U.S. Media Exaggerating Chinese Shift on North Korea

April 7, 2013 | 2:57 pm
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

October 2003: The Bartlett administration’s equivalent of Kurt Campbell explains why a North
Korean piano 
player cannot be allowed to defect to the United States.

Recent U.S. press reports suggest Chinese frustration with recent North Korean provocations could lead to a shift in Chinese policy towards their belligerent neighbor. These reports are based on comments by former Obama administration officials responsible for U.S. foreign and security policy in the region. Kurt Campbell, the recently resigned assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, told an audience at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies “there is a subtle change in Chinese thinking.” Former senior director for East Asian affairs on the National Security Council Jeffrey Bader told the New York Times this change means China “will be much more aggressive, much more fed up and much more prepared to treat North Korea differently than in the past.”

Chinese Central Television (CCTV) coverage of recent events on the Korean peninsula suggests rumors of a shift are exaggerated, perhaps even completely false. In fact, a Saturday evening broadcast on CCTV News suggested the United States may be moving slightly towards China’s position, rather than the other way around. Chinese official statements continue to call on both sides to exercise restraint. Chinese commentary remains even handed, noting North Korean violations of UN prohibitions on nuclear and missile tests while at the same time criticizing the unwillingness of the United States to supply North Korea with the security guarantee it seeks. U.S. and North Korean concerns are conveyed as having equal standing.

U.S. officials have argued for years that China would eventually change its position on North Korea, largely because of the U.S. belief China’s unwillingness to pressure their neighbor would lead to adverse security outcomes, such as a nuclear armed Japan. In Japan and America’s Nuclear Posture, UCS presented strong evidence to the contrary. Nevertheless, the idea that China would change its policy on North Korea because of security concerns is so well-entrenched in the minds of U.S. officials and reporters that this “subtle change” in China’s thinking about North Korea was taking place in a 2003 episode of The West Wing. 

There is no visible sense that China’s propaganda machinery is preparing the Chinese public for major events on the peninsula or for a change in Chinese policy. There is little sense of emergency or crisis. The North Korean situation is a story, but not the major focus of recent news coverage. Most of last week the Chinese news was dominated by stories about “Qing Ming” holiday activities. CCTV 13, China’s 24-hour news channel, gave more air time to a feature on the wildebeest migration in the Serengeti than to the situation in North Korea. This weekend, the focus of the news turned towards the BoAo Forum in Hainan: China’s answer to Davos.

The main Chinese themes on North Korea have not changed as a result of the current situation. China would like to see a relaxation of tensions, renewed regional dialog and economic reform. They do not appear to believe there is a high risk of armed conflict. They argue sanctions are counterproductive and the United States should engage directly with the leaders of North Korea at a high level in order to provide the sense of security they now seek through nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The one change repeated to me by several Chinese colleagues this week is China now believes North Korea is determined to build a functional nuclear deterrent. They blame the United States for that development. It is, as the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said, “regrettable.” But there is no apparent justification for assuming it will be a turning point for Chinese foreign policy.


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Gregory Kulacki is a Senior Analyst and the China Project Manager for the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Research Center for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (RECNA) at Nagasaki University. He works on improving cross-cultural communication between the United States of America, China and Japan on nuclear weapons and related security issues. Prior to joining UCS in 2002, Dr. Kulacki was the Director of External Studies at Pitzer College, an Associate Professor of Government at Green Mountain College and the China Director for the Council on International Educational Exchange. Gregory completed his doctorate in government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park.