Is China Changing Its Views of North Korea: Some Evidence

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Xian Wu (University of California, San Diego)



Probably the most significant policy debate on North Korea is whether China is proving helpful or once again dragging its feet. There is no simple answer to this question, but this blog has suggested that the Chinese trade actions are a serious departure (most recently in our analysis of UNSC 2375 here). However we can also look at the changing nature of Chinese statements and at the pattern of bilateral visits, which we take up in a subsequent post.

Since North Korea's missile and nuclear tests of 2006, there have been eleven UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea; we exclude UNSC 2345 which adjusts the mandate of the Panel of Experts for a total of ten (see the table below). The first big change does not occur until 2013 following the third nuclear test. Up until that time, Chinese statements always emphasized that Beijing had prevented more comprehensive sanctions from being included in the resolution. Following UNSC 2094 (2013), however, the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations underscored China's "constructive" role in the process but made no mention of efforts to quell more comprehensive restrictions. We don't know exactly when this change in mood might have taken place, as there are no resolutions between 2009 and 2013. It could have taken place as early as 2009 as a result of North Korea's withdrawal from the Six Party Talks and the second nuclear test. But it is equally plausible that the satellite launch of December 2012 and the third nuclear test of 2013 had the effect of alienating the new Xi Jinping government.

The second change happened in 2016 as the word "proper" (适度的) in official statements shifted to "comprehensive" (全面的). The word "proper" carries a clear implication that sanctions should not be overdone. Following UNSC 1874 (2009), for example, both the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, Yesui Zhang, and China's Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Gang Qin, used the phrase "proper and balanced" in describing the resolution. But in the two UN resolutions of 2016, language shifted from "proper" to "comprehensive and balanced." Not coincidentally, it was in these resolutions that China finally crossed the Rubicon of including commercial trade in the resolutions, implying that enforcement would fall largely on Beijing's plate.

The third change took place in June of this year, when the term "balanced" (平衡的) with respect to implementation shifts to "fully" (完整的). In previous official statements, "balanced" suggested that the UNSC should implement sanctions while keeping the interests of North Korea in mind. For example, in response to the two resolutions in 2013, Gang Qin commented that they were "generally balanced" but with the suggestion that they did not fully take into account North Korean interests. But in China's official response to 2356 of this year, China's Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Chunying Hua used the phrase "comprehensive and full implementation" without reference to the sanctions being "balanced." The tone was clearly the coldest to date.

China has always argued that sanctions are only of use to the extent that they can bring North Korea back to the negotiating table. Reading UNSC resolutions, you will wade through pages and pages of technical detail before getting to short, pointed paragraphs arguing for keeping calm and returning to negotiations. Yet even that might be changing. The following sentence has occurred in every single Chinese official statement on the UN Security Council Resolutions from 2006 to 2016: "Sanctioning North Korea is not the goal. Only talks and negotiations are the right solution [to the North Korea nuclear crisis]." In response to the passage of UNSC 2371 in August, Foreign Minister Wang Yi again said that "sanctions are needed, but they are definitely not the final goal.  The goal is to put the peninsula nuclear issue back on the negotiation table."

But in a press conference in September on the most recent resolution he put the two policy instruments on an equal footing, saying "we believe sanctions and pressure are only half of the key to solving the [North Korea nuclear] issue; the other half is talks and negotiation. Only by combining these two halves into one can we really solve the peninsula nuclear issue."
This is the first time to our knowledge that a Chinese official statement admitted that the role of sanction may be as important as the role of talks rather than claiming that the former instrument only serves for latter objective.

In the end, what China actually does matters more than the words. But Chinese diplomacy typically takes the precise phrasing of its commentary on events quite seriously, repeating core views of events, often with the exact same words. The adjustments noted here may appear subtle, but they do track an innervation that is ultimately reflected in the resolutions themselves. It would be wrong to claim that China's position is altogether static; how far it will go is quite another question.

Reason Content of statements by Chinese Ambassador to the UN and Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman


Missile tests

Guangya Wang (Chinese Ambassador to the UN): China refused Japan's proposal for more radical sanctions.


First Nuclear Test

Guangya Wang: China emphasized that the UNSCR should not imply any military actions while negotiating the draft.
Jianchao Liu (Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman): balanced implementation, do not willfully expand


Second Nuclear Test

Yesui Zhang (Chinese Ambassador to the UN): China supports the UN in making a proper and balanced response.
Gang Qin (Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman): Proper and balanced implementation


Satellite launch 12/12/12

Baodong Li (Chinese Ambassador to the UN): China has prevented some sanctions in the draft; The UN Security Council should take deliberative, proper actions.
Gang Qin:  generally balanced approach


Third nuclear test 02/12/13

Gang Qin: The resolution is generally balanced; China supports UNSC to respond to North Korea properly.


Fourth nuclear test 01/06/16
Ballistic missile test 02/07/16

Lei Hong (Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman): Comprehensive and balanced implementation.


Fifth nuclear test 09/09/16

Shuang Geng(Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman): Comprehensive and balanced implementation.


Ballistic missile launch 02/02/17

Adjustment of Panel of Experts mandate. No comments.


Missile tests after 09/09/16

Chunying Hua (Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman): Comprehensive and full implementation


ICBM tests on 07/03/17 and 07/28/17

Jieyi Liu (Chinese Ambassador to the UN): All parties should fulfill their obligations comprehensively and rigorously according to the UNSCR


Sixth nuclear test on 09/02/17

Jieyi Liu (Chinese Ambassador to the UN):  Down-to-earth and full implementation
Shuang Geng (Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman): Comprehensive and full implementation

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