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Why Is Beijing Silent on the ‘Bloody Nose’ Strategy?
2018.02.21  Wednesday
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Seong-Hyon Lee

Why Is Beijing Silent on the ‘Bloody Nose’ Strategy?

 

No. 2018-11 (February 20, 2018)

Lee Seong-hyon (Research Fellow, the Sejong Institute)

seonghyon.lee@sejong.org

 

Beijing’s ‘silence’ on the ‘bloody nose’ strategy is drawing questions. Some have speculated that the Chinese government’s silence implies it acquiesces to U.S. limited strike on North Korea. Is this so? If that is correct, then it connotes something significant. However, in the final analysis, this account appears to be a wild guess.

Although it seems that China keeps silent on the ‘bloody nose’ strategy at a glimpse, in fact, it has sealed its lips on other issues such as the swiftly-ongoing inter-Korean talks since the beginning of this year and DPRK high-level delegation visit to the ROK during the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. China is cautiously ‘observing’ the current situation with a huge interest in the recent proceedings of the inter-Korean dialogue. It is not staying quiet.

It is farfetched to associate China’s ‘observation mode’ with ‘bloody nose’ strategy and extend such an analytical frame to interpret it as China’s sign of ‘acquiescence’ in the ‘bloody nose’ strike on North Korea. Moreover, this conjecture is unconvincing given the recently intensifying confrontation in U.S.-China relations. Escalation of U.S.-China confrontation increases North Korea’s geopolitical value for China as this could be scoring a ‘strategic own goal’ for China – aiding the U.S. that China has unfriendly relations with.

Viewing the question from a different angle, other enquiries could be raised – why China maintains an ‘observing attitude’ to the current situation on the Korean Peninsula, how is China viewing the high-level contact between the two Koreas during the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and whether there is room for China to contribute to attenuating tensions on the Korean Peninsula in the future.

First, as it advocated an autonomous unification of the Korean Peninsula, China wishes to avoid being perceived as a country trying to intervene or wield influence on inter-Korean dialogue. In his visit to South Korea in 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping elucidated his support for “an autonomous and peaceful unification” of the Korean Peninsula. As a matter of fact, the Chinese government used this phrase for several years. Another expression that the Chinese leaders frequently used is the support for “the improvement of inter-Korean relations.” The two Koreas’ engagement such as talks and high-level meetings that have unfolded since the new dawn in 2018 is what China hoped for. At this juncture, Beijing possibly concluded that there is no need for it to take action.

             Second, Rodong Sinmun’s criticism against China should have muted it. The mouthpiece of the North Korea’s Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) snubbed China in an editorial issued on February 8, “at this time [when the two Koreas are now on the track of positive development], some media of China … are letting out impudent arguments of individual experts, seriously spoiling the atmosphere for the feast” and lashed out at those attempts as “interference in the internal issue of the Korean nation.” This rather preemptively leaves no room for China to interfere in this situation. North Korea overtly warned China not to ‘meddle in other country’s affairs.’ This is an effective approach in negotiating with China since China itself predicates on the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs of other countries.

Especially with regards to North Korea, China suffered ‘traumatic’ experiences, having disturbing incidents during the Cold War when it tried to intervene in North Korea’s domestic affairs – as a result, the pro-Chinese faction within North Korea was purged and China had to accept Kim Il-sung’s terms on the withdrawal of remaining Chinese forces which were stationed in North Korea after the Korean War. Beijing even made a spontaneous diplomatic gesture of distancing itself from North Korea when Kim Jong-un’s uncle Jang Song-thaek was executed, stating, “this [Jang Song-thaek’s purge] is North Korea’s international affairs”

Furthermore, Pyongyang’s grievances toward Beijing have been hiked recently as China has participated in the UN sanctions more seriously than ever. Such verbal offense from North Korea in this situation would have pricked Beijing. Especially, China, after losing its face as Xi Jinping’s special envoy could not meet Kim Jong-un when he visited Pyongyang, has eggs on its face. North Korea surely knows how to deal with China.

It is self-evident which is factor is more primary between the two. It is the latter. Nevertheless, the current state of affairs have unraveled in favor of China in light of the overall geopolitical picture.

First, North Korea’s ‘charm offensive’ instigates tension for the ROK-U.S. alliance. This is clearly a good news for China which hopes the ROK-U.S. alliance to exacerbate. Second, the tensions surrounding the Korean Peninsula have temporarily been alleviated through the inter-Korean talks. This is also what China wanted. China has no reason to squeeze its efforts to take a ‘free ride’ in inter-Korean talks amid the circumstances unfolding just as China hopes.

             China believes that North Korea drove forward the high-level inter-Korean talks and North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and tossed the ball in South Korea’s court. Beijing perceives that Pyongyang pushed Seoul to make its move by opening its card of inter-Korean summit through Kim Yo-jong. And the Chinese will keep an eye on the Moon Jae-in administration – whether it has the capacity to manage this situation.

Particularly, China seems to have paid attention to Kim Yo-jong and to understand the North Korean leader’s sister who made her debut in international politics. It views Kim Yo-jong’s visit more substantial than the upcoming visit of Trump’s daughter Ivanka for the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics. While Ivanka Trump is a politically symbolic figure, China views Kim Yo-jong as a personality with considerable influence, holding a substantial position in the WPK. Whereas the media from the western world including the U.S. focused on gossips such as whether Kim Yo-jong is pregnant or not, China concentrated on whether Kim Yo-jong has the qualities of a leader.

Then, what role could China play in keeping the momentum of peace – fostered through the Olympics – going forward? First, while some have expectations that China will soon send a special envoy to North Korea, that is unlikely to happen for the moment. Beijing is not confident whether the North Korean side will welcome such moves. Still, there are possibilities that China might use the major anniversaries between North Korea and China to send envoys and engage in high-level talks. It’s a relic of the Socialist tradition from the Cold War. Second, it seems that China, being at loggerheads with the U.S., is not in the position to actively mediate between the U.S. and North Korea to urge Washington to talk with Pyongyang. Yet, it appears to be willing to back South Korea in persuading Washington in that regard. Taking all these things into consideration, South Korea will prudently explore its strategic options.

Translator’s note: This is an unofficial translation of the original paper which was written in Korean. All references should be made to the original paper.