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Leif-Eric Easley(Ewha University and the Asan Institute) and In Young Park (Princeton University), “China’s Norms in its Near Abroad: Understanding Beijing’s North Korea Policy”, Journal of Contemporary China, April 06, 2016.

China’s tough response to North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006 raised expectations in the US, South Korea and Japan that Beijing might align its North Korea policy with the international community. Similar expectations were raised (and unmet) following North Korea’s second nuclear test in 2009, the Cheonan sinking and Yeonpyeong Island shelling in 2010, a third nuclear test in 2013, numerous missile tests and military provocations in 2014-2015, and a fourth nuclear test and long-range missile test in early 2016. Many scholars and policymakers maintain that Beijing’s rationales for supporting Pyongyang are crumbling. This article argues that Chinese traditional worldviews and strategic thought remain motivating concepts for Beijing’s policy on North Korea. China’s norms in its near abroad — beliefs about stability, siege mentality, due deference, and Confucian reciprocity — explain phases in Beijing’s policy on North Korea and why the Chinese approach does not change as much as external observers hope or expect.

The importance of norms to China’s North Korea policy suggests that Beijing will continue to expect Pyongyang to adhere to certain standards or suffer the consequences. However, given the limited effectiveness of those consequences to date, and the enduring gap in standards for North Korean accountability between Chinese leaders on the one hand, and South Korean, Japanese and American leaders on the other, Pyongyang is unlikely to abandon its rogue behavior until Chinese foreign policy norms further converge with international norms. In the meantime, China’s increasingly assertive foreign policies toward regional order and institutions, the East and South China Seas, and Central Asia indicates further research is needed on whether Chinese leaders’ conception of the ‘near abroad’ is expanding. If as China rises, expectations grow in Beijing that neighboring countries should follow Chinese norms, then understanding Beijing’s approach toward North Korea may have even broader foreign policy implications.

The article is available at:

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Leif-Eric Easley
Leif-Eric Easley

Visiting Research Fellow

Dr. Leif-Eric EASLEY is a visiting research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. Dr. Easley is also an associate professor of International Studies at Ewha Womans University where he teaches international security and political economics. His research interests include contested national identities and changing levels of trust in the bilateral security relationships of Northeast Asia. He was the Northeast Asian History Fellow at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) at Stanford University. He was also a visiting scholar at Yonsei University and the University of Southern California’s Korean Studies Institute. He is actively involved in US-Asia dialogues (Track II diplomacy) with the Asan Institute and the Pacific Forum-Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Dr. Easley received his B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in government from Harvard University.