Limits of Chinese Patience Toward North Korea and Prospects of Chinese Cooperation with South Korea

The Korean Peninsula is in a state of deep, growing insecurity. To the north, the Kim regime continues to launch ballistic missiles into the East Sea and prepare for what many expect will be further nuclear tests. Alarming too is the regime’s continued purge of the disgruntled elite, which signals heightened internal instability. The use of VX nerve agent in Kim Jung-nam’s assassination hints at the North’s often overshadowed stockpile of chemical and biological weapons, which—combined with Kim Jong-un’s recklessness—pose a uniquely daunting threat to the region and beyond.1 To the south, the leadership vacuum and government disarray have left the country ill-equipped to respond to the latest rounds of the North’s provocations.2 Uncertainties in the Trump administration’s commitment to the South and souring relations with Japan over the “comfort women” issue add to Seoul’s growing list of concerns.

Amid increasing tension on the peninsula, China adopted stronger responses against both the North’s intransigence and a perceived breach of trust by the South. China announced its suspension of coal imports from North Korea for the remainder of 2017, signaling its displeasure with Pyongyang’s latest provocations.3 At the same time, China launched wholesale economic retaliation against Seoul for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), which it regards as an excessive and dishonest measure designed by Washington to encircle China.4 As Beijing pursues parallel approaches to deter Pyongyang from nuclear proliferation and Seoul from an “encirclement” campaign, many continue to speculate about potential shifts in China’s policy toward North Korea. If China’s approach is indeed changing, it could have far-reaching implications for Seoul’s North Korea policy, and moreover, the region’s balance of power.

In this article, I evaluate the latest developments in the China-North Korea-South Korea triangle. First, on China-North Korea relations, I assess claims about the limits of Chinese patience toward North Korea by: 1) outlining China’s core interests, 2) reviewing how such interests have shaped the traditional Chinese approach toward North Korea, and 3) assessing whether recent Chinese responses to North Korean provocations signal a shift in strategy. Second, on China-South Korea relations, I investigate the prospects of Chinese cooperation with South Korea by: 1) highlighting current challenges in China-South Korea relations through a case study on THAAD, and 2) examining the South Korean presidential candidates’ positions on North Korea vis-a-vis China. This article argues that given its core interests, China has maintained its traditional policy on North Korea, and that the next administration in Seoul—almost certainly progressive—is likely to adopt warmer attitudes toward Pyongyang, much to Beijing’s pleasure.

Limits of Chinese Patience Toward North Korea

Underlying China’s North Korea policy is its preoccupation with preserving stability and preventing war.5 These objectives are prerequisite to—and in many ways synonymous with—Beijing’s core interests, including territorial integrity, domestic order, and economic development. As will be demonstrated, delivering on these objectives in terms of North Korea involves meticulously calculating the costs of three possible negative scenarios: 1) a reunified Korea under US leadership, 2) the collapse of North Korea, and 3) Pyongyang’s successful nuclearization. Each outcome holds powerful implications for China’s domestic stability and its influence in the region as well as aspirations for what many see as a Sinocentric regional order.

China’s Core Interests

Since the early 2000s, Chinese official media have increasingly relied on the concept of “core interests” to draw Beijing’s redlines. Broadly speaking, “core interests” signify issues that are essentially nonnegotiable—if threatened, they could warrant militant retaliation from Beijing. Until recent years, the term was used predominantly in reference to Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang—specific sovereignty issues that Beijing believed were purely internal and not to be impinged upon by foreign forces.6 However, as China became a more formidable player in international affairs, the definition of its “core interests” expanded to include virtually any matter that Beijing sees critical to its internal and external legitimacy. This was most notably evidenced by the characterization of the South China Sea as another “core interest”—a label largely unheard of prior to 2010.7

While Beijing’s core interests in Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang highlight their importance to China’s “vision of itself as a nation,”8 its core interests in North Korea are of different nature. This is Beijing’s most prized buffer, both geostrategically and ideologically. Geostrategically, North Korea provides a reliable bulwark in China’s northeastern corridor against the growing assertiveness of Washington’s rebalance toward Asia. While dwarfed by this geostrategic imperative, North Korea also shares China’s ideological foundation in communism and represents its surviving sphere of influence. The welfare and independence of North Korea is so intrinsically linked to the preservation of China’s established core interests that it may also be identified as such, even if that status might change in the long term.

China’s Core Interests and Korean Unification under US Leadership

Beijing greatly fears and seeks to prevent a unified Korea, because it perceives that unification is likely to harm China’s core interests, given the conditions under which it would most likely occur. China desires at least three conditions in a peaceful unification of Korea: 1) consensus, 2) nuclear disarmament, and 3) neutrality. While each condition poses nontrivial challenges, China considers the last, in particular, to be unattainable under current circumstances, rendering unification altogether objectionable in the short run.

First, consensus means all parties concerned—including China and the United States—must settle the terms of unification through a multilateral dialogue. Article 6 of the 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance between China and North Korea stipulates that the resolution to unify Korea should recognize “the aim of preserving peace in the Far East,” beyond the direct national interests of the Korean people.9 This depicts Beijing’s long-held belief that Korean unification is not a simple domestic affair—that Beijing’s interests must also be reconciled with those of Washington to enable Korea’s transition in a region marked by historic enmity and distrust. Yet, Beijing sees such a consensus to be unlikely, as previous rounds of negotiations—most notably the now-dormant Six-Party Talks—have demonstrated how far apart the key players are in terms of their core interests on the Korean Peninsula.10

Second, China wants the peninsula to be nuclear-free upon unification. While Beijing has not acted with urgency against Pyongyang’s attempts at proliferation, a united, nuclear Korea would pose a perceptibly larger threat to China. As revealed by a secret cable from the East German embassy in Pyongyang in 1973, China fears that a unified Korea “will become more politically important and independent, and that a leader with political ambitions extending beyond the Korean peninsula will appear.”11 This suspicion underlies much of Beijing’s strategic thinking: allowing a unified Korea a nuclear status would embolden Korea to be more assertive, and in turn, help Korea to realize greater ambitions—possibly, at China’s expense.

Third, China needs guarantees of neutrality from a unified Korea towards Washington and Beijing. China has so far deterred a South-led unification process, because it perceives that it would negatively impact Beijing’s interests, while favoring those of Washington. This could manifest itself in a number of areas including trade and navigation practices in the East China Sea, but Beijing’s most pressing concern regards a contingency situation in Taiwan. In the event of a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait, Beijing thinks that Washington would use Korea as a base for military operations and obstruct China’s unification with Taiwan.12 Establishing Korea’s neutrality is therefore critical to fulfilling Beijing’s most prized core interest—namely, building One China.

Beijing believes that the condition of neutrality cannot be realized in the short run, which naturally compels it to defer Korean unification—until a status more to China’s liking is possible in a Sinocentric regional order. Given the US-South Korea military alliance, Beijing foresees that a unified Korea under Seoul’s blueprint would be anti-Chinese. Washington is also unlikely to dissolve its security ties with Seoul as a precondition for Korea’s unification, because that could jeopardize its own system of alliances in East Asia.13 Therefore, even if all parties concerned were to agree to a unified, nuclear-free Korea, whether China and the United States could overcome their strategic distrust to designate Korea as “neutral” is highly dubious.

China’s Core Interests and the Collapse of North Korea

The collapse of North Korea would be an equally damning scenario for Beijing, given its core interests. Beijing’s primary fear stems from the likelihood of a military conflict in the event of North Korea’s collapse, which could: 1) embolden the US-led South to intervene with a view to ultimate unification; 2) impel Beijing to fight a costly war in order to keep the North free of US domination; and 3) exacerbate Beijing’s internal security concerns by forcing refugees to head west.

For China, a collapse scenario is alarming, because it could lead to war—from the civil kind to superpower conflict—from which China will inevitably suffer. The void left behind by Kim Jong-un would spur factional forces to attempt to take control, potentially unleashing the country’s considerable inventory of artillery and weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The war could spill over the 38th parallel as these factions attack South Korea, or more likely, as Seoul intervenes preemptively to forge unification under Washington’s leadership. Consequently, China may feel compelled to intervene against the allied forces, “turning a housekeeping operation into a superpower confrontation.”14

Regardless of whether Beijing intervenes, the war would be a major blow to China’s core interests. China and North Korea share a long, porous border—oft-described as Pyongyang’s “lifeline to the outside world”: any turmoil in the North can easily penetrate China, which Beijing is insufficiently prepared to handle. In particular, tens of thousands of North Korean refugees would embark across the Yalu River, seeking relief from chaos. Heading southward is virtually impossible, considering the deathbed of landmines—fenced off by razor wire and gargantuan firepower—that separates the two Koreas.15 Beijing is already strained by deteriorating minority relations in various parts of the country.16 As Sulmaan Khan contends, the torrent of refugees “would overwhelm China’s regional resources […] and possibly spread discontent amongst China’s ethnic Koreans.”17 If not prevented or remedied appropriately, such domestic instability could harm the ruling party’s internal legitimacy, shaking the very political foundation upon which China operates.

Any major instability in North Korea raises fear within the ruling elite in Beijing. As Euan Graham postulates, “From China’s point of view, North Korea’s real weapon of destruction is chaos. […] The fear of chaos runs so deep in the Chinese psyche that it’s this overriding fear [that dominates] rather than one of a freelancing and uncontrollable ally.”18 Disintegration of the Kim regime—and the chaos that would likely follow—generates enormous uncertainty and places Beijing at the heart of a security dilemma in which chances of cooperation are dim, and rewards for offense, too great. For Beijing, preventing such a scenario from ever unfolding is the only ideal way to safeguard its core interests.

China’s Core Interests and North Korea’s Nuclearization

Of the three negative scenarios, China has traditionally viewed Pyongyang’s nuclearization to be the least catastrophic. Unlike the unification or collapse scenarios where Beijing is bound to lose, Pyongyang’s nuclearization has more nuanced implications for China’s core interests. For starters, Chinese officials do not see Pyongyang’s nuclear development as a direct threat to China, but rather, as a defensive posture aimed at countering Washington’s assertive behavior in the region.19 More important, Beijing understands that a nuclear status is central to the Kim regime’s legitimacy, and therefore, its survival. Even though China is well-aware of the dangers of North Korea’s proliferation, China cannot take aggressive measures out of fear of undermining the regime’s survival. 

While the potential strategic advantages of Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions—hedging against Washington—are noted above, their centrality to the Kim regime’s survival merits further elaboration. As Robert Manning points out, the Kim regime’s “very identity is so bound up with nuclear weapons that [Kim] changed the country’s constitution to declare North Korea a nuclear state.”20 This demonstrates that the legacy of the Kim family—a critical component from which the regime derives its legitimacy—and the identity of North Korea as a nuclear state are intricately adjoined. Pyongyang’s failure to deliver on its nuclear ambitions could have severe implications for the regime’s authority. China knows this, and knows that the Kim regime knows it understands this, which is why China may simply acquiesce to a nuclear North Korea. 

This, however, does not mean that China fails to recognize costs associated with Pyongyang’s nuclearization. First, Beijing knows that a nuclear-armed North Korea will likely trigger an arms race. As evidenced by THAAD, the United States may more justifiably expand its missile defense capabilities in the region, which—while aimed at shielding its allies from Pyongyang’s growing nuclear threat—could weaken Beijing’s nuclear deterrent (or so it believes).21 More worryingly, South Korea and Japan may attempt to develop their own nuclear weapons or the United States may reintroduce tactical nuclear weapons in the region.22 The overall result would be a strengthened military posture of the United States and its allies in East Asia—or in Beijing’s interpretation, Washington’s ever-deepening encirclement campaign against China.

Second, non-military countermeasures adopted by the international community against North Korea could harm Beijing’s interests. Sanctions, while widely regarded as failing, have the potential to generate discontent among the much aggrieved North Korean population, whose minimum livelihood Beijing must ensure to suppress unrest. More alarming, given recent findings that Chinese intermediaries have enabled Pyongyang’s evasion of sanctions, imposing secondary sanctions against China may become more appealing to those seeking a stronger response.23 The Trump administration is already considering secondary sanctions to make existing sanctions against Pyongyang more effective and threaten Beijing to compel a more proactive posture toward Pyongyang.24 Lastly, the ineffectiveness of the sanctions against North Korea is blamed on China; this could tarnish Beijing’s reputation and soft power, which it has so carefully cultivated to establish itself as a responsible player in regional and international affairs.

Despite the dangers of North Korea’s nuclearization, that it does not harm China’s core interests leads Beijing to conclude that it is the least of the three evils. If Beijing wished, it could cripple the Kim regime by choking Pyongyang politically and economically and undermine its identity as a nuclear state. But because measures to counter Pyongyang’s nuclear development would inevitably jeopardize the preservation of North Korea—which would assuredly hurt China’s core interests—Beijing makes the conscious, calculated decision not to intervene.

Traditional Chinese Approach to North Korea

Based on China’s core interests and the three contingencies on the Korean Peninsula which most affect those interests, Beijing has consistently prioritized maintaining the status quo on the peninsula. As Cheng Xiaohe notes, “China could reap a number of benefits from the division on the peninsula. Both Koreas would seek China’s support, allowing it to enjoy considerable room to maneuver.” Knowing this, Beijing has adopted deferring Korean unification and preventing the North’s collapse as its main strategic objectives in North Korea. (Here, the term “deferring” is used instead of “preventing,” because Beijing also understands that Korean unification is not a matter of “if,” but “when” and “how.”) In order to implement this strategy, China has exercised extreme patience toward Pyongyang’s provocations and consistently highlighted Beijing’s objections against Washington’s countermeasures.

Chinese patience toward North Korea has been evidenced by its refusal to unilaterally punish Pyongyang, which could destabilize North Korea to the point of collapse. As Susan Shirk confirms, “If Beijing wished, it could put massive pressure on Pyongyang by restricting the country’s trade, some 85 percent of which goes to or through China.”25 Notwithstanding its dominant leverage, Beijing has so far refused to force North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal and undertakes little beyond rhetorical condemnation. While Xi Jinping’s attitude toward Kim Jong-un has involved a degree of disdain, bilateral ties between China and North Korea have not been so profoundly challenged as to invalidate a series of shared strategic interests.

Meanwhile, Beijing has also voiced its objections against US-led counter-provocations. While backing UN Security Council Resolution 2321, Beijing maintained its reservations about other parties provoking Pyongyang by increasing their military presence or scaling up military exercises in the region. In particular, Beijing strongly protested the THAAD deployment in South Korea. At the end of 2016, when the UN Security Council met following Pyongyang’s ballistic missile launches, China demanded that it condemn THAAD alongside Pyongyang’s provocations. Disagreement over this reservation ultimately prevented the Security Council from adopting a formal statement.26 By urging all parties to refrain from exacerbating tension in the region, China deflected accusations that it is responsible for North Korea’s actions and, instead, placed the blame on the United States for inciting the North’s provocations in the first place.

A Shift in China’s North Korea Strategy?

Amid growing insecurity on the peninsula, new fissures in China-North Korea relations have surfaced, raising the prospect of strategic shifts in China’s North Korea policy. Strains in their relationship are mainly attributed to Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions and Kim Jong-un’s impetuous politics, as demonstrated by the killing of Kim Jong-nam. Yet, Beijing’s responses to Pyongyang’s latest provocations demonstrate China’s sustained approach to North Korea, proving, once again, the close alignment between Pyongyang’s preservation and Beijing’s core interests.

A closer look at Pyongyang’s fifth nuclear test shows that China’s North Korea strategy has not yet shifted. North Korea’s fifth nuclear test on September 9, 2016 came as tension on the peninsula was quickly rising: Seoul and Washington had just announced their decision to deploy THAAD and held its biennial joint military exercise, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, each precipitating a round of Pyongyang’s missile provocations. Immediately following the test, the Chinese foreign ministry issued a statement saying it “firmly opposed” Pyongyang’s nuclear test, urging all parties to “act with caution.” It also reaffirmed that Beijing would “take part in relevant negotiations in the Security Council with a responsible attitude.”27 The statement largely duplicated the language, content, and sentiment of previous statements, and was similarly accompanied by very limited punitive measures.28

While many regarded China’s coal ban against North Korea—announced on Feb 18, 2017—as a significant penalty, the authenticity of Beijing’s commitment remains unclear. Beijing had issued a similar ban in April 2016 following Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test, and yet, imported a further $858 million worth of coal by exploiting the “livelihood exemption” in Resolution 2270.29 The current coal ban is not likely to be any different. In the few months leading up to the announcement, China had already exceeded the capped amount—newly designated under Resolution 2321—in terms of the dollar value.30 That is,Beijing was paying inflated prices for North Korean coal, providing Pyongyang the cash it needs in order to survive—evidence it has acted in bad faith.31 It is also unclear how much more coal might be traded under the “humanitarian exemption.” The real impact of China’s coal ban on North Korea remains uncertain, and Beijing’s resolve to pressure Pyongyang should not be overestimated on account of the coal ban.32

Recent challenges in China-North Korea relations are also credited to the assassination of Kim Jong-nam. This incident broke out at a particularly uncomfortable time for Beijing, as the new Trump administration was pressuring China to do more about Pyongyang. It demonstrated the Kim regime’s growing recklessness as the assassination erupted in a place so public as an airport, in broad daylight. Even more disquieting, it shed light on Pyongyang’s often neglected inventory of chemical and biological weapons: the highly toxic VX nerve agent used to kill Kim Jong-nam is an internationally-banned chemical weapon, deployed in a manner that exceeded prevailing expectations about Pyongyang’s capabilities. The incident highlighted both the regime’s brutal intentions and its capacity to deliver on them.33

Despite a reverberating sense of consternation in Beijing, China’s formal response to Kim Jong-nam’s assassination was one of caution and detachment. As Pyongyang denied any allegation of murder, Beijing simply remarked that it “noticed relevant media reports and is closely following developments.”34 While the Chinese public was outraged, the central government attempted to downplay the significance of the incident and avoided issuing any harsh criticism against the Kim regime, as any premature comment could further strain China-North Korea relations.35 More critically, there was no sign of fallout in Dandong, where most economic activity between China and North Korea occurs, suggesting business-as-usual.36

Beijing’s growing disenchantment with North Korea has gained more attention recently, focusing on the significant drop in high-level contact between them. Since Kim Jong-un’s ascent in 2011, Xi Jinping and Kim have not held a single summit, which plainly contradicts the history and culture of summit diplomacy between the two socialist allies. Despite its symbolism, however, such gestures appear to have few practical implications. As noted by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, “the deterioration of China-North Korea bilateral contacts and the overall decline in China-North Korea relations do not seem to reflect a shift away from China’s long-standing strategic objective of stability in North Korea.”37

So long as the underlying strategic conditions in the region do not shift, Beijing is unlikely to do more than signal its objections to the Kim regime. The most recent US-China summit generated little concrete outcomes beyond pledges of cooperation on North Korea, which also indicates that no major shift in the region’s strategic landscape is likely in the short term.38

Prospects of Chinese Cooperation with South Korea

Beijing’s frustration with Pyongyang has presented South Korea with opportunities to improve relations with China; yet, their bilateral ties are downbeat. At the heart of their disagreement is Seoul’s decision to deploy THAAD, an extension of Washington’s missile defense system in the region. Unlike Beijing’s rhetorical and largely symbolic objection to Pyongyang’s provocations, Beijing acted strongly against Seoul’s THAAD deployment, from unequivocally denouncing the decision to economically retaliating against South Korea. This timely comparison suggests that China’s strategic thinking has not shifted.

Notwithstanding challenges in China-South Korea relations, the prospects of cooperation are increasing with expectations of a progressive president following Park Geun-hye’s impeachment. At the time of writing, public opinion polls predict that Moon Jae-in from the Together Democratic Party (TDP) will be elected, with Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party (PP) trailing closely behind. Both their positions promote adopting warmer attitudes to the North, albeit to varying degrees—a welcome shift for China.

THAAD and China-South Korea Relations

Seoul’s THAAD decision is a good case study for examining current challenges in China-South Korea relations. It came following Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test in January 2016, when then-President Park found herself unable to get Beijing to rein in Pyongyang. This was particularly significant, as she believed that Beijing had abandoned Pyongyang in favor of warming diplomatic and economic relations with Seoul. She had risked her own ties with Washington to build trust with Beijing, and was the only leader of a US ally to attend China’s victory day parade. Beijing’s limited cooperation following the nuclear test meant that no amount of rapprochement could compel it to discipline Pyongyang, leaving Washington as Seoul’s only alternative security provider. And THAAD was a suitable start to signal Park’s re-embrace of Washington.

In contrast, Beijing was shocked—insulted perhaps—by Seoul’s determination to deploy THAAD, given how consistently and unequivocally Beijing had objected to it and how little Seoul had consulted China prior to the announcement. While experts insist that THAAD poses no harm to Beijing’s deterrence capacity—as THAAD is designed to intercept short to intermediate-range ballistic missiles during their terminal phase, meaning it cannot intercept Chinese missiles headed toward the United States—Beijing has consistently maintained that the X-band radar of THAAD would undermine China’s nuclear second-strike capability.39 For Beijing, THAAD was proof of Washington’s desire to encircle China. Convinced that pressuring Seoul was the only way to contain Washington’s assertiveness, Beijing adopted strong measures against Seoul, most markedly through economic retaliation.

China’s economic retaliation against South Korea is meaningful for two reasons. First, it demonstrates Beijing’s willingness to exploit Seoul’s vulnerabilities, in stark contrast to its refusal to intervene in Pyongyang’s nuclear problem. This implies that Beijing sees Seoul’s THAAD as a direct affront to its core interests, while Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons are not. Second, it also shows China’s increasing tendencies to economically penalize countries that undertake unfavorable political measures.40 Indeed, the list is growing: China took comparable retaliation against Japan in 2010 and 2012, and against the Philippines in 2012.41

Chinese officials continue to deny allegations that its restrictions against South Korean exports are prompted by THAAD, though recent events suggest otherwise. In the months following its announcement, China began restricting imports of South Korean products—from cosmetics to toilet seats to car batteries—and removing South Korean dramas and shows from broadcasting on Chinese TV and streaming channels.42 A South Korean conglomerate Lotte also suffered for providing the land on which THAAD will be deployed; Chinese authorities closed nearly half of all Lotte stores in mainland China and consumers continue to protest where they are still open.43

While China is whipping up public ire against South Korea—encouraging Chinese consumers to “become the main force in teaching Seoul a lesson”44—public opinion polls in South Korea suggest a dive in China’s favorability ratings.45 The deteriorating perception of China among the South Korean public—now below that of Japan—is a result of Chinese economic retaliation. Equally important, more South Koreans now support THAAD compared to November 2016, suggesting that China’s retaliatory measures had the effect of boosting public support for THAAD, rather than abating it.46

THAAD has revealed a fundamental divergence in China and South Korea’s approaches to the North Korean nuclear problem, and more broadly, regional security. Beijing and Seoul cannot forge a relationship based on principles of “amity, sincerity, mutual benefit, and inclusiveness” without addressing their most basic disagreement on North Korea.47 THAAD is just the tip of the iceberg: Pyongyang’s successive nuclear tests and Washington’s corresponding military enhancements could reveal deeper differences between China and South Korea. Eventually, the two will need to resolve them if they want to cultivate a genuine partnership.

A Shift in South Korea’s North Korea Strategy?

The outcome of the 19th presidential election could entirely upend Seoul’s current approach to North Korea. The scandals that inspired Park’s impeachment generated strong antipathy toward the ruling conservative party, amplifying public support for the opposition’s return to power. Given the extensive mandate that comes with South Korea’s executive position, whoever is elected will enjoy great freedom to change the ways in which the country has so far been governed, including its policy toward North Korea vis-a-vis China and the United States. A close examination of two leading candidates’ views could provide useful clues as to how Seoul’s policy toward North Korea may shift in the next five years.

Moon Jae-in, the presidential front-runner, believes more outreach toward Pyongyang is needed to resolve the deadlock surrounding its nuclear programs and to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula.48 In December, Moon stated that, if elected, he would visit North Korea ahead of the United States, highlighting his intentions to prioritize ties with Pyongyang.49 This hints at a notable departure from the Washington-centered strategies embraced by former conservative presidents. At the same time, however, Moon is ambiguous about his position on THAAD, maintaining that its deployment should be reviewed by the next government.50 While observers criticize Moon for his “strategic ambiguity,” he claims that THAAD could serve as “diplomatic leverage” between Beijing and Washington.51 His stance underscores a desire to exercise more sovereign agency without relying too much on either Washington or Beijing, a position which China can understand and appreciate.

Another strong contender is Ahn Cheol-soo, whose views could be more worrying for China. Initially, Ahn and his party had opposed the THAAD decision and proposed a public referendum, stating concerns about relations with Beijing as well as potential health and environmental effects of THAAD. However, Ahn recently changed his position, claiming that Seoul must respect the negotiated terms with Washington.52 He now argues that the US-South Korean alliance is indispensable to meeting Seoul’s present security needs, and that Seoul must persuade Beijing to respect its interests.53 Even though Ahn maintains his plans to seek rapprochement with Pyongyang, many observers saw his THAAD flip-flop as an attempt to attract conservative votes. If genuine, however, it may prove more problematic for China. 

The likely return of a progressive president in Seoul is welcome news to China in general. Moon’s presidency—restoring the Sunshine Policy and keeping a safe distance from Washington—could help thaw the two Korea’s cooling relations, allowing China to reap the benefits of developing closer ties with South Korea while keeping North Korea under control. Ahn’s presidency is also expected to see greater efforts toward opening dialogue with North Korea, notwithstanding Seoul’s security cooperation with Washington. Any shift in Seoul’s policy toward North Korea, away from Park’s hawkish approach, would be a relief to Beijing.


Based on its core interests, Beijing has consistently sought to prevent Pyongyang’s collapse to avoid chaos and thwart US-led attempts at unification. It does not see nuclearization as a direct threat, and understands its importance to Pyongyang’s survival. This explains why Beijing’s commitment to Pyongyang’s denuclearization has been half-hearted at best and outright disingenuous at worst: Beijing is afraid that any attempt at jeopardizing Pyongyang’s nuclear development could trigger its collapse. Despite dwindling high-level contact, Beijing’s responses to Pyongyang’s latest provocations suggest that its policy has not shifted. Pyongyang’s preservation and China’s core interests in stability and preventing war remain deeply intertwined.  

China-South Korea relations have suffered a blow following Seoul’s decision to deploy THAAD. For Seoul, THAAD represented reaffirmation of Washington as its primary security provider amid a growing North Korean nuclear threat followed by a weak Chinese response, whereas for Beijing, THAAD epitomized Washington’s growing encirclement campaign against it. While relations between China and South Korea have rapidly deteriorated in the midst of Chinese retaliation for THAAD, opportunities for their recovery are looming as South Korea scrambles to elect a new president. Given the frontrunners’ positions on North Korea, the upcoming administration in Seoul would most likely endorse a more accommodating policy toward Pyongyang—and therefore, Beijing.

1. Richard C. Paddock, Choe Sang-hun, and Nicholas Wade, “In Kim Jong-nam’s Death, North Korea Lets Loose a Weapon of Mass Destruction,” The New York Times, February 24, 2017.

2. Benjamin Lee, “South Korea’s Dangerous Leadership Vacuum,” The Diplomat, February 22, 2017.

3. Choe Sang-hun. “China Suspends All Coal Imports From North Korea,” The New York Times, February 18, 2017.

4. “China threatens boycotts after South Korea missile defense decision,” The Japan Times, February 28, 2017.

5. Eleanor Albert, “The China-North Korea Relations,” Council on Foreign Relations, February 8, 2016.

6. Edward Wong, “Security Law Suggests a Broadening of China’s ‘Core Interests’,” The New York Times, July 2, 2015.

7. Michael D. Swaine and M. Taylor Fravel, “China’s Assertive Behavior—Part Two: The Maritime Periphery” China Leadership Monitor 35.

8. Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, “Can China Defend a ‘‘Core Interest’’ in the South China Sea?” The Washington Quarterly 34:2 (Spring 2011).

9. Kim Heung-kyu, “China’s Position on Korean Unification and ROK-PRC Relations,” The 2nd KRIS-Brookings Joint Conference.

10. Jayshree Bajoria and Beina Xu, “The Six Party Talks on North Korea’s Nuclear Program,” Council on Foreign Relations, September 30, 2013.

11. Kim Heung-kyu, “China’s Position on Korean Unification and ROK-PRC Relations.”

12. Ibid.

13. Minxin Pei, “North Korea: What Is China Thinking?” The Atlantic, March 14, 2017.

14. Phil W. Reynolds, “What Happens If North Korea Collapses?” The Diplomat, September 03, 2016.

15. David A. Welch, “Paralyzed by Pyongyang,” Foreign Affairs, February 8, 2016.

16. Eleanor Albert, “The China-North Korea Relations.”

17. Sulmaan Khan, “Unbalanced Alliances: Why China hasn’t reined in North Korea,” Foreign Affairs, February 18, 2016.

18. Jessica Meyers, “Here’s why China refuses to block North Korea’s nuclear ambitions,” Los Angeles Times, September 12, 2016.

19. Cheng Xiaohe, “Chinese Strategic Thinking Regarding North Korea,” The Asan Forum, October 7, 2013.

20. Robert A. Manning, “The Next North Korea Debate,” Foreign Policy, September 15, 2016.

21. Hui Zhang, “China’s North Korea dilemma,” Los Angeles Times, March 6, 2013.

22. Ibid.

23. John Park and Jim Walsh, “Stopping North Korea, Inc.: Sanctions Effectiveness and Unintended Consequences,” MIT Security Studies Program.

24. Chang Jae-soon, “U.S. House subcommittee chairman calls for ‘secondary sanctions’ on China to rein in N. Korea,” Yonhap, March 22, 2017.

25. Susan Shirk, “Trump and China: Getting to Yes with Beijing,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2017).

26. “U.N. Security Council condemns North Korea missile launches,” Reuters, August 27, 2016.

27. Jeremy Page and Alastair Gale, “U.S.-China Tensions Thwart Response to North Korea Threat,” The Wall Street Journal, September 9, 2016.

28. Clive Parker, “China’s frustrated response to North Korea’s fifth nuke test,” NK News, September 9, 2016.

29. Anthony Ruggiero, “China’s ‘ban’ on North Korean coal isn’t the tough stance it seems,” The Hill, February 28, 2017.

30. Victor Cha, “Making China Pay on North Korea: Why Beijing’s Coal Ban isn’t Enough,” Foreign Affairs, March 21, 2017.

31. Ibid.

32. Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, “Is China Serious About Banning North Korean Coal?” The Diplomat, February 21, 2017.

33. Richard C. Paddock and Choe Sang-hun, “Kim Jong-nam’s Death: A Geopolitical Whodunit,” The New York Times, February 22, 2017.

34. Simon Denyer, “In China, a sense of betrayal after the assassination of Kim Jong Nam,” The Washington Post, February 17, 2017.

35. John Petrushka, “What does China think of Kim Jong Nam’s death?” NK News, March 9, 2017.

36. Catherine Wong and Kristin Huang, “Uncertainty stalks China-N Korea ties with ‘assassination’ of Kim Jong-un’s pro-Beijing half-brother,” South China Morning Post, February 15, 2017.

37. Caitlin Campbell and Michael Pilger, “Diminishing China-North Korea Exchanges: An Assessment,” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

38. Tuan N. Pham, “After the Summit: Where Do US-China Relations Go From Here?” The Diplomat, April 11, 2017.

39. Sungtae Jacky Park, “This is Why China Fears THAAD,” National Interest, March 30, 2016.

40. Bonnie S. Glaser, Daniel G. Sofio and David A. Parker, “The Good, the THAAD, and the Ugly: China’s Campaign Against Deployment, and What to Do About It,” Foreign Affairs, February 15, 2017.

41. Eun A Jo, “Seoul’s THAAD Decision and its Implications on China-ROK Relations,” The Asan Forum, October 6, 2016.

42. Bonnie S. Glaser, Daniel G. Sofio and David A. Parker, “The Good, the THAAD, and the Ugly: China’s Campaign Against Deployment, and What to Do About It.”

43. Javier C. Hernandez, Owen Guo and Ryan McMorrow, “South Korean Stores Feel China’s Wrath as U.S. Missile System is Deployed,” The New York Times, March 9. 2017.

44. “China is whipping up public anger against South Korea,” The Economist, March 17, 2017.

45. Asan Korea Perspective, Vol. 2, No. 7.

46. Ibid.

47. “Toward Win-win Cooperation Through Amity, Sincerity, Mutual Benefit and Inclusiveness,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, June 12, 2015.

48. Choe Sang-hun, “Ouster of South Korean President Could Return Liberals to Power,” The New York Times, March 10, 2017.

49. “Moon Jae-in could become South Korea’s next leader. But is he too soft for the job?” South China Morning Post, March 11, 2017.

50. Jack Kim and Christine Kim, “Top South Korean presidential candidate demands China stop retaliation over THAAD,” Reuters, March 14, 2017.

51. Kim Hyo-jin, “Moon Jae-in’s view on THAAD disputed again,” The Korea Times, March 8, 2017.

52. “If Ahn Cheol-soo is responsible, he should explain his THAAD flip-flop,” Hankyoreh, Aril 11, 2017.

53. “안철수, 사드 전개에 “정부, 중국에 한미동맹 불가피성 설득해야,” 연합뉴스, 2017년 3월 7일.