This picture, taken by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on Thursday, shows North Korea's soldiers attending a rally at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang. (AFP)
TAIPEI — Chinese scholars and think tankers doubt there will be serious change in China’s policy on North Korea at a strategic level, although tactical changes are inevitable as North Korea continues to thumb its nose at its old friend.
Street protests and a flood of angry media reports in China have demonstrated a sea change in China’s attitude toward its old comrades.
“North Korea’s continuous provocations defying China’s demands, warnings and brazen neglect of China’s key strategic and security interests certainly drive many in China, both in the public and among elites, to ‘soul-searching’ on its North Korea policy,” said Wang Dong, director, School of International Studies, Center for Northeast Asian Strategic Studies, Peking University, Beijing.
Despite the “soul searching,” it still appears unlikely that senior members of the Chinese Communist Party will do much more than tweak current policy guidelines on North Korea.
“My own impression is that there ... [have] been growing voices, primarily among scholarly and policy circles, urging rethinking of China’s policy toward North Korea,” Wang said, but whether such scholarly debate will lead to eventual concrete changes in policy seems remote.
At present, North Korea is not a top policy priority in the upper echelons of the government, despite the nuclear test and missile launch, said Di Dongsheng, general secretary of the Renmin Center for Foreign Strategy Studies in Beijing. Though there are new debates over the issue in Chinese society, the newly installed government in Beijing already faces a variety of challenges and difficulties beyond North Korea, despite their antics, he said.
Zhuang Jianzhong, vice director of the Center for National Strategy Studies at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, said China is facing stronger pressure at home and abroad to re-evaluate its policy on North Korea.
“In my opinion, China will make some adjustments on our policies, but it is more on the tactical level, not the strategic level,” he said.
From a strategic perspective, China insists that North Korea denuclearize, but not at the cost of destabilizing the regime.
“Chaos should be avoided at all costs,” Zhuang said.
There have been long-standing fears that a destabilized regime in Pyongyang could create a humanitarian catastrophe and possibly civil war within North Korea. “This position hasn’t changed and will not be changed in the near future,” he said.
China will join the international community in tightening sanctions against the regime, “but it will also carefully ensure the sanctions do not ‘threaten’ another key goal of China, which is peace and stability on the Korean peninsula,” Wang said.
The nuclear tests have forced China to cooperate more with the U.S., Japan and South Korea on imposing stronger economic sanctions against North Korea.
“There will be closer cooperation between China and the U.S. in the United Nations Security Council on sanction issues,” Zhuang said.
The U.N. Security Council unanimously backed toughened sanctions under Resolution 2094 against North Korea on March 7 in response to the regime’s third nuclear test on Feb. 12. It imposes new sanctions to block financial transactions, strengthens states’ authority to inspect suspicious cargo and deny port and overflight access to North Korea, and identified individuals will be subject to a travel ban and freeze of their assets.
However, efforts to change North Korea’s regime or affect its people’s daily life will still be opposed by China. “China will not seek control over North Korea,” Zhuang said.
What is clear is the Communist camaraderie is over. “It’s more of a normal country-to-country relationship based on the respective national interests than the traditional ties,” Zhuang said.
It’s a common view in China that the U.S. should bear part of the responsibility for failing to prevent North Korea from further developing its nuclear and missile technologies, Wang said.
“The U.S. may not necessarily agree with that kind of view, but it is widely shared in China,” he said.
There are many in Washington who believe Beijing is capable of controlling Pyongyang, but Wang disagrees.
“China has never been able to ‘control’ North Korea. The North Koreans are a tough people,” he said.