U.S. Media Exaggerating Chinese Shift on North Korea

, China project manager and senior analyst | April 7, 2013, 2:57 pm EDT
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October 2003: The Bartlett administration’s equivalent of Kurt Campbell explains why a North
Korean piano 
player cannot be allowed to defect to the United States.

Recent U.S. press reports suggest Chinese frustration with recent North Korean provocations could lead to a shift in Chinese policy towards their belligerent neighbor. These reports are based on comments by former Obama administration officials responsible for U.S. foreign and security policy in the region. Kurt Campbell, the recently resigned assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, told an audience at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies “there is a subtle change in Chinese thinking.” Former senior director for East Asian affairs on the National Security Council Jeffrey Bader told the New York Times this change means China “will be much more aggressive, much more fed up and much more prepared to treat North Korea differently than in the past.”

Chinese Central Television (CCTV) coverage of recent events on the Korean peninsula suggests rumors of a shift are exaggerated, perhaps even completely false. In fact, a Saturday evening broadcast on CCTV News suggested the United States may be moving slightly towards China’s position, rather than the other way around. Chinese official statements continue to call on both sides to exercise restraint. Chinese commentary remains even handed, noting North Korean violations of UN prohibitions on nuclear and missile tests while at the same time criticizing the unwillingness of the United States to supply North Korea with the security guarantee it seeks. U.S. and North Korean concerns are conveyed as having equal standing.

U.S. officials have argued for years that China would eventually change its position on North Korea, largely because of the U.S. belief China’s unwillingness to pressure their neighbor would lead to adverse security outcomes, such as a nuclear armed Japan. In Japan and America’s Nuclear Posture, UCS presented strong evidence to the contrary. Nevertheless, the idea that China would change its policy on North Korea because of security concerns is so well-entrenched in the minds of U.S. officials and reporters that this “subtle change” in China’s thinking about North Korea was taking place in a 2003 episode of The West Wing. 

There is no visible sense that China’s propaganda machinery is preparing the Chinese public for major events on the peninsula or for a change in Chinese policy. There is little sense of emergency or crisis. The North Korean situation is a story, but not the major focus of recent news coverage. Most of last week the Chinese news was dominated by stories about “Qing Ming” holiday activities. CCTV 13, China’s 24-hour news channel, gave more air time to a feature on the wildebeest migration in the Serengeti than to the situation in North Korea. This weekend, the focus of the news turned towards the BoAo Forum in Hainan: China’s answer to Davos.

The main Chinese themes on North Korea have not changed as a result of the current situation. China would like to see a relaxation of tensions, renewed regional dialog and economic reform. They do not appear to believe there is a high risk of armed conflict. They argue sanctions are counterproductive and the United States should engage directly with the leaders of North Korea at a high level in order to provide the sense of security they now seek through nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The one change repeated to me by several Chinese colleagues this week is China now believes North Korea is determined to build a functional nuclear deterrent. They blame the United States for that development. It is, as the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said, “regrettable.” But there is no apparent justification for assuming it will be a turning point for Chinese foreign policy.


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  • anon2


    I think it is rational for China to restrain North Korean military beligerance because the cost far out weigh the benefit to China (if any).

    Considering we owe China more than 1.2 trillion USD, military conflict with the US as part of a mutual defense pact is irrational. The US will respond militarily if attacked. China then will have no choice but to join the United States in the police action to prevent loosing all influence in the post war reconstruction. As a united Korea is the likely outcome, it is rational for China to coerce North Korea before a war breaks out to fall into the China political economic mold… Capitalism and full western trade engagement but with limited freedoms.

    I find it interesting that North Korea has silenced the war beligerant propaganda in the last 48 hours. Rumors have the PLA on full alert on the NK border. Maybe this is no coincidence. Let’s see if NK fires the Musadan.

    • Gregory Kulacki

      Thanks for your comment. One of the dangers here is misunderstanding, especially misunderstanding between the U.S. and China. China has a mutual security treaty with North Korea and is obliged to come to its defense.

      U.S. observers and policy-makers often engage in mirror-imaging; they imagine what would appear rational to them and project that thinking onto Chinese behavior. That seems to be what is happening here.

      • Anon2


        But the mutual defense treaty can be unilaterally withdrawn by China at any time it suits them. I think that it would be rational for the Chinese to have a back channel conversation stating exactly that to the DPRK, i.e. back down from your nuclear posture or face the formal repudiation of the treaty and a possible joint police action with China now occupying your country from the north.

        For China, it is in their interest to re-create North Korea in their image, not the image of South Korea. One impulsive move by the North, and that is no longer possible.

        And $1.246 trillion is a lot of money.


  • Toussaint

    I can not believe that the Americans fell for it. China simply simply laid some bait through their proxy and watch the US show how they would do things. It was like going for a fox hunt when u send in the dogs first to flush out the prey. This is the art of getting to know your enemy. Sun Tzu style.