US-Sino Rivalry and North Korea’s Strategic Value


Kim Jong-un must be pleased with how US-China trade and other disputes disrupt North Korea’s denuclearization

STANFORD, CALIFORNIA: US-China rivalry – including a trade war and tensions over Taiwan and South China Sea – is escalating. In October 2018, US Vice President Mike Pence even insinuated that a new Cold War may be underway.

Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, has good reasons to exalt at the intensifying G2 rivalry. Great power competition enlarges North Korea’s strategic value and impairs denuclearization.

Locked in a security dilemma with the US, China could diagnose US-led security network in Asia as containment. In turn, this encourages Chinese views to accept North Korea, with or without nuclear weapons, as an ally in the fight against the United States. In a zero-sum game with Washington, Beijing could end up tolerating Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions as long as those weapons pose greater threat to the United States than to China.

Bracing for a return of Cold War in Asia, China cannot afford to let sanctions on North Korea undermine Beijing’s influence over its only ally. Historically, China feared losing this erratic ally. During the Cold War, the Sino-Soviet split rendered North Korea a valued pivot state between Moscow and Beijing, forcing China to accommodate North Korean demands to prevent its full entry into the Soviet sphere of influence. The immediate post–Cold War period brought a temporary détente between North Korea and the West, with North Korean delegates commenting during 1992 talks that Pyongyang wanted the United States in Asia to check Japan’s rise. Kim’s peace offensive produced three summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and a first-ever summit with a US president, so the Chinese have reasons to fear losing North Korea. While some Chinese foreign policy analysts see North Korea as more of a liability than an asset, any dramatic turn by the reclusive regime to embrace Washington would herald geopolitical disaster for China, which already faces major border challenges – both land and sea – in the Taiwan Strait, India and Russia. In the context of American encirclement, China could seek to keep Pyongyang close at all costs, even if that means derailing the denuclearization process by normalizing trade with the regime.

In the same vein, China seeks to reassert influence in the denuclearization talks, maintaining leverage over North Korea by exercising a dual strategy of pressure and protection. Washington seeks speedy front-loading, with both sides exchanging big concessions from the start. However, China empathizes with North Korea’s promotion of a phased, synchronized approach – rewarding each small step of compliance. That gradual process historically has allowed North Korea to resort to salami tactics, reneging on commitments after reaping rewards.

Officially, China claims to be in line with the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign by maintaining an unprecedented level of sanctions on Pyongyang. However, chances of a military conflict in the Korean Peninsula have subsided since the tense summer of 2017, allowing China to relax sanctions. Reports suggest that North Korean workers are returning to China, as officials ignore illicit border trade and accelerate industrial projects in the border cities of Tumen and Namyang. The Chinese claim sanctions relief provides incentives, but the North’s obstinacy in the current diplomatic deadlock coincides with weakening of the international sanctions regime.

Ultimately, China uses North Korea as a bargaining chip for favorable Sino-American relations: a rearrangement of new great-power relations in the face of the Trump administration’s containment efforts. Chinese leaders surely expected proactive cooperation in sanctions would tone down the promised trade dispute and consequently felt betrayed after Trump launched tariffs. Perhaps related, two summits between Xi Jinping and Kim in 2018 allegedly ended with the Chinese president promising economic assistance ahead of complete denuclearization, providing incentives to move slowly on giving up nuclear weapons. US intelligence officials also commented that Kim’s attitude shifted immediately after his second summit with Xi in May 2018. By displaying influence over Pyongyang, Beijing may remind Washington that China’s full cooperation is indispensable for denuclearizing North Korea. China will likely demand reciprocity elsewhere in return for pressure on Pyongyang.

Furthermore, Sino-American tensions persuade Beijing to pursue a policy that can “kill two birds with one stone.” China sees an opportunity to juxtapose and remove two regional threats: North Korean nuclear weapons and US troops in South Korea. Since the 1990s, North Korea relentlessly stressed how the American idea of Pyongyang’s unilateral disarmament differs from its concept of denuclearization. The regime issued a statement yet again in December clarifying that the term denuclearization refers to “removing nuclear threats not only from the South and the North but from areas neighboring the Korean Peninsula,” including the “invasive forces the United States placed in South Korea.” In essence, North Korea’s and China’s bucket lists for the US are virtually identical: remove troops from South Korea, cease joint military exercises with allies and discontinue warships patrolling the East China Sea.