ArticleDebating north Korea: US and also Chinese perspectivesSusan A. Thornton, Li Nan, and also Juliet LeeFriday, respectable 27, 2021
Editor's Note:Washington political decision-makers have become quite an unfavorable on prospects because that U.S.-China participation on the DPRK issue. The biggest problem, that course, is the current deteriorating U.S.-China relationship and also the mutual suspicion the intentions the goes in addition to that, write Susan A. Thornton, Li Nan, and also Juliet Lee. This item was an initial published in ~ 38 North, a task of the Henry L. Stimson Center.

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The deteriorating U.S.-China relationship is hindering future for coherent cooperation on persistent protection challenges, including the autonomous People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) atom issue. The risk perception gap, various long-term objectives and increasing mutual suspicion in between the two significant powers proceed to widen in spite of mutual attention in ensuring peace and stability top top the korean Peninsula. Both countries view the other as an problem to progress—China is seen as prioritizing DPRK regime defense over the nuclear nonproliferation regime and nuclear threats, while the U.S. Is viewed as a destabilizer plot to save on computer China. Together the an ar waits to view if and also when phibìc Korea will reengage, the U.S. And China should connect now on overcoming obstacles come cooperation and on a feasible road map for sustained denuclearization negotiations.


Susan A. Thornton

Senior Fellow, Paul Tsai China Center, Yale law School

Nonresident an elderly Fellow - foreign Policy, man L. Thornton China Center


Li Nan

Senior Research fellow - Chinese Academy of social Sciences’ institute of American Studies


Juliet Lee

Project Manager - nationwide Committee top top American international Policy, Forum top top Asia-Pacific Security


The complying with exchange of views in between Susan Thornton, task Director that the Forum ~ above Asia-Pacific protection at the national Committee top top American international Policy, and also Li Nan, senior Fellow at the Chinese Academy of society Sciences, highlights the different perspectives, mutual suspicions and also lingering contradictions in between the U.S. And China on phibìc Korea policy and the prospects because that future negotiations.


Dear Nan,

I regret that we have actually been can not to connect in human for much more than a year, yet as you know, the new U.S. Administration has completed its north Korea policy review. It will certainly no doubt have taken into consideration China’s duty in trying to make development on this intractable issue, and since Americans have been the end of touch v Chinese views, I assumed it would certainly be beneficial and timely to have actually this exchange.

As girlfriend know, Washington political decision-makers have come to be quite an unfavorable on prospects because that U.S.-China participation on the DPRK issue. The best problem, the course, is the current deteriorating U.S.-China relationship and the common suspicion of intentions the goes together with that. This is a challenging obstacle come overcome, although we are right now cooperating to try to resuscitate the Iran nuclear deal, for this reason such cooperation is about theory possible, also if difficult.

Beyond the current bilateral difficulties, though, there room a number of American frustrations and also suspicions about China’s function in DPRK denuclearization efforts. The many enduring complaint is that China prioritizes security of the North oriental regime over the denuclearization process and for this reason the upholding that the nonproliferation regime. China is reluctant to use sanctions pressure, for example, for are afraid of imminent DPRK collapse. Yet surely, China can see that there is no peril of penalty pressure causing collapse, since the DPRK itself sealed the border to external trade since of COVID-19.

This brings me to an additional sore point, i m sorry is Beijing’s persistently insufficient initiative to force the United countries (UN) sanctions regime. Whether minimal vigilance in ~ the border crossing or lack of enforcement on ship-to-ship transfers, it appears to countless outsiders the Beijing is not serious around sanctions enforcement. Tensions and also disagreements in this area space bound come dog any hoped-for cooperation, as Americans view Chinese sanctions enforcement together a litmus check of seriousness about contributing to collective denuclearization efforts.

Lastly, countless in U.S. Policymaking circles check out DPRK and Chinese interests set in make the efforts to journey wedges in between the U.S. And also its Northeast oriental allies, Japan and also the Republic of Korea (ROK). The Biden administration has demonstrated keen intent to work-related with that allies to solve problems, and while China has displayed interest in being affiliated in future DPRK negotiations, the U.S. Will certainly be looking in ~ the cost/benefit calculation of Chinese involvement.

Of course, China can have its very own reservations at this point around the capacity of the U.S. Government to command a coherent negotiation with North Korea, and also many have actually wondered even if it is the U.S. Goal is tho denuclearization. I think the Biden management will answer these concerns. The question, as always, will be exactly how to relocate the phibìc Koreans, a prospect that seems as challenging as ever.



Dear Susan,

China has likewise been frustrated with prospects for cooperation with the U.S. As result of the deteriorating bilateral relationship. China believes the U.S. Is no willing to fix the North oriental nuclear issue, and is for this reason prepared to tolerate the DPRK danger for the benefits of building up its alliance versus China. Washington, top top the contrary, trust Beijing is not willing to address the nuclear issue since it is utilizing Pyongyang together leverage against America and also its allies. Because of these different views, plus shared suspicion of each other’s intentions, China and the U.S. Have actually not had any impetus to do real progression on cooperation.

China and the U.S. Additionally have different views of the DPRK’s relationship with the other. Top top the one hand, the United states thinks the the DPRK is a “puppet the China.” Thus, Washington to trust the only means to pressure Pyongyang to send is through exerting push on Beijing. Top top the various other hand, China is worried around the opportunity of closer U.S.-DPRK relations for the functions of containing China, comparable to the facility of People’s Republic that China (PRC)-U.S. Diplomatic relationships to save the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Both China and also the U.S. Have actually vivid “camp thinking”—or what the Chinese choose to call “Cold battle thinking”—that permits the DPRK come play us off one another.

China’s strategy interests in the korean Peninsula room to maintain amicable relationships with both Koreas and also to for sure a stable and also nuclear-free peninsula. China is seriously concerned about the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs, and that it can encourage other countries in the an ar to construct its own nuclear programs, i beg your pardon is versus China’s security interests. There is no doubt the China bring away a solid stance top top this issue, together demonstrated through the four China-DPRK summits held due to the fact that 2018. It is likewise why China has not performed military exercises through the DPRK and has never noted military help to the DPRK, in contrast with the U.S.-ROK alliance. And much come the DPRK’s dissatisfaction, China’s ministry of commerce still enforces sanctions that prevent the exports the chemicals and metals thought about “strategic assets” to the DPRK.

Although China has given strong political assistance to the DPRK, China continues to implement the key sanctions the constrain the sustainable breakthrough of the DPRK till it deserve to abandon that is nuclear and also missile programs. Over there is no doubt that smuggling throughout the China-DPRK border has actually been obtaining worse, however that go not median the Chinese federal government is not serious around sanctions enforcement. Also, over there are assorted other channels in i beg your pardon the DPRK can obtain hard currency, i beg your pardon is one more issue that needs to be addressed by the global community.

Currently, the DPRK is fully committed come overcoming the economic bottleneck caused by worldwide sanctions and COVID-19. Under the dual blow that the pandemic and also economic difficulties, the DPRK has become much more conservative, consisting of increased governmental rigidity, a tighter command economy and stricter state manage of society.1 as a result, the DPRK has to consolidate its regime by uniting the people and also ramping up anti-Western propaganda. Regardless of COVID-19, the DPRK has presented tenacity, also without substantial economic assistance from China and Russia. This raises the question of how much walk the DPRK actually count on China and Russia.

It is vital for China and the U.S. Come cooperate ~ above the North korean nuclear worry now, specifically as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. In the ROK, the Moon administration is still placing all initiatives into engaging with the DPRK to ensure security of the peninsula. However, the recent U.S.-ROK joint statement made no mention of the prospects because that multilateral participation on the issue. Native alone, without any type of real action, will certainly not cause progress. We missed the possibility for multilateral participation at the Hanoi Summit, and also we are missing another opportunity for collaboration today.



Dear Nan,

I was very interested to hear that Chinese concerns around a possible U.S.-DPRK axis versus China and, in response, ns would just say that, of every the things that might keep your federal government officials awake at night, this must not be among them. That is optimistic that, back China suspects that the U.S. Is using the DPRK issue as an excuse together with its allies to weaken China’s security, China is nevertheless willing to job-related with the U.S. Towards denuclearization noted the technique is consistent with keeping the security of the peninsula. I would favor to hear much more about what sort of security you have in mind, but I grant that the is tough to see how a unified Korea of any kind of sort wake up without far-ranging turmoil.

I have heard Chinese interlocutors controversy in donate of U.S.-China cooperation on the korean Peninsula, in donate of a road map for denuclearization that would outline a step-by-step approach, and also for a simultaneous dual track top top denuclearization and addressing North korean security concerns. You indicate that Pyongyang, while regressing in terms of inner repression and state manage of the economy, will certainly be an ext motivated by economic enticements from the outside once that comes the end of the pandemic and also that this gift an opportunity. Ns hope you space right; we space still waiting to see. The difficulty has constantly been, though, the such financial enticements pale in comparison to what Pyongyang sees as its existential protection shield: nuclear tools capability. The DPRK has shown incredible resilience in the confront of sanctions and has also gone as far as to close that border through China, more isolating itself throughout the pandemic. That is likewise the instance that such financial enticements are exceedingly daunting to offer and also bestow, given the objectionable techniques of and also low trust in the North oriental regime.

Assuming that North Korea’s bottom heat is regime security and also that regime protection in north Korea does not depend lot on the plight of typical citizens, I problem that financial incentives room not worth lot in the eyes of Kim Jong Un. President Donald Trump gave Kim Jong Un a an excellent deal the respect and also face top top the civilization stage, but got nowhere. Has actually the denuclearization “game” come to be an integral component of north Korea’s national identity? What enticements or pressure points have we overlooked in the initiative to acquire Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear program?

Lastly, like you, ns am worried around the local security setting amid a persistent DPRK atom program. Us cannot counting on other regional states to hold off on their own advancement of nuclear weapons capacity if phibìc Korea’s program shows up permanent. In this and other respects, time is not on our side.



Dear Susan,

As to what stability would look choose in China’s view, the very first priority is “no chaos and also no war.” after the “Fire and Fury Crisis” in 2017, China wondered even if it is the U.S. Could have a constant policy towards the oriental Peninsula and the DPRK, and whether the prioritized security on the peninsula together China constantly has. China believed war might be imminent. Thus, China watch the U.S. Together the one trying to destabilize the oriental Peninsula, similar to exactly how the U.S. Right now sees China together the destabilizer in cross-Taiwan Strait relations. Also, a merged Korea result from the absorb of north Korea by southern Korea will certainly probably cause turmoil. Many North Koreans cannot expropriate the ROK’s system, and there is the chance that a conservative south Korean government may seek revenge as soon as unified v the North. Therefore, China wishes to accomplish unification based on peaceful self-determination, and an end-of-war declaration and peace covenant are critical.

You write that “North Korea’s bottom heat is program security, and that regime security in north Korea does not depend much on the plight of median citizens.” on the contrary, I think that the North korean regime does rely on “the people.” ordinary North Koreans have put press on Pyongyang, pushing leaders to revolutionary the system and also improve life conditions. The atom program has actually assured citizens that they room safe from external threats, for this reason the pressure now is to resolve the economy. Kim Jong Un’s push for economic advance thus relies on keeping the atom program, at the very least until that is conventional military capabilities can record up v that the the ROK. Together Kim Yo Jong stated, denuclearization “is not feasible at this point of time.”2

According to the report from the Eighth Party Congress, Kim Jong Un believes the DPRK’s economic weakness largely results native the system, which mirrors that over there is an catalyst for reform. In current months, Kim Jong Un generally criticized the system and reshuffled the bureaucracy, showing just how ambitious that is in do the efforts to reform the mechanism to make a much more stable foundation for the economy. Together you said, the DPRK has presented incredible resilience in the face of sanctions, for this reason sanctions space not existential from the North oriental perspective. But since Pyongyang cannot attain economic success immediately, that will proceed to blame outside factors, such as sanctions, for restricted progress in bespeak to regulate expectations.

It is politically an overwhelming for the U.S., and also even because that the ROK, come offer economic assistance. However, China will carry out economic support and encourage the DPRK come reform. Hope the DPRK can realize the the only method to attain sustainable breakthrough is come drop its atom program and also join the international community.

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I agree time is not on our side, however I quiet think we should have patience. I additionally believe that North Korea cannot permanently keep its atom program since if the would favor to achieve sustainable development, the sanctions regimen is its biggest obstacle. If keeping the nuclear regimen becomes useless or a burden, I believe it will certainly abandon the program. Till that day comes, the DPRK will continue to wait and see if the U.S. Will show goodwill prior to coming earlier to the negotiating table. In the meantime, China will proceed to uphold its position on the denuclearization that the korean Peninsula and for DPRK-U.S. And DPRK-ROK talks on a tranquility regime for the oriental Peninsula.