Does Chinese Public Opinion on North Korea Affect China’s Foreign Policy?

Niyati Shetty, Research Intern, ICS & 1st MA International Studies, Christ University, Bangalore

Over the years, Chinese public opinion towards North Korea has shown a downward trend with an increasingly negative opinions gaining ground. There are two aspects to public opinion – popular opinion and elite opinion. Chinese popular opinion about North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un is reflected in his nickname ‘Kim Fatty III’ (Jīn Sān Pàng), widely used by Chinese netizens[1]. In 2013, after North Korea’s third nuclear test, a web search on ‘North Korea’ showed that the majority of the 41 million mentions were about North Korea being a security threat and urging the government to change its policies towards the country.[2] There have also been various incidents that triggered the Chinese public’s growing resentment against North Korea.[3]

Chinese elites and scholars have also been a part of this negative discourse against North Korea. In December 2014, Wang Hongguang, a retired People’s Liberation Army general, wrote in the Global Times that China would not be a saviour if the North Korean regime collapsed or started a war.[4] The deputy editor of the journal of the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China, Deng Yuwen, suggested that China abandon Pyongyang and support the unification of the Korean peninsula.[5] Jin Qiangyi, director of the Centre for North and South Korea Studies, Yanbian University, when asked about the North Korean situation said, ‘People living here have a deep sense of fatigue. (They) are growing tired of it all.”[6] The most recent and vocal supporter of this change in foreign policy is the renowned Chinese historian Shen Zhihua[7]. Shen came to the conclusion that ‘North Korea is China’s latent enemy and South Korea could be China’s friend’.[8] Several other intellectuals such as Central Party School professor Zhang Liangui[9] and Peking University professor Zhu Feng[10] have also been vocal in expressing their dissatisfaction about North Korea.

Under Xi Jinping, there has been a stronger stance against North Korea, which is reflected in China’s changing foreign policy towards its neighbour.[11] When Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were in power, China had a more supportive foreign policy towards the nation, despite the rifts created between the two after North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006.[12] These cracks widened with the young and volatile Kim Jong-un becoming the new Supreme Leader and the three subsequent nuclear tests. Xi’s China could no longer maintain a purely supportive relation with North Korea and Beijing actively supported UN sanctions against it as punishment for the nuclear tests. While China has been a vocal supporter of North Korea’s denuclearization, it still supports the current regime for it does not want instability on its border, which it sees as resulting from a forced regime change.

The question we really need to ask is whether the vocal anti-North Korea public opinion in China will be a reason for Beijing modifying its foreign policy or whether China’s foreign policy is, in fact, influencing the negative change in public opinion. While in most democratic countries, public opinion is considered a major influencer of a nation’s foreign policy, Chinese media remains heavily regulated with weekly censorship guidelines and nearly all sources of information to the public being state owned.[13] As recently as 2010, Chinese popular opinion towards North Korea was mostly positive, this is due to the fact that China’s foreign policy towards North Korea was still friendly and the media reflected this while reporting on North Korea’s provocations against South Korea.[14] At present, Chinese media has openly condemned the Korean nuclear tests and the aggressive stance taken by the North Korean government.[15]

The foreign policy making system in modern China has evolved considerably from Mao’s era of independent decision-making. Today, opinions expressed by governmental and non-governmental elites have begun to have some impact on the government’s policies.[16] These facts lead us to the conclusion that though the anti-North Korea rhetoric among the Chinese general public has increased, this change cannot be the reason for the shift in Chinese foreign policy towards North Korea in recent years. Nevertheless, the opinion of Chinese intellectuals may have had some influence in shifting China’s foreign policy and might be the key to further changes in China’s North Korea policy.


[1] China Digital Times. 2016. ‘Dictator of the Week: Kim Fatty III’, 10 November, (accessed on 23 May 2017)

[2] Tianyi Wang. 2013. ‘Chinese Public Opinion toward North Korea’s Nuclear Test: Another Push for Policy Change?’ CogitAsia. 25 March, (accessed on 20 April 2017)

[3] For instance, in May 2012, Chinese netizens showed strong resentment toward North Korea regarding its abduction of Chinese fishermen for ransom. Similarly in January 2013, CCTV aired a summary of North Korea’s stringent internet censorship which resulted in a backlash by the Chinese public not only against North Korean censorship but also domestic Chinese censorship policy.

[4] The Telegraph. 2014. ‘China ‘will not go to war for North Korea’’, 2 December, (accessed on 23 May 2017)

[5] James Griffith. 2013. ‘Deng Yuwen: China should abandon North Korea.’ 28 February. (accessed on 20 April 2017)

[6] Nathan Vanderklippe. 2017. ‘Nuclear neighbours: China and North Korea at the edge of patience’, 28 April, (accessed on 23 May 2017)

[7] Shen Zhihua is a Chinese historian known for his work on the Korean War, Soviet Union and the Cold War.

[8] Chris Buckley. Excerpts From a Chinese Historian’s Speech on North Korea

[9] Emile Dirks. 2014. ‘Through Frosted Glass: Zhang Liangui on China’s DPRK Intel and the Purge of Jang Song-taek’, 29 March, (accessed on 23 May 2017)

[10]Adam Cathcart. 2013. ‘Incinerated Fantasy: Kim Jong-un, Zhu Feng, and a Censored Article in Beijing’, 9 February, (accessed on 23 May 2017)

[11] Lee Sangsoo. 2016. Xi Jinping’s Foreign Policy towards North Korea’ Orientaliska Studier, No 148. 241-256

[12] Eleanor Albert. 2017. ‘The China–North Korea Relationship’. (accessed on 9 May 2017)

[13] Beina Xu; Eleanor Albert. 2017. ‘Media Censorship in China’ (accessed on 9 May 2017)

[14]Yun Sun. 2011. ‘Chinese Public Opinion: Shaping China’s Foreign Policy, or Shaped by It?’, 13 December. (accessed on 20 April 2017)

[15] Global Times. 2017. ‘North Korea’s volatility puts world on edge’ 8 May. (accessed on 9 May 2017)

[16]Patrick Douglass. 2009. ‘Public Opinionʼs New Role in Chinese Foreign Policy’, 10 February, (accessed on 23 May 2017)

2 thoughts on “Does Chinese Public Opinion on North Korea Affect China’s Foreign Policy?

  1. It is popularly opined that, there is a shift in Chinese foreign policy from Mao to Xi Jimping. But a scrutiny shows that, there is a systematic evolution in the foreign policy which is generally accepted by CPC. Every person at the helm agrees that, first, country must strengthen its power within and then expand its influence. This latter opinion was string with all the premiers of China from Mao to Xi Jimping. Accepting this case, the change in foreign policy towards DPRK wouldn’t be least influenced by public opinion of non government institutions. As author has correctly mentioned, the views of public might have been influenced by the state media projections of DPRK. If that is the case, saying that non governmental elites having influence on the Chinese foreign policy might require a sceptic analysis.

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