Cooperation and Limitations of China's Sanctions on North Korea: Perception, Interest and Institutional Environment

By Lee, Kihyun; Kim, Jangho | North Korean Review, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Cooperation and Limitations of China's Sanctions on North Korea: Perception, Interest and Institutional Environment


Lee, Kihyun, Kim, Jangho, North Korean Review


Introduction

There are diverging assessments on China's degree of cooperation with international sanctions against North Korea. Some argue that China has shown increased cooperation after North Korea's fourth nuclear test. Others argue that cooperation has been insufficient and that China must show more commitment in deterring North Korea's nuclear pursuits.2 How can such discrepancy be explained? China claims that it has actively made efforts to resolve North Korea's nuclear issue and implemented United Nations resolutions in good faith. However, the challenge lies in objectively assessing such a claim. Given that the nature of international sanctions involves a collision of respective states' interests, specific information concerning compliance is often handled in vague and obscure ways.3 Moreover, assessing the degree of implementation cannot but be influenced by respective states' selfperception and wishful thinking. Nevertheless, China in particular, has been the center of attention every time the issue of sanctioning North Korea arises. This is most likely because of China's relationship with and relative influence over North Korea. In essence, the issue of whether China has dutifully implemented international resolutions sanctioning North Korea becomes a question of China's willingness to seek consensus with concerned states on the perception and acts of North Korea's nuclear pursuits.

Existing research on China's sanctions on North Korea largely relates to China's policies on North Korea. The majority of research discusses North Korea's nuclear sanctions in the context of China's foreign policy or policies concerning the Korean Peninsula in the Northeast Asian order.4 However, sanctioning North Korea is, first and foremost, a joint commitment which takes places in an international regime before it becomes a particular state's policy decision. Therefore, prior to analyzing China's policy decisions on sanctioning North Korea, it is important to understand how China perceives the international space which determines joint actions. In other words, how it perceives the international regime linked to sanctions on North Korea, as well as what kind of interests it has in participating in or cooperating with such a regime.

There are primarily two dominant theories on China's cooperation with international regimes. First, the realist school claims that China's pursuit of its national interests has, in the past, collided with international regimes and will continue to do so in the future. According to realists, China is likely to project uncooperative or free-riding behaviors to realize its interests, rather than comply with the rules and norms of international regimes.5 The realist school of thought can explain why China has refrained from actively engaging in sanctioning North Korea due to North Korea's geopolitical value, as well as the costs and benefits associated with a North Korean regime collapse. However, it does not sufficiently explain China's policy change over time.

A different theory is that China has been changing its identity through interacting with international regimes.6 In other words, through participation in various international regimes, China has experienced learning and adaptation. Key examples are China's signing of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996, and recent cooperation on various global issues such as climate change and the environment. This school of thought does not deny that there are costs and benefits to national interest; however, it argues that such calculation becomes a more complex process through China's internalization of international norms and the possibility to change them. In other words, China is acutely aware of the costs it incurs when choosing not to accept international norms or to simply pursue its national interests. This theory is useful in explaining why China's position on sanctioning North Korea has changed with time.

This paper agrees with the latter theory and will seek to address China's cooperation and limitations in sanctioning North Korea. …

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