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China’s Role in the North Korean Missile Crisis

North Korea’s missile development is viewed as a threat all over the world. Does communist China see it the same way?

On the Fourth of July, North Korea test-fired at least seven missiles, including a long-range Taepodong-2 multistage missile alleged to be capable of reaching some parts of the United States. The launch caused an immediate international furor. North Korea not only shocked the international community by the inferior quality of its missiles but also baffled the entire world as to its motives for provoking the missile crisis.

U.S. military intelligence was among those confused. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld openly expressed his bewilderment: "I’m not a psychiatrist. I don’t know why they are doing what they are doing." Other Bush administration staff showed comparable perplexity.

China Replaced the Soviet Union in Missile Crisis

The North Korean missile crisis was a reminder of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the United States and the Soviet Union were close to nuclear war. In the Cuban missile crisis, it was the Soviet Union that backed Cuba. A would-be war was averted because Khrushchev eventually calmed down and accepted JFK’s deal. Is history repeating itself in the sense that China is playing the Soviet Union’s role in the North Korean missile crisis?

It is interesting to observe China’s behavior before and after the crisis. China was the only country that North Korea notified of the missile test plan beforehand, while Russia, allegedly North Korea’s secondary ally, was kept in the dark as to the launch date until the Taepodong-2 plunged into the sea near Russia’s coast. Russia thus joined the international outcry. China was unconcerned over media reports on the missile test until a week before the launch—June 28—when Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao first called on North Korea to abandon its missile testing plans and requested all parties to restrain their passion. China’s last-minute gesture served a diplomatic function: to divest itself of any involvement with the test plan.

It would be unfair to say that China did nothing about North Korea. In the wake of the missile tests, China demonstrated obvious displeasure with the international furor. China blamed the United States for the missile tests. On July 6, Deputy Minister Wu Dawei told interviewers that "this latest act" by the North Koreans "was in large part caused by American financial sanctions." China even accused the United States and Japan of "causing further tensions and complications." Through the dispatched Chinese delegation, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Hu Jintao sent Kim Jong-il a personal message that offered "warm felicitations." Hu also praised the "friendly and cooperative Sino-North Korea relations."

As usual, China objected to the U.N. Security Council resolution against North Korea proposed by Japan and supported by the United States, Britain, and France, calling it "an overreaction." While threatening to veto the resolution of sanctions, China, along with Russia, presented a counter-resolution that endorsed only voluntary measures aimed at restraining Pyongyang’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs. China’s stand in covering for Pyongyang and blaming the United States on the current missile crisis demonstrated a high consistency with its policy since the North Korean nuclear crisis began in October 2002.{mospagebreak}

Ironically, while China could not exercise its leverage to discourage North Korea from launching the missiles and its influence to bring North Korea to the six-party negotiations, it certainly demonstrated how hard and effectively it worked to avoid sanctions against North Korea. China’s behavior in the missile crisis did nothing more than affirm, once again, its unbreakable brotherhood with North Korea—a relationship historically boasted about by Chinese leaders as being the "lips and teeth."

International Law Meets Communist Hooliganism

Is Kim Jong-il really a lunatic? He openly bragged about North Korea already having nuclear weapons and he threatened to use them. His fanatic words, such as "If we lose, I will destroy the world," certainly have made many think he is. Then, was the missile crisis just a harebrained yet dangerous bit of blackmail?

After North Korea’s missile tests, South Korea held a ministerial-level meeting with North Korea to ease the tensions. At the meeting, North Korea told South Korea that the missiles were needed for the defense of both Koreas—North and South—not just North, and that South Korea should therefore not protest by ceasing to supply food and fertilizer. This logic certainly shocked South Korea. However, it indicated that Kim Jong-il, the maestro of this crisis strategy, clearly had sober loss-gain calculations in mind and that rumors of his being "mentally handicapped" were exaggerated.

On the surface, North Korea fashioned the missile crisis to extort a bigger "ransom" from the United States and Japan. Many believe that North Korea had figured from the beginning that it would confront the international community with a challenge that no amount of maneuvering in the U.N. or tut-tutting among the other "five critical regional powers" could address. Then the United Stated and Japan would have to ask China for help. China would help by asking the United States and Japan to give in. Every international move following the missile crisis seemed to follow the rules of this particular game.

Although the extortion assumption might offer something of an explanation, the main reason that North Korea provoked the missile crisis was to ingratiate itself with China. As a little brother in the communist bloc, North Korea owes China so much, yet it still needs more and more. North Korea needed a way to take some credit and, at the same time, to seek further rewards for its achievements. This is typical of communist hooliganism. The rule goes like this: "Even if a little brother makes trouble for a big brother, the big brother need not get his hands dirty." In other words, while North Korea was creating an international uproar, China only had to seem to be neutral and then to mediate between the different parties to protect the little brother. North Korea did the dirty work while China helped to cover up and diffuse the situation. When international conventions met communist hooliganism in the form of North Korean missiles, Kim Jong-il was very confident that the international community had no cards to play.{mospagebreak}

Has China Helped North Korea or Vice Versa?

For a long time, China has been a major patron of North Korea. On an annual basis, China provides North Korea US$500 million in food and more than 90 percent of its petroleum. Last year alone, when Chinese Communist Party leader Hu Jintao visited North Korea, China gave North Korea US$2 billion in one-time assistance. China’s aid plays a pivotal role in sustaining North Korea’s survival and in maintaining the comrade relationship as stipulated in the 1961 Economic and Military Alliance Treaty. The alliance was concluded at the sacrifice of 54,246 American soldiers killed during the Korean War in the early 1950s. For 45 years, the China-North Korea military alliance has served as a legal foundation for China to commit military forces in case of another Korean war with the United States.

North Korea’s first act of ingratiation to endear it to China was threatening Japan. Given the tense relations between China and Japan, the missile crisis helped China send Japan a clear, intimidating message: China may not need to personally settle with Japan; North Korea could punish Japan with its missiles at China’s whim. The crisis also served as an opportunity for China to take further advantage of domestic anti-Japanese nationalism and help alleviate an accelerating Communist Party legitimacy crisis. Japan was fully aware of this attack by innuendo. In refusing to compromise on the punitive resolution, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso told national broadcaster NHK, "It would be a mistake to alter the stance for the sake of ONE country with veto power [China], even though many countries agree." Commenting on the prospect of China being isolated in the Security Council, Aso told TV Asahi that Beijing should not be backed into a corner.

Secondly, North Korea attempted to please China by using the missile crisis to engage the United States in a two-way squeeze: Iran from the West and North Korea from the East. In a continuing missile and nuclear technology transfer, China is the connector between Iran and North Korea. China was indubitably the invisible hand behind the pincer attack. Reportedly, ten Iranian missile engineers traveled through Beijing last month en route to North Korea’s missile launch bases. They checked the quality and performance of Chinese-made components in the North Korean missiles Iran plans to purchase. By transferring nuclear technology to Iran and North Korea through Pakistan and abetting the sale of Chinese missile components to Iran and North Korea, China created tensions in both areas. While the United States has been hard put to cope with the Middle East and the East at the same time, China experienced relief from international pressure with regard to its deteriorating human rights records and was able to go all out to crack down on popular opposition at home.

North Korea seems to be draining China’s resources. In fact, the two countries are mutually interdependent. China cannot simply abandon North Korea, which is not only a convenient buffer on its northern border but also an indispensable ally in the communist bloc. Pyongyang’s bellicose words and reckless actions—a rather desperate attempt to gain some political leverage—helped Beijing increase its diplomatic maneuvering power and play directly into the hands of Chinese communist leadership. North Korea functioned more as an assistant than a burden to China.{mospagebreak}

China Cashed In on the Six-Party Talks

The United States was able to defeat the Soviet Union but has been humbled by North Korea. A layman would perhaps ask a simple question: Why couldn’t the United States eliminate the North Korean regime just as it did Iraq’s? And why does the United States have to rely on six-party talks to deal with North Korea? The unspoken and bottom-line truth, for all the reasons noted above, has been, in a word, "China." Because of their military alliance, to attack North Korea is to attack China. The United States could afford to go to war with North Korea but not with China. That is why President Bush has persistently rejected solo talks with North Korea and demanded that six-party talks be renewed. In point of fact, five rounds of six-party talks have not changed North Korea one bit. North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear bombs and test its missiles, and it has repeatedly violated its signed agreements. Regional tensions and insecurity were never so menacing when the talks were taking place. North Korea has become more skillful at using military threats to wrest aid from the West and thereby finance its survival.

As a Chinese proverb says, "One stone may kill many birds." Six-party talks have worked for China in multiple ways. First, in the name of promoting the six-party talks, China could brazenly supply economic and military assistance to North Korea without generating criticism from the West, thus sustaining North Korea in the long run. Second, in return for complying with the U.S. request to bring North Korea to the negotiating table, China compelled the United States to soften its condemnations of China’s human rights violations. Third, using U.S. endorsement, China has strengthened its strategic position in the region, which is a traditional Chinese tactic: "The fox borrows the tiger’s ferocity by walking in the latter’s company." Fourth, by deliberately making the North Korea issue a live volcano, China has commandeered a valuable deterrent in its confrontations with the United States in the post Cold War era. Fifth, in return for arranging the multilateral talks, China expects concessions by the United States in its policy toward Taiwan.

Six-party talks have become China’s trump card, which it can cash in at any time. Even though China’s leverage with North Korea may never have been as great as many have assumed, the U.S. attempt to use such leverage has added to China’s power in the region while possibly leading to important U.S. concessions. China’s strategy to become the dominant regional power has already benefited from its role in the North Korea talks. For China to continue to sustain North Korea best serves its interests in an eventual world power struggle with the United States.


By closely and effectively working with its "blood" ally, China has been gaining strength and reducing American influence in the eastern Asian and Pacific regions. Communist China’s support of North Korea in the current missile crisis—and its unbroken support of North Korea over more than 50 years—resemble Russia’s role in the Cuban missile crisis and similarly poses a serious threat to regional stability and security.{mospagebreak}

A total settlement of North Korean missile and nuclear crises can hardly be reached without a regime change in North Korea. A regime change in North Korea is unlikely to happen without a disintegration of the Chinese Communist Party rule in China.

Dong Li holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Columbia University. He is a China specialist who analyzes news for New Tang Dynasty TV.