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Is it possible for China to strengthen its sanctions against North Korea?

Since 2016 and in the wake of it's sixth nuclear test, North Korea’s nuclear capability presents a clear and present danger to international peace. South Korea, the United States of America, China, Japan, Russia, and many others have made clear statements that North Korea must cease all nuclear activities while at the same time have agrees to stricter sanctions against them. Yet when we are in crucial need of a consensus, the countries revealed conflicting opinions and goals, which further allowed North Korea to continue developing its nuclear capabilities. The disagreement among the countries was ultimately what allowed for successful ICBM test (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) test for North Korea on July 4, 2017. It is apparent that stronger pressure must be put on North Korea.

The timing of the recent North Korean nuclear tests was quite fortunate. The test was initiated just four days after the ROK-U.S. summit and three days before the G20 summit. Due to the date of the nuclear test, world leaders were able to immediately discuss the issue. However no clear arrangements were made and through the discussion it became obvious that while the US, South Korea, and Japan shared similar ideas, China, Russia, and North Korea carried quite different thoughts. At the heart of this confrontation, the differences between the United States and China are crucial. On one hand, the United States wants to impose stronger sanctions against North Korea by putting pressure on to China while on the other, China believe the solution is not a stronger sanction, but through dialogue and negotiation.

The Trump administration discarded the 2012 strategic patience policy and hammered away with maximum pressure and a policy of heavy involvement. Despite the supposed policy changes, the only real action which the Trump administration took was pressuring China to become more involved in the North Korean nuclear issue. However, Chinese officials made it clear that their country is against the idea of imposing stronger sanctions. China prefers to push for more diplomatic approaches. The United States could impose harsher sanctions and even initiate secondary boycott (blocking North Korea and third party private firms from doing business) to contain North Korea and China, but it seems more likely that these plans would cause damage to US-Sino relations.

As the North Korean Gordian knot becomes more difficult to resolve, additional pressure will be put on China to take appropriate action. Is it possible for China to strengthen its sanctions against North Korea? The Chinese policy towards North Korea needs to be analyzed in order to tackle the issues at hand.

First, Chinese foreign policy is solely based on its national interest, and thus so is it's policy towards North Korea. At the present, China dreams of becoming a major power and this dream could possibly be achieved within the next twenty-two years. Since reform, Chinese leaders have developed a similar characteristic to that of the United States. China has started to increase its influence around the world by assisting other nations with development and security. Ever since the Xi Jinping administration came to power, China has entered a new era of new strategic opportunity. It is attempting to collect and spread it power world wide and has initiated large project around the globe.

It is apparent that the Xi Jinping administration is trying to move away from the self-development and strategic patience policies to achieve major power status on the world stage. Through this shift, the Chinese government has become more proactive with its approach to diplomatic security. In summary, China is still self-oriented and trying to develop itself in order to purse more peaceful and secure stability.

Since the Xi Jinping administration and South Korea were able to create a promising relationship, the possibility of Chinese reform toward North Korea seems likely. Not only does China want to maintain a close relationship with South Korea but it's new national interests make it likely that the Chinese government will change its perspective on North Korea. Recently, the US-ROK alliance was faced with several dilemmas which gave China the notion that South Korea could become a “swing state”. Due to geographical location, cultural similarities, and the North Korean nuclear issue, there is a chance that South Korea joins China instead of maintaining it's close US ties. In the past, China has even made statements that it will give up assisting North Korea because North Korea had been becoming a burden.

In the end, China wants to bring North Korea to the negotiating table and does not want to create additional burden for themselves by supporting the United States' new plan for stronger sanctions on the DPRK. China has expressed that sanctions would interfere with its aspirations of becoming a major power. The Chinese government believes that stronger sanctions could bring great instability, the possibility of another Korean War, or a North Korean regime change initiative from the United States.

If North Korea, United States, and China do not come to an agreement and do not change their policies, the only country that can reduce the tension is South Korea. The South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced the “New Berlin Declaration” which aims not to destroy North Korea, but to bring the government to peaceful negotiations and solve the nuclear issue together. If South Korea could find a suitable level of sanctions to impose against DPRK, then the United States and China could put away their differences and settle the North Korean issues. Ultimately, it all depends on South Korea’s action.

***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.

Joo Young Chung is a Researcher at Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies

Translated by: Woo Jun Min

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