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The Peninsula

The Internal Debate within China on the DPRK

Published August 9, 2012
Category: North Korea

By Nick Miller

When examining how China manages its relationship with North Korea one must understand the various factions within the elites and competing interests within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that shape how China responds to North Korea.

How Decisions are Made in China

Consensus-decision making

Chinese leadership employs consensus decision making as no leader today has the ability to dominate political decisions as Mao or Deng did in the past. Hu Jintao has to manage a wide variety of factions within the CCP and the military when it comes to gaining the support needed to change any domestic or foreign policy. Decisions of sensitive areas (such as North Korea) have commonly ended in a deadlock amongst the elites over what to do next. During the Cheonan incident the Chinese leadership stayed silent, only sending a statement saying that countries needed to stay to calm and use restraint.  The silence on the leadership’s part is likely because Hu Jintao and the other elites did not know what the proper course of action should be towards North Korea.

Hu Jintao has criticized the consensus model, noting that it needs to be improved in order to prevent decisions being made by an individual or minority of people. Tang Leowan, an Associate Professor at the Dandong Municipal Party Research Department, stated that collective decision making has only led the Chinese leadership to the wrong outcomes and groupthink. It was plagued with, what Dr. Tang saw, as total belief in authority and individuals desiring to conform to the wishes of the top leaders.

Informal Networks and Alliances

Informal channels still play a strong role within Chinese politics and the decision making process. For the Chinese elite personal relationships, guanxi, between other elites is paramount and these relationships are managed through official and informal channels in order to assert influence over other elites. In Chinese politics one’s guanxi helps determine your chance for promotion and the better a person’s guanxi is the better their ability to influence the decision making process.

Within the CCP North Korea remains one of the most divisive issues on whether China needs to enact harsher sanctions or continue to support North Korea because of the shared connections stemming from the Korean War. China watchers have broken down the elites into two camps – strategists and traditionalists.


The strategists comprise elites and scholars that believe China needs to initiate a re-assessment of its policies regarding North Korea and work with the United States. After the second nuclear test in 2009, Global Times interviewed twenty Chinese international relations experts on how they viewed North Korean relations. Ten of the twenty scholars called for greater sanctions on China’s part and 70% felt that the Six-Party talks had failed.

Some of these scholars include – Sun Zhe from Tsinghua University, Ren Xiao from Fudan University, and Zhang Liangui from the Central Party School — believes that China needs to put the Chinese-U.S. relationship over North Korea. There is also the fear that if Beijing does not work with Washington it could lead to the U.S. and the DPRK working on a bilateral deal that will undercut Chinese influence. According to Zhu Feng, the Deputy Director at CSIS, the Chinese leadership viewed North Korea’s nuclear tests as a “slap in the face” and a “sobering wake-up call”.

The strategists’ views on how to handle North Korea is as follows-

  • North Korea’s actions, especially with its second nuclear test, are putting China at risk;
  •  North Korea continues to ignore China’s national interest despite the food and oil assistance China gives it and is increasingly becoming a liability both strategically and economically to China;
  • China needs to use its aid as a way to exert pressure on North Korea;
  • China needs to work with the other members within the Six Party to exert external influence over North Korea; and,
  • Attempts to bribe North Korea are just appeasement to the North Korean government and will not lead to any change


This is the conservative school within Chinese foreign policy that arose out of reaction to the strategist camp. Members within this faction comprise scholars, policy analysts, and diplomats who are distrustful of Western intentions within the region and view the Korean peninsula as a zero-sum game. They blame Washington for the lack of progress on North Korea because the U.S. has not engaged bilaterally with North Korea or provided North Korea with enough security assistance that would lead to normalized relations between the two countries.

Experts like Yang Bojiang, a professor of Japanese studies at the University of International Relations in Beijing, stated that North Korea’s satellite launch in April stems from its fears of the U.S.-South Korean alliance and for its security needs. Sanctions, in Dr. Yang’s opinion, only increase the insecurity within North Korea and force it to take more extreme actions to ensure its survival.

The main arguments found within the traditionalist camp are as follows-

  • That the relationship between North Korea and China was sealed with the Korean War and it is not something that cannot be forgotten;
  •  China has a responsibility to manage North Korea in order to prevent further instability within the region; in order to prevent instability within North Korea China will have to give aid to North Korea;
  • North Korea serves as a necessary buffer zone to prevent a US presence from entering into China; and,
  • North Korea serves as a strategic asset rather than a liability to China

Main Actors within China over Managing North Korea

Official Foreign Policy Actors

Within the CCP there are numerous separate decision-making structures that often overlap in their function and authority. The CCP authority is supreme and within the CCP one’s position within hierarchy determines one’s influence. Hu Jintao is the General Secretary of the CCP, Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), and President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). He also leads smaller groups (LSGs) that determine Chinese foreign and security policies. It is also common for there to be officials that have strong sway on matters that do not hold an official government post, i.e., in regards to foreign policy Wang Jiarui, head of the Party’s International Department, does not hold a government position.

The Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee

The nine member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) of the CCP Central Committee (CC) serve as the final decision making body. They meet every 7-10 days while the 25 member Politburo meets irregularly. The PSC’s agenda and rulings are not made public and mostly are used for the final decision regarding recommendations that have been made by other agencies within the CCP.

Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are the two key members regarding foreign policy decision making. While decisions now are done through consensus Hu Jintao’s support is needed for any major decisions. The members within the PSC tend to not have any foreign policy experience and this allows for foreign policy actors within the CCP and outliers within foreign policy establishment to compete for influence over individual PSC members.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA)

MOFA is involved in the Six-Party talks and maintaining Sino-US relations, but is plagued by internal divisions within its own sub-departments on how to manage North Korea. MOFA’s influence on Chinese foreign policy has been in decline because foreign policy duties have been spread throughout various departments and it has to rely on other agencies for expertise and compete with them to get its voice heard. The MOFA now just implements policies.

People’s Liberation Army (PLA)

The PLA oversees China’s defense policy and military strategy. The Central Military Commission (CMC) ensures that there is a unified command of the Chinese military and the PLA uses the CMC to influence foreign policy decisions. The CMC meets six times a year and Hu Jintao serves as the civilian head to the CMC.

The PLA wields some of the strongest influence regarding China’s North Korea policy. The PLA manages the military to military relations with the Korean People’s Army (KPA). However, its role has lessened in certain aspects by institutional reforms that focused on limiting military leaders influencing civilian decisions.

The PLA used to have sole authority regarding arms control and non-proliferation issues that would impact foreign policy but its monopoly of power has been broken up and shared with the CCP and commercial entities. The PLA influence is still felt on defense and foreign policy issues regarding strategic arms, territorial issues, and national security regarding North Korea, Central Asia, East Asia, and Sino-U.S. security issues.

Professor Jin Canrong, of Renmin University, noted that the PLA’s role has been shifting as it became a professional military. This lessened the PLA’s ideological outlook into one focused on meeting the growing security needs for China.

There is the concern that about the role of the PLA during a crisis and its communication with the CCP. This is because the PLA has been responsible for either initiating or escalating issues within the international community- the PLA shot down a Chinese weather satellite and there was the possibility that this was done to exert influence over the political leadership to create a stronger stance against the United States. In 2007, after China tested its anti-satellite weapon there was no public discussion in China for two weeks and Western analysts presumed this was because there was a lack of coordination and communication between the PLA and MOFA.

The State Council

The State Council is run by Premier Wen Jiabao and is the highest body for the Chinese government and represents China within state to state relations. Dai Bingguo serves as the State Councilor for Chinese foreign policy.

China Association for International Friendly Contacts

The Chinese Association for International Friendly Contacts is the public name for the International Liaison Department (ILD). The ILD monitors and maintains relationship with fellow communist nations and communist parties, assists in the CCP Central Committee departments and State Council ministries overseas work, and serves as a liaison for think tanks and NGOs. The ILD currently serves as the alternative diplomatic channel for China to deal with North Korea via the relationship it has built with Korean Worker’s Party (KWP).

The Policy Research Office and the General Office

The Policy Research Office provides research, advice, and drafts policy documents for every major decision.  The General Office controls the flow of information to the key decision makers and manages their schedules. It should be noted that Wang Huning, head of the Policy Research Office and Ling Jihua, head of the General Office, accompany Hu Jintao on all his overseas trips and have gotten more interactions with General Secretary then most CCP Ministers.

Will North Korea Now Listen to China?

China has routinely been frustrated by North Korea’s actions over the past several years. Whether North Korea under Kim Jong-un is now sending signals that it is willing to initiate economic reforms still remains to be seen. China’s chief concern is maintaining stability within the North Korean regime. It is rare for Chinese leaders to state their views on foreign policy issues. Though in 2012 Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie told retired South Korean military leaders that he ‘expressed strong opposition” to further North Korean provocation and believed that Kim Jong-un is more focused on economic issues and more likely listen to Chinese advice then his father, Kim Jong-il.

As China prepares for its upcoming leadership transition at the 18th National Party Congress it is more than likely that the leadership will maintain the status quo unless more elites are elevated that desire a change to how China will manage its relationship with North Korea. However, China watchers will have to wait to see if those shifts will occur throughout 2013.

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