THAAD and Thawing Sino-DPRK Relations

Niklas Swanström comments on whether Washington and Seoul’s decision to deploy the THAAD missile defense system is determining China’s “reengagement” with North Korea after a period of frosty relations.

After a period of relatively frosty ties following China’s condemnation of North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, Beijing appears to want to patch up relations.

The month of June saw the total trade volume between China and North Korea reach $503 million, a 9 percent increase compared to the same period last year according to the Beijing-based Global Times.

There also appears to have been a slight thawing of political relations between the two countries in recent months, as evidenced by high-level meetings having taken place such as the visit by senior North Korean official Ri Su-young to Beijing.

Critics, in South Korea and Japan, see Beijing’s courting of Pyongyang as retaliation for South Korea’s readiness – culminating with the joint decision by the Washington and Seoul on July 8 – to deploy the controversial THAAD missile defense system.

While ostensibly intended to defend South Korea from North Korean missile attack, Beijing views it as a measure by Washington to contain China’s expanding influence amidst growing military tensions in East Asia.

Indeed, a further objection is not the military threat of THAAD as much as the fact it will cement U.S. security relations with South Korea and Japan for the long term.

The upshot of all this is the argument that Sino-American tensions are driving China’s “reengagement” with North Korea, thereby undercutting its collaboration on strengthened international sanctions imposed on Pyongyang following its fourth nuclear test at the start of this year.

The Chinese government has vigorously denied this, however, saying that there will be no trade offs between its security concerns – in this case THAAD and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Nevertheless, THAAD is seen with much consternation in Beijing. This furthermore comes on top of the tribunal decision in The Hague on July 12 which rejected China’s claims in the South China Sea.

Perceiving its growing encirclement in East Asia orchestrated by an anti-China U.S. – and a U.S.-led international order stacked against it – Beijing sees little incentive to comply to demands that it apply excessive pressure on Pyongyang through tougher sanctions or other means – this even if Beijing’s ability to do so has been exaggerated.

However, Beijing is also painfully aware that North Korea will not function as a pivot on the THAAD issue. So while the latter is undoubtedly to some extent driving China’s rapprochement with North Korea, the picture is more complex than a simple tit-for-tat action on the part of China.

On the one hand, Beijing has made it publicly known that it has increased sanctions on North Korea, not least in terms of strategic and other sensitive materials that could be used to help its nuclear weapons program.

On the other, the reality remains that despite Beijing’s displeasure at Pyongyang over its nuclear program, it is no way in China’s interest to take actions that serve to destabilize North Korea, or to decrease its influence by creating unnecessary tensions in bilateral relations. In fact, it was always unrealistic to expect that Beijing would simply cut off Pyongyang.

Of particular significance is the smaller-scale trade in the border region between the two countries. Furthermore, while difficult to verify, there are estimated to be up to 30,000 North Korean laborers in the Chinese border city of Dandong alone. As such, border trade and revenue from export of labor constitute the bulk of North Korea’s inflow of foreign currency.

Even if it were possible, significantly stemming this trade could run the danger of destabilizing North Korea to the extent that it would threaten China’s core interest of stability in the country.

Looking ahead, China is likely to pursue a fine line between selectively enforcing sanctions at the same time as ensuring that bilateral relations with North Korea do not deteriorate beyond its control.

Meanwhile, as the great power game and military arms race heats up in Northeast Asia, not only will THAAD decrease China’s willingness to positively engage the U.S., but also finding common ground between the U.S. and China to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue appears further away than ever.