South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Chinese President Xi Jinping displayed firm solidarity on the North Korean nuclear issue during Park’s June visit to China, reaffirming their common stance on a need for North Korea’s denuclearization. The visit came as China, Pyongyang's top ally, signaled unusual displeasure with the North after it carried out a missile launch and nuclear test and issued various threats despite Beijing's protests. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has yet to visit China. Changsop Pyon of Radio Free Asia’s Korean Service interviewed Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korean Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) about the implications of Park’s visit to China and the reasons behind China’s cold treatment of North Korea.
Q: In late June, South Korean President Park Geun-hye made her first state visit to China since assuming the presidency in February. What does her meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping imply?
A: Well, it’s clear that both South Korea and China wanted to improve relations with each other, and I think both sides were trying to show their best side. I felt like it was the kind of situation where you want to make the first good impression on your guest, and they were trying to establish a warm atmosphere for their relationship. They also put together the agenda for very extensive cooperation between the two sides.
Q: What does the Park-Xi meeting mean to North Korea that has witnessed its relations with China deteriorating recently?
A: Basically for China, for a long time the priority of China’s policy was at least on giving the external impression of "equidistance." But with South and North Korea, in fact, China favored South Korea in many aspects. Now I think the focus is on stability, and stability framework provides new opportunities for closer China and South Korean relations while also sending a message to North Korea that its provocative actions will not be tolerated.
Q: Despite being a long-time benefactor to North Korea, China seems to keep the country at arm's length these days. Do you agree?
A: Well, I think China is sending a clear message, a symbolic message to North Korea. In the past, if China did something to South Korea, it would do something to North Korea, and the North Korean leadership got a red carpet treatment every time. But Kim Jong Un has not visited [China] yet, and his envoys Choe Ryong-hae and Kim Kye-gwan, to a certain extent, were treated with hesitation and skepticism, a kind of at-arm’s length relationship. You know it’s a formal courtesy but informal disregard.
Q: You just mentioned Choe Ryong-hae and Kim Kye-gwan’s visit to China. Choe made the visit right before the U.S.-China summit in early June, and Kim rushed to China about 10 days before Park’s planned state visit to China on June 27. What do you think were their motivations?
A: I think they’re trying to manage the situation. They’re trying to avoid increased pressure, so they wanted to have consultation with China, designed to protect their interests. Any time the top leadership of the United States and China directly focus on North Korea, that’s not a good situation for North Korea, so I think the meetings were designed to influence the U.S.-China discussion. So, both of those discussions were designed to keep China from being too close to the U.S. or South Korea.
Q: Looks like their visits were a failure, given that they didn’t get satisfactory outcomes. What do you think?
A: I don’t know they necessarily failed, but I think they had limited impact.
Q: What factors do you believe have made the two countries’ relations turn cold like this?
A: North Korea’s satellite launches and nuclear tests have created problems for China at the U.N. Security Council, and as a result, enhanced the U.S.-Japan-South Korean cooperation. Because the U.S. has demonstrated a show of force on the Korean peninsula in March, I think the show of forces left a big impact on China. When the U.S. did the show of force, China was not happy with the U.S., but could not blame the U.S. because it was a response to the North Korean actions. Even though they were not happy with the U.S. show of force, they know that the root cause was related to the North Korean provocations. It’s detrimental to China’s interests and stability. And North Korea is being held responsible at some level for promoting that kind of instability.
Q: Are China’s relations with North Korea in semi-crisis mode?
A: Well, it’s tense and mutually uncomfortable. It’s mutual discomfort. Of course, it could come across a crisis point, but at this stage clearly China has an interest in imposing restraints on North Korea through various means. I don’t know if it’s necessarily different from the way it’s been always done. I mean the main difference is that compared with 2010, 2011 and 2012, during that period, China gave unconditional support for North Korea because of the concern about instability and its unstable political transition. It was while Kim Jong Il was facing his last days. But now Kim Jong Un is in power and the security risks, I think, have declined. Frankly I think China is showing a great displeasure with North Korea in part because the regime seems more stable, but it’s going in the wrong direction from China’s perspective. So they can use stronger measures and try to rein in the North Korean leadership that is essentially stable but not consolidated and moving in the wrong direction.
Q: North Korea conducted the third nuclear test in February despite China’s strong objection. Is it possible that Pyongyang wrongly thought that they could get away with it because of China’s ambiguous stance on their previous nuclear tests?
A: Yes, to some degree. The fact that North Korea conducted another nuclear test has been detrimental to their relationship. I think basically after the second nuclear test North Korea took the wrong message about China. They thought China’s support was unconditional, that China did not have a choice. But China is now showing that there is a limit. So I think basically the third nuclear test has come to be a marker where the international community, especially China, has an interest in making sure that future tests don’t occur because basically their response to the third nuclear test has been negative for China and, also by extension, negative for North Korea, whereas the response to the second test was arguably punished by the international community, but the North made some gains. Basically any future tests will come at a higher cost to North Korea because of Beijing’s turn, tactical shift toward stability. Any future North Korean nuclear test is also going to come at a higher cost to China. So, as a result, China has a high degree of motivation to make sure it does not happen. I think the fourth nuclear test would bring a much greater direct pressure on North Korea from China.
Q: Given that North Korea hasn’t conducted additional nuclear test until now, do you think the North Korean leadership has learned a lesson from China’s tough stance?
A: No, they haven’t learnt the lesson. I think the North Korean leadership is clearly set in what the U.S. and China regard as a wrong direction. North Korea is committed to pursuing its current path, but any additional test will impose a higher cost for China, and China is intent on avoiding those costs or passing them on to Pyongyang. China is trying to impose a limit on North Korea’s behavior through its current approach, and I don’t know if North Korea would take that lesson or not but I think they would respect that limit.
Q: In dealing with Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, China is clearly different from its approaches during the Kim Il Sung/Kim Jong Il era. What’s your take?
A: Well, that is a tactical shift. I think the best way to describe it is China is triangulating the cost of international pressure and greater instability related to North Korean provocations against its desire for stability and desire for buffer. But since the international pressure has grown, China’s approach has shifted somewhat in response to that international pressure. Basically China’s position has moved from unconditional support for North Korea to a position that is actually susceptible to international pressure to a degree.