Does Beijing Approve of North Korea's Nuclear Ambitions?

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Does Beijing Approve of North Korea's Nuclear Ambitions?

March 15, 2005 14 min read Download Report
John Tkacik
Former Senior Research Fellow
John is a former Senior Research Fellow.
The Bush Administration and Congress should take the February 22 news that a Chinese emissary to Pyongyang had persuaded North Korea's dictator Kim Jong Il to "signal a possible return" to the six-party talks on denuclearizing the Korean peninsula with a healthy dollop of soy sauce.[1] China's public stance on North Korea has been consistently supportive of Pyongyang and critical of Washington. Nearly two years of talks have yielded zero progress.

In fact, the situation has worsened. North Korea has announced it has fissile plutonium, has threatened to transfer bomb-quality material presumably to rogue states or others inimical to U.S. security, and has even said that it would demonstrate a nuclear device. Finally, Pyongyang announced on February 10 that it has manufactured nuclear weapons, allegedly for self-defense. China's reaction has been to declare its undying support for its fraternal Korean socialist state and to heap even more economic aid on that regime of self-imposed poverty.

The Bush Administration understands that China has not supported the U.S. goal of CVID, or complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear program, but it has nonetheless given China's participation a positive public relations spin. While there is some short-term utility to continuing the six-party talks, they cannot be allowed to drag on indefinitely. Rather, the time has come for the Administration to evince skepticism and concern about China's lack of cooperation in the North Korea nuclear issue and to begin to prepare the international community for the likelihood that North Korea's transgressions may have to be referred to the United Nations Security Council for formal economic sanctions.

Beijing in Nuclear Denial

Despite news on February 22 that a Chinese emissary to Pyongyang had persuaded North Korea's dictator Kim Jong Il to "signal a possible return" to the six-party talks on denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, the Chinese Foreign Ministry hinted that the "ball is in the American court."[2] China's public stance on North Korea has been consistently supportive of Pyongyang and consistently critical of Washington. After nearly two years of Beijing-hosted multilateral talks on Pyongyang's nuclear weapons ambitions, there has been no progress. (The lack of new North Korean missile or nuclear tests cannot be seen as progress because either would undermine Beijing's agnosticism about Pyongyang's threat.)

Instead, the situation has grown worse since the talks started in April 2003. North Korea has announced that it was producing weapons-grade fissile plutonium from spent nuclear reactor fuel rods, that it might "transfer" fissile material or "demonstrate" that it indeed has a nuclear device,[3] and, most recently, that it has "manufactured nukes for self defense."[4] Even faced with such irrefutable evidence that North Korea was at least claiming to have a nuclear device, the official reaction from Beijing was feigned disbelief.[5] China's reaction has been to declare its undying support for its fraternal Korean socialist state and to heap even more economic aid on that regime of self-imposed poverty.

Kong Quan, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, actually seemed sympathetic to the plight of Kim Jong Il during a routine diplomatic press briefing on February 22, 2005. He explained that Wang Jiarui, the Chinese Communist Party's "minister of international liaison" (and a senior official who is co-equal with and non-subordinate to the foreign minister), had a lengthy meeting with the Korean leader over the weekend and passed on a "verbal message" that expressed China's "aspiration to further develop ties between China and [North] Korea, and [China's] concern and stance about resolving the nuclear issue on the peninsula."[6] According to Kong:

The Korean side expressed their determination to denuclearize the peninsula, that they did not oppose the "Six Party Talks" nor had they any intention of withdrawing from the talks, they only want conditions to be mature, and then they will return to the "Six Party Talks."[7]

He went on to explain that on February 10 (the day the North Korean government announced it had "manufactured nukes for self-defense"), "the Korean side had proposed a few requests and suggestions, and we hope that all sides, especially the actors directly involved can give some serious consideration, act with sincerity, and evince some flexibility, to these issues and suggestions." In case anyone missed it, Mr. Kong repeated the phrase "sincerity, and flexibility" seven times.[8]

When asked "which suggestions" from North Korea "does the Chinese side believe are particularly important," however, Kong demurred that he was "not certain of the other details of the meetings Minister Wang had with the Korean side." In effect, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman was asking the United States to "give serious consideration" to "suggestions and issues" raised by North Korea (which Kong described as "reasonable concerns") even though he himself was not "certain" about the substance of these suggestions and issues. Finally, when a reporter asked, "how long is China willing to tolerate a nuclear North Korea," Kong countered, "you mentioned the time limit issue, this is not the question that we ought to stress at the present time."[9]

China's policy is clear. A denuclearized Korean peninsula would be desirable, but the issue "must be resolved peacefully." There is no time limit to resolving the issue, and China has no details about Korea's "reasonable concerns." China's only demand is that the "parties directly involved, that is, the United States and [North] Korea" show sincerity and flexibility.[10]

The Chinese Foreign Ministry resolutely refuses to treat North Korea as the real malefactor in the nuclear imbroglio, despite its illegal uranium weapons program, its avowed reprocessing of fissile plutonium, its withdrawal from the Nonproliferation Treaty, its expulsion of U.N. weapons inspectors, and its routine threats and bombast. Instead, it is the United States, China insists, that must be "flexible" and "sincere." This must be why so many intelligent diplomats, academics, and even normally cynical journalists think China is simply an "honest broker."[11]

China Not an Honest Broker

A more systematic look at China's stated policies toward the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) reflects far more empathy in Beijing for Pyongyang's situation and far less empathy for the U.S. position than a truly honest broker would have.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry still has not acknowledged North Korea's February 10 announcement that it was a nuclear power. "We have noted the relevant reports and are now watching developments," a Foreign Ministry spokesman shrugged on February 17, adding noncommittally that "we have consistently advocated the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the maintenance of peace and stability on the peninsula."[12]

The Chinese reaction contained neither a whit of regret nor a hint of blame. Last June, after the U.S. Department of State briefed top Beijing diplomats yet again on North Korea's uranium program- backed by intelligence from Pakistan's "Dr. No" (Abdul Qadeer Khan)[13]-Vice Foreign Minister Zhou Wenzhong told The New York Times that Beijing had no reason to believe such a program existed and that the United States had yet to provide convincing evidence.[14]

No Criticism of Pyongyang Allowed

This is hardly surprising. As one recently retired Deputy Assistant Secretary of State explained, "any adjustment of the traditional PRC stance toward North Korea is controversial within the Chinese leadership, and not likely to be touched by people who want to protect their positions."[15] Chinese leader Hu Jintao himself seems to be a big fan of North Korea. Last September 29, according to the well-informed Hong Kong journal Kaifang, President Hu directed the Central Propaganda Ministry to issue a 29-article injunction against criticism of the North Korean regime, saying that, "despite facing temporary economic difficulties, politically [North] Korea has been consistently correct."[16]

This message was conveyed directly to the North Korean leadership that same month by senior Politburo member Li Changchun, who pledged that:

all nations and all peoples, benefit from [North] Korea's practical choices and determination of its own road to development…which has been advantageous to the realization of the people's wealth and happiness, to the embodiment of the pluralistic world, and also is fundamentally beneficial to the protection of regional stability and world peace.[17]

Interestingly, the English-language version of Mr. Li's comments left out most of the praise of North Korea, particularly the adjective "beneficial" describing North Korea's efforts to protect regional stability and world peace.[18]

This official praise was so lavish that Beijing has never permitted any of its media organs to raise doubts about North Korea's nuclear weapons program. One that tried to do so last August, Zhanlue yu Guanli (Strategy and Management), was shut down permanently.[19] In early January 2005, another respected journal of international issues, Shijie Zhishi (World Affairs), reportedly published an article by Zhang Liangui, a professor at the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party, that "forcefully argued that if the current North Korean nuclear stalemate is not settled by July, the issue could be brought to the U.N. Security Council by October."[20] The World Affairs home page was taken off the Internet shortly thereafter and has yet to reappear.[21]

Do Beijing and Pyongyang Coordinate Policy?

It is not, however, just a matter of Beijing's banning criticism of the DPRK in the media. There is also a tremendous amount of circumstantial evidence that Beijing and Pyongyang coordinate their policies on North Korea's nuclear weapons program. In April 2003, just one day before China hosted so-called three-party talks between American and North Korean diplomats, Pyongyang's top military leader, Colonel General Jo Myong Rok, met with Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and China's most senior military commanders.[22] The big news at the three-party session came when the North Korean representative told U.S. officials that the DPRK had nuclear weapons and threatened to export them or conduct a "physical demonstration."[23]

In mid-July 2003, Gu Xiulian, vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress, visited Pyongyang to officiate at ceremonies marking the 42nd anniversary of the DPRK-China treaty of friendship, cooperation, and mutual assistance. Ms. Gu gushed that "China and the DPRK have pushed ahead with their cause of socialist construction…respecting and supporting and complementing each other in the spirit of the treaty." She further noted that the two countries "made important contributions to defending the peace and stability of China and Korea and, furthermore, the rest of the world, closely cooperating with each other in the international arena."[24]

Within a month, what "cooperating closely" really meant became clear. Just a week before the first session of the six-party talks (which included Japan, Russia, and South Korea) in August 2003, China dispatched General Xu Caihou, head of the People's Liberation Army General Political Department, to Pyongyang for consultations on the upcoming negotiations.[25] Immediately afterwards, North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Yong Il averred during the Beijing talks that the DPRK "will prove to the world that it possesses nuclear weapons by carrying out a nuclear test" and promised that it had the means to deliver nuclear weapons.[26]

Although some American officials tried to depict the Chinese representative at the August 2003 talks as shocked by the North Koreans' behavior, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi instead blamed the talks' failure on the Americans. "The American policy towards DPRK-this is the main problem we are facing," he told reporters at a meeting in Manila three days after the Beijing meetings.[27] At no time did the Chinese ever evince public displeasure with North Korea's behavior.

Instead, as Pyongyang grew progressively obstreperous following the ugly first round of six-party talks, China arranged to send the second-ranking man in the Politburo (after Hu Jintao), National People's Congress Chairman Wu Bangguo, to Pyongyang, ostensibly to cajole Kim Jong Il back to the negotiation table. It took nearly a month to straighten out Wu's itinerary. When Wu arrived in North Korea on October 29, he took a Chinese trade delegation and a $50 million glass factory-something for which the North Koreans had been importuning the Chinese-in addition to stepped-up deliveries of fuel oil and food aid to the DPRK. After Wu returned from North Korea, the Chinese then pressured the United States to carry out a "first-stage action measure" by removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and lifting all economic sanctions-pressures that the Administration strongly rebuffed.[28]

Beijing finally managed to "persuade" Pyongyang to return to the six-party talks, and a date was set for late February 2004. Minister Wang Jiarui then visited Pyongyang just ahead of the second round of talks in Beijing.[29] Again, Chinese- Korean cooperation was in evidence: When those talks concluded, the only "progress" had been a reiteration of Pyongyang's acknowledgment of its program to extract weapons-grade plutonium from spent fuel rods at the Yongbyon nuclear plant. China's position was expressed by Vice Minister Wang Yi, who stated that Washington must first give up what Pyongyang calls a "hostile policy" toward the isolated communist regime.[30] The vice minister made it clear that the important thing for China was the "talks process," not results.

A third round of talks was scheduled for June 2004, but in mid-April, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il visited Beijing. The senior Chinese official welcoming the "Dear Leader's" armored train as it crossed into China at the Yalu River bridge at Dandong was Chinese Communist Party International Liaison Department Minister Wang Jiarui, who then sat in on Kim Jong Il's meetings with Jiang Zemin and Zeng Qinghong.[31] Given this background, it is hardly surprising that the only development of any substance during the June talks came when the North Korean representative said, on the record, that "some in Pyongyang wanted to test a nuclear weapon," a threat that the State Department dismissed as "not something new."[32]

To date, there has not been a fourth round of talks, and China is still playing the role of "honest broker" by ostensibly trying, with great fanfare, to persuade North Korea-whose demands are allegedly "reasonable"-to return to the talks. "Just having talks," the Chinese Foreign Ministry explained on February 17, "is tremendous progress."[33]

Beijing sees talks, not results, as important because as long as talks are supposedly progressing, the U.S. will not take the matter to the United Nations Security Council, where China would have to veto moves to sanction the DPRK. Moreover, the talks give Beijing leverage in Washington, which is especially valuable as Tokyo and Washington muse about their common strategic objective of promoting the peaceful resolution of issues concerning the Taiwan Strait through dialogue. China's leaders clearly have an interest in keeping the six-party framework going indefinitely. After all, in the previously cited words of Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan, "the time limit issue… is not the question that we ought to stress at the present time."

What Should Be Done

Faced with this situation, the Bush Administration should:

  • Be openly skeptical of China's role in the six-party talks. Even though the talks may serve some short-term purpose, it is unlikely that, in the long run, they can succeed in producing a complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
  • Begin to prepare the international community to move the North Korean issue to the United Nations Security Council. The complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantling of North Korea's nuclear program can be accomplished only through concerted international pressure in the form of broad economic and political sanctions approved by the United Nations Security Council. While there is still some utility to continuing the six-party talks framework, the longer the United States, Japan, and South Korea tolerate North Korea's nuclear weapons arsenal, the harder it will be to induce Pyongyang to abandon it.

    Given this harsh reality, the international community must be prepared for the eventual collapse of the talks. Official U.S. statements should not put a positive spin on China's stance by pretending that China shares the goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula or by conveying the impression that the U.S. will support the continued survival of Kim Jong Il's regime. At the very least, the United States should also mention China's insistence that the U.S. and Japan must also meet Pyongyang's demands for economic and energy aid, diplomatic ties, and removal from the terrorist list.

    Should China or Russia balk at bringing the matter to the Security Council, then the United States and Japan should make it clear that China and Russia must bear responsibility for North Korea's actions and that the United States, its allies, and friends will coordinate their own efforts under the Administration's Proliferation Security Initiative.[34]
  • Work with allied nations on enhanced coordination of the Proliferation Security Initiative. Several U.S. allies and friends in Asia, particularly Japan and Taiwan, have indicated a willingness to coordinate monitoring and surveillance of North Korean maritime activity within the context of the PSI. The United States should step up training and readiness drills with PSI partners.


In dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue, the Bush Administration's negotiators must now prepare for the endgame, first by acknowledging that China's main, if not sole, interest is to prolong the six-party talks process indefinitely so that the world eventually will come to accept a nuclear North Korea in the same way it has accepted a nuclear India and nuclear Pakistan. China most likely calculates that North Korea, as a nuclear power, can complicate U.S. strategic planning and use its increased leverage to extort international food and energy aid with which to prop up Pyongyang's tyrannical regime.

The Administration should set a timetable for moving the issue to the United Nations Security Council, where China and Russia must be confronted with the reality that North Korea has abjured its international treaty obligations to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and arsenal. The United States must then be prepared to make it clear that if the U.N. is to have any hope of preventing the disintegration of international nonproliferation regimes, it must adopt punitive measures against North Korea, such as economic sanctions. Finally, the United States should be prepared to fall back on the PSI framework should China block Security Council action.

John J. Tkacik, Jr., is a Senior Research Fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

[1]Edward Cody, "North Korea's Kim Signals a Possible Return to Talks," The Washington Post, February 22, 2005, p. A11, at (February 22, 2005).

[2]"2005 nian, Er yue, ershier ri, Waijian Bu Fayanren Kong Quan zai liexing Jizhehui shang da Jizhe wen" ["February 22, 2005, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Kong Quan responses to reporters' questions at regular press conference"], Ministry of Foreign Affairs, People's Republic of China, at (February 22, 2005). Mr. Kong answered a reporter's question about whether China thought the "ball was in America's court" by saying that "all parties must exert efforts to create the proper conditions for a return to the 'Six Party' talks." The context of Kong's statement was that North Korea's leader had specified such "conditions" and that it was now up to others to meet them.

[3]Carla Anne Robbins, "North Korea Says It May Expand Nuclear Arsenal; Talks Break Off," The Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2003, at,,SB105118444242779300,00.html (February 22, 2005).

[4]Keith Bradsher, "North Korea's Statement Puts China in a Quandary," The New York Times, February 10, 2005, at (February 10, 2005).

[5]When the Foreign Ministry spokesman was asked whether China had any reaction to North Korea's announcement that "it has already built nuclear weapons," the spokesman replied, "we have noted the relevant reports and are now watching developments." See "2005 nian, Er yue, shier ri, Waijian Bu Fayanren Kong Quan zai liexing Jizhehui shang da Jizhe wen" ["February 10, 2005, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Kong Quan responses to reporters' questions at regular press conference"], Ministry of Foreign Affairs, People's Republic of China, at (February 11, 2005).

[6]"February 22, 2005, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Kong Quan responses to reporters' questions."




[10]Ibid. See also "China Says US, N Korea Must Be More Flexible on Nuclear Issue," Associated Press, February 22, 2005, at,,BT_CO_20050222_000859,00.html (February 22, 2005).

[11]Diplomats and journalists regularly style China's role in the North Korean nuclear debate as that of an "honest broker." See, for example, Philip P. Pan and Glenn Kessler, "U.S. Agrees to Talks With N. Korea," The Washington Post, August 2, 2003, p. A18, and Dan Blumenthal, "Unhelpful China," The Washington Post, December 6, 2004, p. A21, at wp-dyn/articles/A38379-2004Dec5.html (February 22, 2005).

[12]"2005 nian, Er yue, shiqi ri, Waijian Bu Fayanren Kong Quan zai liexing Jizhehui shang da Jizhe wen" ["February 17, 2005, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Kong Quan responses to reporters' questions at regular press conference"], Ministry of Foreign Affairs, People's Republic of China, at

[13]Glenn Kessler, "U.S. Will Stand Firm on N. Korea Arms Talks to Set Stage for Demands," The Washington Post, February 16, 2004, p. A17, at (February 22, 2005).

[14]Joseph Kahn and Susan Chira, "Chinese Official Challenges U.S. Stance on North Korea," The New York Times, June 9, 2004, p. A12, at (February 22, 2005).

[15]Private e-mail of February 10, 2005.

[16]Yu Wenxue, "Hu Jintao Jiouzhi Jianghua Shaqi Tengteng" ["Hu Jintao's inaugural speech, Night of the Long Knives"], Hong Kong Kaifang [Open], Vol. 216, December 2004, p. 13.

[17]Luo Hui, "Jin Richeng hui Li Changchun: Chaozhong Renmin Chuantong Youyi Bu Ke Po" ["Kim Jong Il sees Li Changchun: The traditional friendship between the peoples of the DPRK and China is unbreakable"], Xinhua News Agency, September 12, 2004, at

[18]One article in English dispensed with praise of North Korea altogether. See "China Urges Strengthened Cooperation with DPRK," People's Daily (Beijing), Internet Edition, September 12, 2004, at eng20040912_156703.html (February 23, 2005). Another said that "China backs the DPRK in its advocacy for an independent and peaceful reunification, and its efforts to improve its international environment." See "Top Chinese Leader Expresses Readiness to Promote Ties with DPRK," Xinhua News Agency, September 12, 2005, at english/2004-09/12/content_1973284.htm (September 25, 2004, but no longer available on Web page).

[19]John J. Tkacik, Jr., "China's 'S&M' Journal Goes Too Far on Korea," Asia Times, Internet Edition, September 2, 2004, at (February 23, 2005).

[20]See Tadashi Ito, "Blockading the North Koreans," originally published in Sankei Shimbun (Tokyo), January 15, 2005, and translated into English at (February 23, 2005).

[21]World Affairs is published by World Affairs Publishing and can be accessed at World Affairs had a link at, but it was dead as of early February 2005.

[22]See "Chinese President Meets Jo Myong Rok," Korean Central News Agency (Pyongyang), April 22, 2003. General Jo was in Beijing from April 21-23. The "Three Party Talks" began on the afternoon of Wednesday, April 23.

[23]Glenn Kessler and John Pomfret, "North Korea's Threats a Dilemma for China, Ally's Nuclear Gamesmanship Rankles Beijing," The Washington Post, April 26, 2003, p. A1, at (February 23, 2005).

[24]"Chinese Senior Officials on Sino-Korean Relations," Korean Central News Agency, July 11, 2003, at 2003/200307/news07/14.htm#4 (February 25, 2005).

[25]Zhao Jiaming, "Jin Zhengri Huijian Wo Gaoji Junshi Daibiao Tuan" ["Kim Jong Il Meets High Level Chinese Military Delegation"], People's Daily, August 21, 2003, p. 3, at (February 23, 2005).

[26]John Pomfret, "U.S., N. Korea Meet, Discuss Nuclear Arms, Both Sides Stake Out Uncompromising Positions," The Washington Post, August 27, 2003, at

[27]Agence France-Presse, "China Blames US for the Impasse in Talks with N Korea," Taipei Times, September 2, 2003, p. 6, at (February 23, 2005).

[28]Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough, "China-North Korea Axis," The Washington Times, December 12, 2002, p. A6.

[29]"PRC Official Holds 'Warm' Meeting with DPRK Leader," Agence France-Presse, January 20, 2004.

[30]Philip P. Pan, Glenn Kessler, and Fred Barbash, "U.S. 'Difficulties' Remain as Talks End; Little Agreed on Aside from Resuming Talks by July," The Washington Post, February 29, 2004, p. A1.

[31]See several articles at "Kim Jong Il Pays Unofficial Visit to China," Korean Central News Agency, April 23, 2004, at (February 23, 2005).

[32]"US State Dept Disputes Report of N Korean Threat in Talks," Associated Press, June 25, 2004, at 0,,BT_CO_20040625_003674,00.html (February 23, 2005). For the State Department reaction, see Adam Ereli, Department of State Daily Press Briefing (Corrected), June 25, 2004, at (February 23, 2005).

[33]"February 17, 2005, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Kong Quan responses to reporters' questions."

[34]The Proliferation Security Initiative is an international coalition, created by the United States, that includes Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Singapore, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom and is aimed at enhancing intelligence-sharing on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, freezing the finances of WMD dealers, and interdicting shipments of WMD and their delivery systems at sea. In October 2004, Japan hosted the Team Samurai 2004 PSI exercise with warships from the United States, Australia, and France. A Chinese nuclear submarine, which set off an international incident when it was detected in Japanese territorial waters on November 9, is suspected of having monitored these PSI drills. See William Hawkins, "Chinese Realpolitik and the Proliferation Security Initiative," Jamestown Foundation, China Brief, Vol. V, Issue 3 (February 1, 2005), at details.php?volume_id=408&&issue_id=3217.


John Tkacik

Former Senior Research Fellow