[China’s “traditionalist view that views the U.S. as a much greater threat than North Korea is deeply entrenched,” Bonnie S. Glaser, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an email. “But the proponents of change are vocal, too. They argue that North Korea is a growing liability.”]
By Chris Buckley
BEIJING — When China’s best-known historian of the Korean War, Shen Zhihua, recently laid out his views on North Korea, astonishment rippled through the audience. China, he said with a bluntness that is rare here, had fundamentally botched its policy on the divided Korean Peninsula.
China’s bond with North Korea’s Communist leaders formed even before Mao Zedong’s decision in 1950 to send People’s Liberation Army soldiers to fight alongside them in the Korean War. Mao famously said the two sides were “as close as lips and teeth.”
But China should abandon the stale myths of fraternity that have propped up its support for North Korea and turn to South Korea, Mr. Shen said at a university lecture last month in Dalian, a northeastern Chinese port city.
“Judging by the current situation, North Korea is China’s latent enemy and South Korea could be China’s friend,” Mr. Shen said, according to a transcript he published online. “We must see clearly that China and North Korea are no longer brothers in arms, and in the short term there’s no possibility of an improvement in Chinese-North Korean relations.”
The speech was a strikingly bold public challenge to Chinese policy, which remains unwilling to risk a break with North Korea even as its nuclear program raises tensions in northeast Asia and beyond. The controversy over Mr. Shen’s views in China has distilled a renewed debate about whether the government should abandon its longstanding patronage of North Korea.
China’s “traditionalist view that views the U.S. as a much greater threat than North Korea is deeply entrenched,” Bonnie S. Glaser, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an email. “But the proponents of change are vocal, too. They argue that North Korea is a growing liability.”
For decades, China has tried to preserve ties with North Korea as a partner and strategic shield in northeast Asia, even when the North’s leaders became testy and unpredictable. In recent years, though, China has also tried to soothe the United States, build political and business ties with South Korea and help rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
But as North Korea has improved its missiles and nuclear warheads, opening the possibility that it could one day strike the continental United States, China’s go-between approach has become increasingly fraught.
North Korea did not hold a nuclear test over the weekend that some had expected, and its missile test on Sunday fizzled. But more tests and launches appear to be only a matter of time, and the Trump administration has pressed China’s president, Xi Jinping, to use much tougher pressure on its neighbor.
“The era of strategic patience is over,” Vice President Mike Pence said in South Korea on Monday.
“The president and I have a great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea,” he told reporters, but “if China is unable to deal with North Korea, the United States and our allies will.”
China suspended coal imports from North Korea in February, cutting off a major source of revenue for the North. But China has resisted choking off trade with North Korea, and debate over how to balance Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington has sharpened and become more fractious. Trying to stay friends with all sides is proving perilous.
The Chinese government has fiercely objected to an American antimissile defense system, called the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad, being installed in South Korea, fearing it could be used to spy on China. But some Chinese experts have criticized the surge of anti-South Korean anger unleashed by Beijing as counterproductive.
Global Times, a state-run newspaper that often defends Chinese government policy, cautioned last week that North Korea would face harsher sanctions if it went ahead with another nuclear test. On Monday, the paper redoubled that warning, calling for China to choke off most oil supplies to North Korea if there was another test.
Mr. Shen has gone much further than other scholars in calling for a reset.
“The fundamental interests of China and North Korea are at odds,” he said in his lecture. “China’s fundamental interest lies in achieving a stability on its borders and developing outward. But since North Korea acquired nuclear weapons, that periphery has never been stable, so inevitably Chinese and North Korean interests are at odds.”
He derided China’s opposition to the Thaad antimissile system as shrill and self-defeating, needlessly alienating South Korean opinion. “What we’ve done is exactly what the Americans and North Koreans would like to see,” he said.
Mr. Shen’s views have incensed Chinese ultranationalists, who have accused him of selling out the country’s ally in Pyongyang. His views and the debate about them have not been reported in Chinese state news media.
But Mr. Shen’s speech remains on the website of the Cold War history research center at East China Normal University in Shanghai, where he works. He has also restated his views at lectures in Shanghai and, last week, in Xi’an in northwest China, he said.
In the past, articles in China critical of North Korea have been quickly censored. In 2004, an influential Chinese policy magazine was closed down after it published an essay critical of North Korea. In 2013, an editor at a Communist Party journal in Beijing was shunted from his job for publicly proposing that China withdraw support for North Korea.
Mr. Shen said the tolerance — so far — for his views suggested that the government might be willing to tolerate greater criticism of North Korea and debate about the relationship.
“Many people have asked me, ‘Teacher Shen, why hasn’t your speech been taken down?’” Mr. Shen said in a telephone interview from Shanghai.
“At least it shows that there can be different views about the North Korea issue. It’s up to the center to set policy, but at least you can air different views in public, whereas before you couldn’t,” he said. The “center” refers to China’s central leadership.
Still, Ms. Glaser said, President Xi appears unlikely to turn entirely on North Korea.
After a meeting with Mr. Xi, President Trump said his Chinese counterpart seemed willing to press Pyongyang. But China has balanced its criticisms of North Korea by pressing the United States to agree to prompt negotiations with the North and suspend major military exercises with the South.
In South Korea on Monday, Vice President Pence held out the possibility of opening talks with the North Koreans, noting that Washington was seeking security “through peaceable means, through negotiations.”
His office added that any talks would include Japan, South Korea, other allies in the region and China.
Mr. Shen, 66, is well known in China and is often cited for his groundbreaking studies on the outbreak of the Korean War that used archival records to expose the tensions and miscalculations behind Mao’s decision to send troops.
He is the son of Communist Party officials and previously used his earnings from business to pay for dredging archives in Russia, after serving a two-year prison term on a charge of leaking state secrets that he insisted was groundless.
He said he hoped that his research, including a new history of Chinese-North Korean relations that he hopes will appear in English this year, would dismantle deceptive myths that have grown up in China around that past.
“It’s very hard for China to adjust relations,” he said. “If everyone understands the truth and this myth is burst, then there’ll be a basis among the public and officials for adjusting policy.”
But Mr. Shen acknowledged that shifting direction on North Korea would carry risks. If political cooperation between Beijing and Washington fails to constrain North Korea, he said, the two governments should cooperate in a military response.
“If North Korea really does master nuclear weapons and their delivery, then the whole world will have to prostrate itself at the feet of North Korea,” he said in the interview. “The longer this drags out, the better it is for North Korea.”
Choe Sang-Hun contributed reporting from Seoul, South Korea.