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What are the costs and benefits of China's relationship with North Korea?

Question submitted by Garrett Smith, from Stanford University, June 12, 2013

Answered by: Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy


Chinese officials see stability on the Korean peninsula under the Korean Armistice as a component that has enabled China's growth for over three decades. Despite a growing difference between the economic systems of China and North Korea, China's communist party leadership feels an affinity with North Korea because its government, like China's, pursues one-party leadership under a socialist banner.

China also views North Korea as a "strategic buffer" against the prospect of hostile neighbors, such as a unified Korea allied with the United States. The same prospect motivated the Chinese People's Volunteer Army to intervene against U.S.-led allied forces in 1950.

Some Chinese analysts consider the relationship with North Korea to be increasingly expensive to China and find the "strategic buffer" thinking to be outdated. China is the almost exclusive supplier of North Korea's energy and food, including regular supplies of grain and long-term supplies of oil. The amount of Chinese assistance to North Korea is not published, but anecdotal reports say North Korea's share of China's overall development assistance has risen from one-third of the budget to over half in recent years, at a time when China's commitments to overseas development have been rising.

Finally, Chinese scholars debate whether China's security treaty with North Korea is an asset. Following the sinking of a South Korean vessel and the shelling of a South Korean island in 2010, the Chinese government reportedly informed North Korea that China would not support it if it provokes war with its neighbors. In a sign of possible change, China's new President Xi Jinping met with North Korea's top general Choe Ryong-hae last month and placed denuclearization ahead of stability as China's top policy priority toward North Korea.