Analysts and diplomats last week were hinting at a possible attitudinal shift in Beijing on the North Korea issue after China, Pyongyang’s longtime ally, voted for UN Security Council Resolution 2094, which imposes additional sanctions on North Korea to punish it for conducting its third nuclear test on Feb. 12. However, despite signaling displeasure with Pyongyang’s brinkmanship, Beijing does not yet seem willing to do what is required to stop its neighbor from flirting with weapons of Armageddon.
The signs on Thursday last week were promising: Beijing had signed on to the latest round of sanctions, while some influential figures, such as retired People’s Liberation Army major general Luo Yuan (羅援), a prominent foreign policy hawk, were warning North Korea that although both nations had been “comrade[s] and brothers-in-arms in the past,” if Pyongyang harmed China’s national interests, “we’ll get even with you.”
However, if the reports that emerged on Monday are any indication, the optimism may have been a little premature. Beijing’s apparent change of heart might be nothing more than cosmetic.
After years of investigation, US and South Korean authorities have uncovered what are said to be dozens of accounts at several banks in Shanghai and elsewhere in China belonging to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The South Korean government believes that the freezing of these slush funds, which reportedly contain hundreds of millions of US dollars, could put a serious dent in Pyongyang’s efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Unfortunately, Seoul’s urgings that the China-based banks be included in the latest round of sanctions against Pyongyang were reportedly ignored, a shortcoming that puts the effectiveness of the sanctions regime into question.
Once again, despite universal condemnation of a regime that consistently defies international law, threatens regional security and has reduced its population to starvation, Beijing is failing to do what is necessary to put an end to the problem. Its inaction ensures that North Korea will continue to destabilize the region and threaten war in this increasingly important part of the world.
That is not to say that Pyongyang’s intransigence has not forced some Chinese to re-evaluate their assumptions about their neighbor. However, while some tactical adjustments may be seen on China’s part to deal with this growing malaise, the likelihood that major policy changes will occur at the strategic level is very slim.
Beijing wants to have it both ways: It wants to see North Korea abandon its nuclear ambitions, but not at the cost of undermining the regime and destabilizing the country.
This dual approach is at the heart of China’s North Korea policy and ensures that a resolution will remain nowhere in sight, a “status quo” that serves the additional purpose of keeping US and Japanese forces focused on Pyongyang, rather than on its own military expansion and territorial ambitions.
As long as the North continues to be run by an unpredictable regime — which the young Kim, like his father, former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, appears prepared to do — South Korean, Japanese and US forces will remain tied up in North Korea and will be unable to allocate additional manpower to areas of less immediate concern, such as the East and South China seas, as well as the Taiwan Strait.
Therefore, it would be foolish to expect Beijing to fully cooperate with Japan and the West on the North Korea issue. As long as tensions and instability on the Korean Peninsula remain manageable and continue to serve Beijing’s national interests, Zhongnanhai will not be a partner we can count on to rein in the crazies in Pyongyang.