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The China-North Korea Relationship

Authors: Jayshree Bajoria, and Beina Xu, Online Writer/Editor
Updated: February 18, 2014
This publication is now archived.


China is North Korea's most important ally, biggest trading partner, and main source of food, arms, and fuel. The country has helped sustain what is now Kim Jong-un's regime, and has historically opposed harsh international sanctions on North Korea in the hope of avoiding regime collapse and an influx of refugees across their shared eight hundred-mile border. But after Pyongyang's third nuclear test in February 2013, analysts say that China's patience with its ally may be wearing thin. This latest nuclear test, following one in 2006 and another in May 2009, has complicated North Korea's relationship with Beijing, which has played a central role in the Six Party Talks, the multilateral framework aimed at denuclearizing North Korea. The December 2013 public shaming and execution of Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jong-un's uncle and close adviser, triggered renewed concern from Beijing, which had built a solid relationship with Jang.


These newly surfaced tensions have complicated foreign policy decisions within the ranks of Beijing's new leadership, ushered in at the beginning of 2013, as high-level discussions between China and North Korea have stalled since December 2012. CFR's Scott Snyder and See-won Byun of the Asia Foundation say that the incident has "dampened China's hopes for regional engagement that were raised by a series of bilateral consultations in Beijing among U.S., PRC, and DPRK special envoys in February." While Beijing continues to have more leverage over Pyongyang than any other nation, experts say the tests could worsen relations, and many have urged China's new leadership to consider taking a tougher stance with its neighbor.

NK-ChinaNorth Korean leader Kim Jong-un shakes hands with Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao in Pyongyang. (Photo: KCNA/Courtesy Reuters)
Strong Allies

China's support for North Korea dates back to the Korean War (1950-1953), when its troops flooded the Korean peninsula to aid its northern ally. Since the war, China has lent political and economic backing to North Korea's leaders: Kim Il-sung (1912-1994), Kim Jong-il (1941-2011), and Kim Jong-un (1983-).

In recent years, China has been one of the authoritarian regime's few allies. But this long-standing relationship became strained when Pyongyang tested a nuclear weapon in October 2006 and China agreed to UN Security Council Resolution 1718, which imposed sanctions on Pyongyang. By signing off on this resolutionas well as earlier UN sanctions that followed the DPRK's July 2006 missile testsBeijing signaled a shift in tone from diplomacy to punishment. After Pyongyang's second nuclear test in May 2009, China also agreed to stricter sanctions. In February 2013, Beijing summoned the North Korean ambassador to its foreign ministry to protest Pyongyang's third nuclear test, and issued a call for a calm reaction to the denuclearization talks. However, it stopped short of the harsh criticism it unleashed in 2006, when it described the North's first nuclear test as "brazen." China also criticized a February 2014 UN report that detailed human rights atrocities in North Korea and served notice to Kim Jong-un that he could be liable in court for crimes against humanity. Beijing's immediate and staunch defense raised questions as to whether it will use its United Nations Security Council veto power to block international interference on the matter.

Despite their long alliance, analysts say Beijing does not control Pyongyang. "In general, Americans tend to overestimate the influence China has over North Korea," says Daniel Pinkston, a Northeast Asia expert at the International Crisis Group. In March 2010, China refused to take a stance against North Korea, despite conclusive evidence that showed Pyongyang sank a South Korean naval vessel. But in meetings with then leader Kim Jong-il following the incident, then Chinese president Hu Jintao asked the North Korean leader to refrain from future provocations, says John S. Park, director of the Korea Working Group at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Hu also reportedly insisted on long overdue market reforms, notes Aidan Foster-Carter, a Korea expert at Leeds University.

At the same time, China has too much at stake in North Korea to halt or withdraw its support entirely. "The idea that the Chinese would turn their backs on the North Koreans is clearly wrong," says CFR Senior Fellow Adam Segal. Beijing only agreed to UN Resolution 1718 after revisions removed requirements for tough economic sanctions beyond those targeting luxury goods, and China's trade with North Korea has steadily increased in recent years. Bilateral trade between China and North Korea reached nearly $6 billion in 2011, according to official Chinese data. Park writes that much of China's economic interactions with North Korea are not actually prohibited by the current UN sanctions regime; Beijing characterizes them as economic development and humanitarian activities. China's enforcement of the UN sanctions is also unclear, says a January 2010 report (PDF) from the U.S. Congressional Research Service, which notes that Chinese exports of banned luxury goods averaged around $11 million per month in 2009.

Pyongyang's Gains

Pyongyang is economically dependent on China, which provides most of its food and energy supplies. Nicholas Eberstadt, a consultant at the World Bank, says that since the early 1990s, China has served as North Korea's chief food supplier and has accounted for nearly 90 percent of its energy imports. By some estimates, China provides 80 percent of North Korea's consumer goods and 45 percent of its food. North Korea's economic dependence on China continues to grow, as indicated by the significant trade imbalance between the two countries. Snyder notes that in 2008, Chinese imports amounted to $2.03 billion, while exports to China including coal and iron ore totaled $750 million. Some experts see the $1.25 billion trade deficit as an indirect Chinese subsidy, given that North Korea cannot finance its trade deficit through borrowing.

China also provides aid directly to Pyongyang. "It is widely believed that Chinese food aid is channeled to the military," (PDF) reported the Congressional Research Service in January 2010. That allows the World Food Program's food aid to be targeted at the general population "without risk that the military-first policy or regime stability would be undermined by foreign aid policies of other countries."

China's Priorities

China's support for Pyongyang ensures a friendly nation on its northeastern border, and provides a buffer zone between China and democratic South Korea, which is home to around 29,000 U.S. troops and marines. This allows China to reduce its military deployment in its northeast and "focus more directly on the issue of Taiwanese independence," writes Shen Dingli of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai in China Security (PDF). North Korea's allegiance is important to Beijing as a bulwark against U.S. military dominance of the region as well as against the rise of Japan's military.

Crisis Guide: The Korean Peninsula

China also gains economically from its association with North Korea; growing numbers of Chinese firms are investing in North Korea and gaining concessions like preferable trading terms and port operations. Chinese companies have made major investments aimed at developing mineral resources in North Korea's northern region. According to a January 2010 Congressional Research Service report, these investments are "part of a Chinese strategy (PDF)" of stabilizing the border region it shares with North Korea, lessening the pressure on North Koreans to migrate to China, and raising the general standard of living in North Korea. USIP's Park writes these economic development plans also further China's national interests in developing its own chronically poor northeastern provinces by securing mineral and energy resources across the border.

"For the Chinese, stability and the avoidance of war are the top priorities," says Daniel Sneider, the associate director for research at Stanford's Asia-Pacific Research Center. "From that point of view, the North Koreans are a huge problem for them, because Pyongyang could trigger a war on its own." The specter of hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees flooding into China is a huge worry for Beijing. "The Chinese are most concerned about the collapse of North Korea leading to chaos on the border," CFR's Segal says. If North Korea does provoke a war with the United States, China and South Korea would bear the brunt of any military confrontation on the Korean peninsula. Yet both those countries have been hesitant about pushing Pyongyang too hard, for fear of making Kim Jong-un's regime collapse. The flow of refugees into China is already a problem: China has promised Pyongyang that it will repatriate North Koreans escaping across the border, but invites condemnation from human rights groups when sending them back to the DPRK. Jing-dong Yuan of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California says Beijing began its construction of a barbed wire fence along this border in 2006 for that reason.

Experts say China has also been ambivalent on the question of its commitment to intervene for the defense of North Korea in case of military conflict. The 1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance says China is obliged to defend North Korea against unprovoked aggression. But Jaewoo Choo, assistant professor of Chinese foreign policy at Kyung Hee University in South Korea, writes in Asian Survey that "China conceives itself to have the right to make an authoritative interpretation of the "principle for intervention" in the treaty. As a result of changes in regional security in a post-Cold War world, he writes, "China now places more value on national interest, over alliances blinded by ideology." But, he argues, Chinese ambiguity deters others from taking military action against Pyongyang.

Beijing's Leverage

Beijing has been successful in bringing North Korean officials to the negotiating table at the Six Party Talks many times. "It's clear that the Chinese have enormous leverage over North Korea in many respects," says Sneider of Stanford's Asia-Pacific Research Center. "But can China actually try to exercise that influence without destabilizing the regime? Probably not." Pinkston says that for all of North Korea's growing economic ties with China, "at the end of the day, China has little influence over the military decisions."

Also, China does not wish to use its leverage except for purposes consistent with its policy objectives and strategic interests, say experts. Choo writes, "After all, it is not about securing influence over North Korean affairs but is about peaceful management of the relationship with the intent to preserve the status quo of the peninsula."

Analysts say that with the removal of Jang Song-thaek, who had been an important liaison to Beijing, China may further tilt toward prioritizing stability over denuclearization in the near term. However, his absence may also deprive China of strategic alternatives to cooperate with the United States and South Korea given the "skyrocketing reputational costs" of continued support for the North Korean leadership, Snyder writes.

Washington's Role

The United States has pushed North Korea to verifiably and irreversibly give up its nuclear weapons program in return for aid, diplomatic benefits, and eventually normal diplomatic relations with Washington. Experts say Washington and Beijing have very different views on the issue. "Washington believes in using pressure to influence North Korea to change its behavior, while Chinese diplomats and scholars have a much more negative view of sanctions and pressure tactics," Pinkston says. "They tend to see public measures as humiliating and counterproductive."

However, China and the United do share common interests, including containing North Korea's nuclear program and preventing South Korea and Japan from going nuclear, say some experts. A regional partnership involving the United States and the countries of Northeast Asia, including China "remains the best vehicle ... for building stable relationships on and around the Korean peninsula," writes CFR Senior Fellow Sheila A. Smith. But this dynamic has been challenged with the Obama administration's "pivot" to Asia--a policy that strengthens U.S. political, economic, and military participation in Asia through bilateral dialogues with China as well as a range of hedging measures designed to manage China's rise. This tension "provides a backdrop to consider prospects for Sino-U.S. cooperation on policies toward North Korea, and highlights Chinese wariness and strategic mistrust of US policy intentions," writes Snyder.

Looking Forward

"Everyone who deals with North Korea recognizes [it] as a very unstable actor," Sneider says. However, some experts say North Korea is acting assertively both in its relationship with China and on the larger world stage. "The North Koreans are developing a much more realist approach to their foreign policy," Pinkston says. "They're saying imbalances of power are dangerous and the United States has too much power--so by increasing their own power they're helping to balance out world stability. It's neorealism straight out of an international relations textbook."

And even though China may be angry with North Korea's nuclear brinkmanship, analysts say it will avoid moves that could cause a sudden collapse of the regime. But Asian military affairs expert Andrew Scobell writes, "No action by China should be ruled out where North Korea is concerned." According to Scobell, Beijing might stop propping up Pyongyang and allow North Korea to fail if it believed a unified Korea under Seoul would be more favorably disposed toward Beijing. A January 2008 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the U.S. Institute of Peace says China has its own contingency plans (PDF) to dispatch troops to North Korea in case of instability. According to the report, the Chinese army could be sent into North Korea on missions to keep order if unrest triggers broader violence, including attacks on nuclear facilities in the North or South.

Additional Resources

China has long been regarded as North Korea's best friend, but that sense of fraternity appears to be souring, the New York Times writes in this in-depth article.

VICE's founder took a press trip to North Korea and produced this guide to the country.

Victor Cha talks with CFR's Bernard Gwertzman about North Korea's nuclear needs in this interview.

This CFR Backgrounder examines the power handover of China's Communist Party and its governing challenges.

Esther Pan and Carin Zissis contributed to this Backgrounder.

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