Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 07/2011

Dealing with the "North Korea Dilemma":China's Strategic Choices

You Ji

June 2011

S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies


Pyongyang’s adventurism during 2010 such as the Yeonyeong shelling has further complicated the already strained Sino-DPRK relations, despite closer interaction between the two countries. The biggest challenge to Beijing was to shake the foundation of China’s DPRK policy, defined as maintaining the status quo by crisis aversion, with the emphasis on ad hoc guidance for immediate crisis management. Chinese analysts criticised Beijing’s lack of an effective overarching strategy toward Pyongyang. Clearly its current approach of accommodation vis-à-vis Kim Jong-Il may not be sustainable. This principle not only symbolises Beijing’s buffer zone mentality concerning the North’s regime survival but also its difficulty in finding any feasible substitute. Beijing does see the high cost of continued support for an unpredictable neighbour. North Korea’s actions in 2010, arguably in response to the South’s increasingly hard-line attitude against Pyongyang, translated North/South confrontation into unnecessary Sino-US tension, much to Beijing’s anger. China’s “neutrality” made it look the odd man out in Northeast Asia. But its biggest dilemma is that the fallout of a sudden collapse of the DPRK may be worse to its overall security environment than the propping up of Kim Jong-Il. Therefore, it has to stick to its current DPRK “non-policy” of maintaining the status quo in order to trade time for space: gradually creating favourable conditions for dealing with an eventual regime upheaval in the DPRK.