U.S. and Chinese leaders both seek a denuclearized North Korea. But they disagree, fundamentally, on how that can be achieved. U.S. analysts and observers frame that disagreement inaccurately, contributing to misunderstanding that unnecessarily undermines strategic trust between China and the United States.
U.S. policy makers believe increased economic and political pressure will force North Korea to the negotiating table. North Korea’s fragile economy is supported by Chinese aid and trade. From the U.S. point of view, this theoretically gives China leverage over North Korean decisions.
Chinese policy-makers know that theory can be proven false. Decades ago China was as politically and economically isolated from the international community as North Korea is today. But neither its erstwhile Soviet patrons nor its American adversaries could stop China from building the bomb, which they still believe protects China from external military coercion. When Chinese leaders look at North Korea they are reminded of their own experience. From China’s point of view, greater foreign pressure is highly likely to increase North Korea’s resolve to acquire a credible nuclear deterrent.
China’s refusal to cut off economic assistance to North Korea is often interpreted by U.S. observers as either self-serving or antagonistic. Some say China fears an influx of refugees or economic disruption. Others claim China wants to preserve a divided Korea and the North as a buffer state. But no authoritative Chinese voice makes such claims. China’s official statements consistently argue for mutual restraint and renewed negotiations as the only viable path to a denuclearized North Korea.
The North Korean leadership’s unwillingness to negotiate is as frustrating to China as it is to the United States. That frustration can be detected in Chinese public statements and in private discussions with U.S. officials. But because the Chinese leadership sees increased economic and political pressure as counterproductive, it is unlikely that continued U.S. entreaties will lead to a change in Chinese policy.
U.S. officials should avoid misinterpreting Chinese unwillingness to exert pressure on North Korea as a sign of selfishness, indifference or hostility. China’s leaders simply disagree with the U.S. approach and their historical experience provides sufficient cause to trust their own judgment. Recognizing that this disagreement exists and that it reflects a legitimate difference of opinion can help avoid making the North Korean problem another point of contention in an increasingly troubled U.S.–China relationship.