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March 10, 2014, by Editor

Red Lines and Correct Roads: Recent Chinese Policy Discourse on North Korea

Written by Adam Cathcart.

When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi talked about “a red line” at a press conference at the National People’s Congress on Saturday, one could be forgiven for imagining that China was in the process of standing up once and for all to North Korea’s transgressive behaviour. After all, in the preceding days, Kim Jong-un had visited a factory known for making missile warheads, perhaps purged the one North Korean leader who has met Xi Jinping face-to-face, and launched a test of short-range missiles that came too close for comfort to Chinese commercial air traffic lanes. (If the North Koreans spoke more often to their Japanese and South Korean counterparts, they might learn a thing or two about Chinese sensitivities over such things as airspace and sea lanes.)

The DPRK responded to China’s concerns about the missile test by lashing out at a proxy figure, the United States, and by threatening to invade Seoul and hunt down the visiting George W. Bush like some mythic Faulknerian bear. In fact this show of anger was directed at China. Thus, with the visit of Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin to Pyongyang completed, and no reciprocal trip from North Korean Premier Park Bong-ju or similarly high official forthcoming, perhaps the Chinese leaders were just letting off a bit of steam with the “red line” comment in such a public forum.

But fortunately, the Foreign Ministry and Xinhua have a way of covering the press  conferences at the NPC sufficiently that we are able to read Wang Yi’s entire remarks, and  are not dependent on the augury of South Korean news agencies to interpret what Wang Yi meant, and if in fact it represents anything new at all.

The “red line” statement was preceded by Wang Yi’s explanation that this has been “China’s line all along” and that what the PRC sought ultimately to prevent on the Korean peninsula was an “outbreak of war or chaos.”

The mention of a “red line” in the context of American/South Korean military drills on the peninsula, and just after North Korean rocket tests, kept the object of the statement intentionally vague: Wang was not throwing down the gauntlet to the DPRK any more than he was telling the Americans to lay off with the B-52 flights over Korea.

Perhaps much more interesting — and revealing — was Wang’s new formulation of China’s relations with the Koreas, specifically directed at relations with North Korea: “‘爬坡、过坎、走正道.” Or, roughly, “Climb the slope, get over the pit/threshold, and take the correct path.”

According to Wang, the “slope” that must be climbed is denuclearlization. Clearly this slope is one that North Korea itself must climb — and saying so publicly yet again garners the side benefit of approval from South Korean and American policy makers. Wang notes that China will not budge an inch from its stance, and, idiomatically, “chisel away persistently until it is finally accomplished [锲而不舍,坚持到底].”

The notion of relations with DPRK being in some kind of a “valley,” “pit,” or earthly depression have been prevalent since the sudden death of Jang Song-taek in December 2013. This new formulation for Chinese-Korean relations seems to again evoke that explicitly. Wang goes a bit further to describe the “pit” as being a “lack of communication” between the DPRK and the United States, and pledges to be the channel by which this could proceed. Why North Korea would place its unvarnished trust in China is not particularly clear, but the assumption is that North Korea is not going to approach, nor would Washington accept, a direct overture. China (and not Dennis Rodman) is still the great middleman in the US-DPRK relationship.

Finally, the “correct path” is a simple repackaging of the Six-Party Talks, which are preferable to war. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has not turned to Buddhism to solve the perpetual crisis on the Korean Peninsula, but its rhetoric continues to shift in response to changing times. The “red line” stretches over a pit, which lies in front of a mountain which is the North Korean nuclear program, at which the Chinese Foreign Ministry and its partners continue to chip away. Mao was dismissive of the power of nuclear weapons, but he also famously said that an old man could move a mountain. A dash of Maoist bravado might soon be preferable to the Chinese leaders as North Korea continues to hurtle ahead, not on the “correct path,” but on a road very much of its own choosing.

Adam Cathcart is Lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds. Adam is chief editor of Sino-NK, tweets @adamcathcart and is a CPI Blog Regular Contributor.

Posted in China