China is North Korea’s most important ally, biggest trading partner, and main source of food, arms, and energy. It has helped sustain Kim Jong-un’s regime, and has historically opposed harsh international sanctions on North Korea in the hope of avoiding regime collapse and a refugee influx across their 870-mile border. Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test as well as a ballistic missile launch in early 2016 have complicated its relationship with Beijing, which has continued to advocate for the resumption of the Six Party Talks, the multilateral framework aimed at denuclearizing North Korea. A purge of top North Korean officials since its young leader came to power also spurred renewed concern from China about the stability and direction of North Korean leadership. Furthermore, some experts say that an anticipated thawing of relations between China and South Korea could shift the geopolitical dynamic in East Asia and undermine China-North Korea ties. Yet despite North Korea’s successive nuclear tests, China’s policies toward its neighbor have hardly shifted.
Alliance Under Stress
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 (estimated 1948-1994), Kim Jong-il (roughly 1994-2011), and Kim Jong-un (2011-). But strains in the relationship began to surface when Pyongyang tested a nuclear weapon in October 2006 and Beijing supported UN Security Council Resolution 1718, which imposed sanctions on Pyongyang. With this resolution and others (UNSC Resolution 1874 (PDF) and 2094 (PDF)), Beijing signaled a shift in tone from diplomacy to punishment. Following North Korea’s third nuclear test in February 2013, China summoned the North Korean ambassador, implemented new trade sanctions, reduced energy supplies to North Korea, and called for denuclearization talks. However, Beijing has continued to have wide-ranging ties with Pyongyang, including economic exchanges and high-level state trips such as senior Chinese Communisty Party member Li Yunshan's visit to attend the seventieth anniversary of North Korea’s ruling party in October 2015.
Separately, China has stymied international punitive action against North Korea over human rights violations. China criticized a February 2014 UN report that detailed human rights abuses in North Korea, including torture, forced starvation, and crimes against humanity, and attempted to block UN Security Council sessions held in December 2014 and 2015 on the country’s human rights status. In March 2010, China refused to take a stance against North Korea, despite conclusive evidence that showed Pyongyang’s involvement in sinking a South Korean naval vessel.
“There is no reason to think that political risks emanating from North Korea will lead China to withdraw its economic safety net for North Korea any time soon,”—CFR’s Scott Snyder
Even China’s punitive steps have been restrained. Beijing only agreed to UN Resolution 1718 after revisions removed requirements for tough economic sanctions beyond those targeting luxury goods. It did agree to further sanctions, some of which called for inspections of suspected nuclear or missile trade, but Western officials and experts doubt how committed China is to implementing trade restrictions.
China–North Korea trade has also steadily increased in recent years: in 2014 trade between the two countries hit $6.86 billion, up from about $500 million in 2000, according to figures from the Seoul-based Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency. Recent reports indicate that bilateral trade dropped by almost 15 percent in 2015, though it is unclear whether the dip is a result of chilled ties between Beijing and Pyongyang or China’s economic slowdown. Nevertheless, “there is no reason to think that political risks emanating from North Korea will lead China to withdraw its economic safety net for North Korea any time soon,” writes CFR Senior Fellow Scott Snyder.
Aid and Trade for Pyongyang
China provides North Korea with most of its food and energy supplies and accounts for more than 70 percent of North Korea's total trade volume (PDF). “China is currently North Korea’s only economic backer of any importance,” writes Nicholas Eberstadt, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. In September 2015, the two countries opened a bulk cargo and container shipping route to boost North Korea’s export of coal to China and China established a high-speed rail route between the Chinese border city of Dandong and Shenyang, the provincial capital of China’s northeastern Liaoning province. In October 2015, the Guomenwan border trade zone opened in Dandong with the intention of boosting bilateral economic linkages, much like the Rason economic zone and the Sinujiu special administrative zone established in North Korea in the early 1990s and 2002, respectively. Dandong is a critical hub for trade, investment, and tourism for the two neighbors—exchanges with North Korea make up 40 percent of the city’s total trade. Due to North Korea’s increasing isolation, its dependence on China continues to grow, as indicated by the significant trade imbalance between the two countries. Some experts see the trade deficit as an indirect Chinese subsidy, given that North Korea cannot finance its trade deficit through borrowing.
Beijing also provides aid (PDF) directly to Pyongyang, primarily in food and energy assistance. China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States have provided more than 75 percent of food aid to North Korea since 1995, but donations from all countries except for China have shrunk significantly since the collapse of the Six Party Talks in 2009. North Korea, whose famine in the 1990s killed between 800,000 to 2.4 million people, reported its worst drought in decades in June 2015, with harvests sustaining serious damage. UN agencies designated up to 70 percent of the population as food insecure. There is also concern about the distribution of aid in North Korea, particularly since China has no system (PDF) to monitor shipments. Recently, however, “Beijing has been trying to wean Pyongyang off pure aid in favor of more commercially viable ties,” University of Sydney’s James Reilly writes.
China regards stability on the Korean peninsula as its primary interest. Its support for North Korea ensures a friendly nation on its northeastern border and provides a buffer between China and the democratic South, which is home to around 29,000 U.S. troops and marines. “For the Chinese, stability and the avoidance of war are the top priorities,” says Daniel Sneider of Stanford’s Asia-Pacific Research Center.
The specter of hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees flooding into China is a huge worry for Beijing. “China would prefer to avoid a calamity on its border especially since North Korea’s collapse would destroy China’s strategic buffer and probably bring U.S. troops too close to comfort,” write Yonsei University’s John Delury and Moon Chung-in.
Beijing has consistently urged world powers not to push Pyongyang too hard, for fear of precipitating a regime collapse. “Sanctions are not an end in themselves,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in January 2016. The refugee issue is already a problem: Beijing’s promise to repatriate North Koreans escaping across the border has consistently triggered condemnation from human rights groups. Beijng began constructing a barbed-wire fence a decade ago to prevent migrants from crossing, but the International Rescue Committee estimates thirty to sixty thousand North Koreans refugees live in China, though some non-governmental organizations believe the total to be more than 200,000. (Some experts say significant trafficking risks exist for North Korean girls and women (PDF) who have either escaped to China or been kidnapped.) The majority of refugees first make their way to China before moving to other parts of Asia, including South Korea. However, strengthened border controls under Kim Jong-un have vastly decreased the outflow of refugees.
“Sanctions are not an end in themselves.”—Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi
Some experts say that President Barack Obama's administration’s announced strategic rebalance to Asia—which some Chinese leaders interpreted as containment of Beijing—made China less trusting of U.S. intentions regarding North Korea. One response by Beijing has been to try to counter the U.S.–South Korea alliance by strengthening relations with Seoul. China’s Xi Jinping has met with South Korean President Park Geun-hye six-times, while he has yet to visit or receive the North’s Kim Jong-un.
Experts say China has also been ambivalent on the question of its commitment to defend North Korea in case of military conflict. The 1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance says China is obliged to intervene against unprovoked aggression. But Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the Chinese government has tried to persuade North Korean leaders to revoke the clause that would force Beijing to come to Pyongyang’s defense. Beijing has also said if conflict is initiated by Pyongyang it would not abide by its treaty obligation.
The United States has pushed North Korea to irreversibly give up its nuclear weapons program in return for aid, diplomatic benefits, and normalization of relations. But experts say Washington and Beijing, while sharing the goal of denuclearizing North Korea, have different views on how to reach it. “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,” says the International Crisis Group’s Daniel Pinkston (PDF). “They tend to see public measures as humiliating and counterproductive.” The United States has also tried to pressure China to lean more heavily on North Korea. U.S. presidential executive orders (PDF) and congressional moves impose sanctions on countries, firms, or individuals contributing to North Korea’s ability to finance nuclear and missile development; some measures passed in 2005 targeted North Korean funds in Chinese banks, while more recent ones focus on its mineral and metal export industries, which make up an important part of trade with China. Washington has also been in talks with Seoul to deploy a missile defense system (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, also known as THAAD) to boost regional security, though Beijing strongly condemns its potential deployment and sees it as a threat to Chinese national security.
“There’s an increasing understanding that North Korea does not provide the kind of stable neighbor and element of the neighborhood that China likes.”—former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and Six Party Talk negotiator Christopher R. Hill
There were expectations in the United States at the start of Obama’s first term in 2009 that it might pursue direct talks with North Korea, but Pyongyang’s subsequent rocket tests dimmed such hopes. Washington later settled on an approach that U.S. diplomats described as “strategic patience (PDF).” A 2016 report by the nonpartisan U.S. Congressional Research Service described the policy as designed to pressure the regime in Pyongyang while “insisting that [it] commit to steps toward denuclearization as previously promised in the Six-Party Talks; closely coordinating with treaty allies Japan and South Korea; attempting to convince China to take a tougher line on North Korea; and applying pressure on Pyongyang through arms interdictions and sanctions.” Despite pursuing rounds of dialogue either bilaterally or under the auspices of the Six Party Talks, such efforts have been fruitless.
After international powers reached an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program in July 2015, there was speculation over whether a similar deal could be brokered with North Korea. However, a number of regional experts have pointed to major differences between Pyongyang and Tehran, such as regime characteristics, the status of weapon development, and connections to the world economy as reasons why such a deal could not be replicated. Others claim that the Kim regime’s use of nuclear development to sustain its survival rules out the possibility of an effective deal.
“North Korea is in a category all its own,” writes the Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Pollack. “The North Korean leadership has thus convinced itself (if not others) that its existence as an autonomous state derives directly from its possession of nuclear weapons.” Though China may be unhappy about North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship, analysts say it will avoid moves that could cause a sudden regime collapse.
A Japanese media outlet leaked alleged Chinese military contingency plans in 2014, but Beijing denied the validity of the documents. “It’s clear that the Chinese have enormous leverage over North Korea in many respects,” says Stanford’s Sneider. “But can China actually try to exercise that influence without destabilizing the regime? Probably not.”
For now, policy failure on the peninsula has dampened hopes for a de-escalation of regional tensions. Though Beijing, Seoul, and Washington have voiced apparent solidarity (PDF) for a denuclearized North Korea, differences remain over how best to strip the country of its nuclear threat. But “there’s an increasing understanding that North Korea does not provide the kind of stable neighbor and element of the neighborhood that China likes, ” says former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and Six Party Talk negotiator Christopher R. Hill. Still, “China’s strategic interests in stability and the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula will require Beijing to improve ties with Pyongyang in order to restore its leverage,” adds CFR’s Snyder.
CFR’s Scott Snyder outlines steps to address North Korea’s nuclear problem in this Policy Innovation Memorandum.
Yonhap News Agency provides a chronology of major events in North Korea’s nuclear development.
This 1994 Agreed Framework (PDF) outlines a potential deal between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to dismantle its nuclear program.
Experts discuss China and Japan’s perspectives on North Korea in this CFR Meeting.
The UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea investigated systemic and widespread rights violations in this February 2014 report.
Human Rights Watch details the human rights situation in North Korea in its 2015 World Report.
Expert Sue Mi Terry explores the implications of Korean unification and the future of the U.S.-South Korean alliance in this 2015 CFR report.