Journal Article - Survival

China, North Korea and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons

| April-May 2013

Article preview: Once described as ‘as close as lips and teeth’, in recent years the relationship between China and North Korea has become more strained. Beijing has conflicted motivations in its policy towards Pyongyang. It resents the disruption North Korean provocation brings to Northeast Asia. Some observers argue that Beijing’s North Korea policy is illogical, as it increases anti-Chinese resentment and support for America’s military presence in Asia.1 (When Beijing gave Pyongyang diplomatic cover after North Korean forces sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan and shelled Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, it damaged China’s image and strengthened cooperation between South Korea, Japan and the United States.) And China’s indefinite protection of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal might one day encourage Seoul or Tokyo to seek their own nuclear deterrents, although this will remain unlikely as long as the United States retains a meaningful military presence in East Asia. In the shorter term, the North Korean nuclear threat has prompted Tokyo and Seoul to introduce ballistic-missile defences, much to China’s displeasure.

Beijing has apparently calculated, however, that these disadvantages are outweighed by the risk of regime collapse in North Korea, which would entail a large number of refugees entering northern China, and the likelihood of a reunified Korean peninsula under Seoul’s control and allied with the United States. The prospect of a US military ally as China’s direct neighbour, and possibly US troops on its borders, is deeply alarming to Beijing. Memories of Japan’s invasion of China via the Korean peninsula remain strong among Chinese policymakers, and concerns about territorial vulnerability trump all others.2 China’s policy now seems to be focused on trade and investment in North Korea, in the hope that this will promote regime prosperity and stability, reduce any incentive to extort aid through military provocation, encourage Pyongyang to follow China’s post-1979 path to economic reform, and maximise Chinese leverage. As Victor Cha, former director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, has argued, China and North Korea are ‘caught in a mutual hostage relationship – the North needs Chinese help for their survival, and the Chinese need the North not to collapse’.3 This prospect has been sufficient to deter China from fully exploiting its economic and diplomatic leverage over Pyongyang.

This equation may not hold, however, when it comes to the leakage of nuclear material from North Korea. China has very real interests in minimising the nuclear dangers that could emanate from North Korea, in particular the deliberate sale of nuclear weapons or material to non-state actors, whether directly or indirectly via sale to another state; and the leakage of nuclear weapons or materials in the event of the collapse or fragmentation of the Kim regime. Moreover, it can do so without causing serious deterioration (which would in any case be worth it) in relations with Pyongyang. If nuclear weapons or materials were to find their way into the hands of non-state actors, the damage done to Chinese interests would substantially outweigh that caused simply by regime collapse....

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Thomas Plant is a Research Fellow at the International Centre for Security Analysis (ICSA), King’s College London, and is currently on secondment from the UK Ministry of Defence. Ben Rhode is a Senior Research Associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Plant, Thomas and Ben Rhode. China, North Korea and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons.” Survival, (April-May 2013) .

The Authors