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Frank O'Donnell

Frank O'Donnell

Frank is a contributor to ISN Security Watch

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Opportunity for China in North Korea

Will China Press North Korea to Dismantle it’s Nuclear Program

Now would be a good time for Beijing to forge an economic path to denuclearising North Korea.

The moment may have arrived for China to press North Korea to re-open negotiations on its nuclear program, with a view to eventual dismantlement. The key to breaking the stalemate may lie in the economic realm and Beijing would benefit from exploiting it.

Until now, Chinese decision-makers have found little incentive to participate in any undertakings that would lead to the denuclearisation of the North. The lack of incentive relates to a fundamental fact that has remained unchanged over the decades: The North Korean regime serves as a buffer between China and US military forces in the South. The collapse of the North would allow US forces to advance right to the Chinese border.

Although Beijing truly wishes to help keep the nuclear club small, it appreciates that North Korea’s nuclear program bolsters its ability to check and balance US forward presence in the Asia-Pacific.

Beijing also likely believes that the nuclearization of the North hedges against the crisis of leadership currently plaguing Kim Jong-il’s regime. However, the reshuffling of Pyongyang’s top leadership early this week may remove this second rationale.

Firstly, Kim's brother-in-law, Chang Song-taek, has been promoted to become a possible seat-warmer to his youngest son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-un. Secondly, several economic ministers were also replaced in light of the North’s recently botched currency reform.

Both developments help inject some needed stability and certainty to the North’s domestic situation. It also provides China with the incentive to denuclearize the North without weakening its strategic position vis-à-vis the US.

The new team of economic advisors are expected to turn around the North’s current economic quagmire. Yet, they are expected to do so without pressing for any market-oriented change, which is anathema to state ideology.

However, engendering greater business with China, a communist partner of sorts, is more palatable.  

Driven by its own economic zeal, China already invests deeply in North Korea’s future. Anchorage rights to North Korea’s Rajin Port were secured in 2008, enabling regular Chinese access to the Sea of Japan. China and North Korea agreed to jointly construct two additional dams along the Yalu River in March. Bilateral talks between Kim and President Hu Jintao in May likely included a discussion of North Korean economic development strategies.

Still, Chinese efforts to improve the North Korean economic outlook are overshadowed by the nuclear issue. Beijing can advise Pyongyang that directing scarce internal resources toward plutonium production and uranium enrichment reduces the ability for the North to generate infrastructure appropriate for investors.

China’s wish to see an economically sustainable North Korea is further hindered by containment instruments featuring interdiction of commerce, like the Proliferation Security Initiative and operations under UN Security Council Resolution 1874.

In sum, a nuclear-free North Korea would allow these economic goals to be met and it greatly benefits Beijing. This line of reasoning short circuits the strategic and ideological impasse that has hindered positive Chinese action. 

Washington can also remind Beijing that the absence of rejuvenated Chinese-led efforts to disarm North Korea places China’s economic interests, and thus its ‘peaceful rise,’ directly at risk.

It is in China’s direct economic interests to robustly pressure North Korea to return to the Six-Party Talks, and to more clearly prioritize nuclear disarmament in its wider relations with North Korea.

The time has come for Hu and his government to start making calls to Chang and his economic ministers.

By Frank O'Donnell and Graham Ong-Webb


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