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"China Should Abandon All-Carrot Approach"

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"China Should Abandon All-Carrot Approach"

Op-Ed, Global Times

June 9, 2009

Author: Hui Zhang, Senior Research Associate, Project on Managing the Atom

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security; Managing the Atom; Science, Technology, and Public Policy


North Korea produced another huge shock wave to the international community with its latest nuclear blast last month. An unchecked North Korea will make more and better weapons. Even worse, once it has more than enough weapons for its own deterrent, it might be tempted to sell weapons to other parties.

A nuclear North Korea threatens not only the United States and its allies in the region, but also puts China’s own national interest at great risk. China has the most leverage with North Korea and must act now to stop North Korea's nuclear threat.

As a responsible stakeholder in the international system and to increase its international image, China should show its willingness to contribute to international nonproliferation efforts.

North Korea is the only country that has attempted to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and develop nuclear weapons. As such, accepting a nuclear North Korea would set a bad precedent for other countries with nuclear ambitions.

China has been North Korea's ally for over 50 years and provides most of its fuel and food aid. China is currently North Korean largest trading partner. Now is the time for China to abandon its temperate approach to North Korea.

So far, China's only "carrot" has been to not take any coercive approach in its traditional diplomacy with North Korea. But this has not constrained Pyongyang's nuclear developments, and North Korea went ahead with its nuclear tests and has again boycotted the six-party talks hosted by Beijing since 2003.

If Beijing continues allowing Pyongyang's nuclear ambition to go unchecked, Pyongyang will not only put Beijing in a position of embarrassment and force it to face more international pressure, it will also pose a great risk to China's national interest.

While Beijing "is resolutely opposed to the test," Beijing must turn those words into actions to press Pyongyang to change course.

China should deliver through all possible channels a clear message to North Korea: Beijing will by no means allow Pyongyang to keep its nuclear arsenal. Pyongyang must first stop plutonium production and weapons tests and return to the six-party talks, and Beijing's political support and supplies of oil and food will be conditioned on Pyongyang’s cooperation on denuclearization.

Indeed, Beijing's control of energy to Pyongyang could be crucial to push Pyongyang to make its final decision (if it has not been made yet) of denuclearization.

Given that North Korea has very limited energy resources, long-term sustainable economic advancement depends on Pyongyang opening its doors to the international community, and especially to foreign investment, trade and aid from neighboring countries.

Beijing should adopt a harsher approach to stop Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. The easiest way is to press Pyongyang is to tighten its control on the supply of oil.

Given that Washington holds what Pyongyang most wants — normalization, no hostility and no regime change — Beijing should also persuade Washington privately to engage in a bilateral dialogue with Pyongyang under six-party talks and to put on the bargaining table a reasonable offer. Thus, Beijing can give Pyongyang an assurance that if it does come back to the talks, Washington will be willing to talk and to drop its "hostile policy."

Beijing's bottom line is that both war on the Korean peninsula and an abrupt collapse of North Korea should be avoided because neither advances China's primary interest in a stable environment. Beijing should be able to adjust its pressure with a wide range of approaches, from its current "pure carrot" approach to more aggressive actions like cutting the oil supply.

However, Beijing should make sure the "adjusting pressure" is just a means for negotiating denuclearization, not to create regime change or the country's collapse.


For more information about this publication please contact the MTA Program Assistant at 617-495-4219.

Full text of this publication is available at:

For Academic Citation:

Zhang, Hui. "China Should Abandon All-Carrot Approach." Global Times, June 9, 2009.

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