Will China finally rethink North Korea policy?
December 14th, 2012
02:19 PM ET

Will China finally rethink North Korea policy?

By Michael Mazza, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Michael Mazza is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are his own.

On Monday, North Korea announced it was extending the window for its rocket launch due to a technical glitch. On Tuesday, South Korean intelligence officials announced there were indications that the rocket was being dismantled. On Wednesday, North Korea conducted the missile test, which it carried out successfully. What happened here?

It could be that this false delay was all about China. North Korea originally announced the missile test only a day after a high-level meeting in Pyongyang between Kim Jong Un and Wang Jiarui, head of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Department. Beijing, in the midst of a leadership transition and already dealing with a period of tense relations with its neighbors and the United States, must have been furious.

Although publicly China adopted a mild approach to the coming missile test, behind the scenes it may well have been exerting significant pressure on Pyongyang to scrap the launch. While Beijing does have leverage it could bring to bear – especially of the economic variety – its history of supporting North Korea under all circumstances, no matter how egregious its behavior, likely undermined any threats China may have made. And even though China is North Korea’s only real ally, Pyongyang is fiercely independent and loath to follow Chinese directives.

Could it be that the announcement of delay followed quickly by the launch was intended as a deliberate slap in the face to China?

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There are other interpretations of this about-face, of course. Patrick Cronin, writing for GPS this week, suggested that North Korea was “adhering to the ancient military maxim that all war is deception” and thus “preceded its launch with well-timed misinformation.” He may be right. But even if that’s the case, it appears Kim was content to deceive his friends along with his enemies.

One can only hope that this all finally serves as the straw that breaks the Chinese camel’s back. Beijing must realize that having long refused to put its leverage to use, it has unduly limited influence in Pyongyang. And much to Beijing’s chagrin, with North Korea on the precipice of fielding an inter-continental ballistic missile capable of striking the United States, Washington will have even greater impetus to invest in ballistic missile defense and to enhance defense capabilities in the Asia-Pacific.

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Sadly, it’s not at all clear that North Korea’s latest provocation will force China to reconsider its strategic calculus. The Chinese system is not conducive to sharp turns in policy, especially at a time of transition in Beijing in which the new leaders are still consolidating their power. But Xi Jinping may want to teach the young Kim a lesson. He could do so by working more closely with the United States to institute new sanctions and enhance sanctions enforcement. In the short term, Xi may aim to cause Kim some pain just to prove he is willing to do so.  China can always ease up on its enforcement of sanctions or step up its aid to the impoverished nation once it determines Kim has gotten the message.

Beijing’s strategic interest will likely remain in the maintenance of an independent North Korean state allied to China. Even with North Korea’s latest show of insulting intransigence, a fundamental change in the bilateral relationship remains an unlikely outcome.

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Topics: China • North Korea

soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    It's unclear, how astute Kim Jong Un is, Untested, is he capable of playing this kind of political games. It's highly possible that he has advisors. As the country is hermetically sealed, it's dfficult for the outside world to see, whom he surrounds himself with. No doubt he has infuriated China and Beijing wouldn't forget this caper so easily and pay him back one day.

    December 16, 2012 at 8:04 am | Reply
    • Maersk

      Instead of having Kim Jong Un to zuck their kwok, the Chinese will have Uncle Sam to zuck their kwok.

      December 17, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Reply
      • M Houston

        Pick up your "zucks", your "kwoks" and your other nasty little verbal toys and go play
        somewhere else, Maersk. You are really a bore.

        December 18, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
  2. Ekram

    I think China knows what NK is doing and she secretly approves every actions taken by NK. Don't be fooled by China's official diapproval of NK actions......its all show and none is true!

    December 18, 2012 at 2:54 am | Reply
  3. johnny

    I suspect China is confident NK would be incapable of having a real nuclear bomb, and being a threat to its neighbours . Its like it disagreed with US about Saddam Hussein having WMD to attack other Arab states.

    December 18, 2012 at 10:06 am | Reply
  4. RON

    I still say North Korea is doing the dirty work for China. I think they are both in on it and working together on the technology.

    December 18, 2012 at 11:44 am | Reply
    • Maersk

      I think you and your Uncle Sam sleep together.

      December 18, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Reply
  5. M Houston

    North Korea is one of China's ugly stepchildren. Maersk is another one.
    China should be ashamed of both of them.

    December 18, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Reply

  6. Our country respects peace and principle,we will response from the whole situation aiming to promote peace ,but do not intrude any country,or the according principle will punish the countries that ignore the principle.

    May 2, 2013 at 9:40 am | Reply

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