovered during periodic visits to China in recent years, younger Chinese scholars, journalists, and even officials were increasingly willing to question whether their country’s long-standing alliance with North Korea really served China’s best interests.

Such apostasy reached a peak in March 2013, when Deng Yuwen, Deputy Editor of Study Times, the journal of the Central Party School of China’s Communist Party, published an article in the Financial Times urging the Chinese government to jettison its increasingly troublesome ally. That proposal proved to be a bridge too far for the Party’s senior leadership, and Deng was relieved of his post. But the episode reflected the growing discontent with Pyongyang’s behavior.

Washington has long urged Beijing to get tough with its North Korean client, and following Secretary of State John Kerry’s meetings with State Councilor Yang Jiechi in April, the Obama administration seemed more satisfied with Beijing’s approach. China’s role in curbing Pyongyang’s provocative conduct is crucial, since China provides North Korea with much of its food and energy supplies. That gives Beijing far more leverage than any other country.

Continued Chinese cooperation is crucial if North Korea is to be dissuaded from commencing another disruptive period. Thus far, Beijing and Washington seem to be in greater accord than ever before about how to deal with Pyongyang. But the continuation of that approach requires cordial overall relations between the two countries. Unfortunately, sharp disagreements regarding the Syrian crisis could torpedo collaboration on North Korea and other issues. Chinese leaders are nearly as unhappy as their Russian counterparts about Washington’s apparent disregard of their views and interests – and their prerogatives as permanent members of the UN Security Council – with respect to the Syrian situation. It would be a great tragedy if the encouraging signs of unprecedented bilateral cooperation on North Korea became a casualty of a crisis on the other side of the world, but that is now a worrisome prospect. If that occurs, all the recent gains in reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula could evaporate.