The China-North Korea Relationship
Backgrounder

The China-North Korea Relationship

China is North Korea’s biggest trade partner and arguably has the most leverage over Kim Jong Un’s regime. Analysts say Beijing’s policies are focused on stability, though it signals ambivalence about its neighbor’s nuclear arms advances.
Ju Peng/Getty Images
Summary
  • China is North Korea’s most important aid and trade partner. The two countries also share a mutual defense treaty, which they renewed in 2021.
  • China’s previous support for UN sanctions against North Korea caused a rift in the relationship. but Beijing and Pyongyang have made efforts to forge closer ties amid rising U.S.-China competition.
  • China has kept a distance as North Korea supports Russia’s war in Ukraine and improves its military cooperation with Moscow, but Beijing continues to prioritize regional stability.

Introduction

For more than a decade, China has provided trade and aid to help sustain Kim Jong Un’s regime, and it has opposed harsh international sanctions on North Korea in the hope of avoiding regime collapse and a refugee influx across the 870-mile (1400-kilometer) China-North Korea border.

More From Our Experts

The year 2024 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of their bilateral relationship. Kim has declared it the “year of DPRK-China friendship,” and Xi has called the year an opportunity to uphold “long-standing friendship, deepen strategic mutual trust, [and] enhance exchanges and cooperation.” But Pyongyang’s nuclear tests and missile launches still loom over its relationship with Beijing, which has advocated for the resumption of the Six Party Talks, the multilateral framework aimed at denuclearizing North Korea. Pyongyang’s diplomatic push with the United States and South Korea in 2018 and 2019 appears to have spurred improved relations between Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Meanwhile, experts say, North Korea’s deepening military cooperation with Russia in the latter’s war on Ukraine has raised concern in China over regional stability. 

What is the history of China and North Korea’s relationship? 

More on:

China

North Korea

Nuclear Weapons

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Kim Jong-un

China’s support for North Korea dates back to the Korean War (1950–53), when China’s 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 1948–94), Kim Jong Il (roughly 1994–2011), and Kim Jong Un. In 2021, the two countries renewed the 1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance for another twenty years.

Despite its historical ties to the North, China’s reforms and growing economic links with South Korea became a source of friction in the late 1980s. Pyongyang viewed Beijing’s decision to normalize diplomatic relations with Seoul in 1992 as a betrayal, while China greeted Kim Jong Il’s 1994 succession of Kim Il Sung with caution. Strains in the relationship further deepened when Pyongyang tested a nuclear weapon in 2006 and Beijing backed UN Security Council Resolution 1718, which imposed sanctions on Pyongyang. With this resolution and subsequent ones, Beijing signaled a shift in tone, from diplomatic support to punishment. 

In 2017, China denounced a North Korean missile test launch from earlier that year and called for a cessation of actions that increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula. But the announcement of a U.S.-North Korea summit between U.S President Donald Trump and Kim catalyzed Beijing to restore ties [PDF] with Pyongyang to maintain its regional influence. This produced five summits between Xi and Kim in less than one year.

More From Our Experts

As relations have improved, China’s punitive steps against the North have eased. While Beijing has backed UN resolutions against Pyongyang, in some cases, it has withheld support until they were watered down. Additionally, Western officials and experts have doubted China’s commitment to implementing even limited trade restrictions, and they periodically accused the country of circumventing sanctions prior to 2020, when the UN Security Council consensus upholding sanctions against North Korea broke down. Encouraged by the restoration of a strategic China-North Korea relationship, Pyongyang vocally supports a “One China policy” in Taiwan and Hong Kong and defends Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang as a “remarkable achievement” of human rights.

What’s the status of their economic relationship? 

China accounts for more than 90 percent of North Korea’s total imports and exports, despite sanctions and a setback from the COVID-19 pandemic. Bilateral trade increased tenfold between 2000 and 2015, peaking in 2014 at $6.86 billion, according to figures from the Seoul-based Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA). But UN Security Council sanctions in 2016, which Beijing voted for, reversed the growth of North Korea’s trade.

More on:

China

North Korea

Nuclear Weapons

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Kim Jong-un

Chinese trade data showed that Beijing upheld some of the UN sanctions against Pyongyang through 2018, including the suspension of fuel sales and restrictions on financial activities. Yet, the flow of non-sanctioned goods remained steady; along the China-North Korea border, informal trade continued for items such as diesel fuel, seafood, silkworms, and cell phones. 

In January 2020, as COVID-19 spread through China, North Korea shut its borders and halted practically all trade, resulting in a 4.5 percent decline in North Korea’s economy that year. Trade with China resumed in 2022, and by the end of 2023, bilateral trade had recovered to 82 percent of 2019 prepandemic levels, totaling $2.3 billion. North Korea is not a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Beijing provides aid directly to Pyongyang, primarily in food and energy assistance. North Korea, has repeatedly faced extensive droughts and severe flooding, which seriously damage harvests, threatening the food supply. Famine in the 1990s killed between six hundred thousand and one million people. Today, UN agencies estimate that more than 40 percent of the population, or almost eleven million people, is undernourished and food insecure. Food insecurity and related health concerns were further exacerbated by severe flooding caused by typhoons in 2020 and North Korea’s self-imposed isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2022, during the height of the pandemic and when cases were surging in North Korea, Kim refused vaccine offers from the UN-backed COVAX initiative and from China. But North Korea rolled out vaccines later that year, and analysts speculated that China was likely the supplier. 

China has also expanded physical links to North Korea. In 2015, it opened a bulk-cargo and container shipping route to boost North Korea’s export of coal to China, and it established a high-speed rail route connecting the Chinese border city of Dandong to Shenyang, the provincial capital of China’s northeastern Liaoning Province. The same year, the Guomenwan border trade zone opened in Dandong. Intended to bolster bilateral economic exchanges, the zone is modeled after the Rason economic zone and the Sinujiu special administrative zone established in North Korea in the early 1990s and 2002, respectively.

What are China’s priorities?

China regards stability on the Korean Peninsula as its primary interest in the bilateral relationship. Its support for North Korea ensures a buffer between China and the democratic South, which is home to around 28,500 U.S. troops and marines. “While the Chinese certainly would prefer that North Korea not have nuclear weapons, their greatest fear is regime collapse,” Dartmouth College Associate Professor Jennifer Lind wrote in 2017.

While the Chinese certainly would prefer that North Korea not have nuclear weapons, their greatest fear is regime collapse.
Jennifer Lind, Dartmouth College

The specter of hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees flooding into China has been a worry for Beijing. China’s repatriation of North Koreans escaping across the border has consistently triggered condemnation from human rights groups, and in 2006, Beijing constructed a barbed-wire fence  to prevent migrants from crossing. The majority of North Korean refugees first make their way to China before moving to other parts of Asia, including South Korea. However, tightened border controls under Kim Jong Un have drastically decreased the outflow of refugees.

Though Beijing favors a stable relationship with Pyongyang, it has attempted to balance ties with Seoul. China was South Korea’s top trading partner in 2022 and the destination for over 20 percent of the South’s exports. Meanwhile, South Korea ranked fourth among China’s trade partners.

Do the two countries have a defense alliance?

Experts say China has been ambivalent about its commitment to defend North Korea in case of military conflict. The 1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty says China is obliged to intervene against unprovoked aggression. But this defense agreement has never been invoked. The Chinese government tried to persuade North Korean leaders to revoke the clause that would force Beijing to come to Pyongyang’s defense, said Bonnie Glaser, the managing director of the Indo-Pacific program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, at a 2014 CFR event. It has also intimated that if Pyongyang initiates conflict, it would not abide by its treaty obligation and instead stay neutral.

Kim and Xi did not meet for years but appeared to strike a more amicable chord in March 2018, when the two held a secretive meeting in Beijing that marked the North Korean leader’s first trip abroad since coming to power in 2011. Xi heralded the tradition of friendship between China and North Korea, and Kim reiterated a commitment to denuclearization and a willingness to hold a dialogue with the United States. The two leaders have met four more times over the course of the year, and during a 2019 meeting, Xi was welcomed to Pyongyang, marking the first time a Chinese leader visited North Korea since 2005. (Xi previously traveled there in 2008, as vice president.) However, no major agreements to improve bilateral relations emerged.

In November 2023, North and South Korea abandoned their 2018 Comprehensive Military Agreement, which laid out measures to diffuse military tensions along the countries’ shared border. Since then, North Korea has been escalating its military testing and defenses, and China’s reaction has been cautious. While Pyongyang’s low-level aggression is nothing new, Kim’s policy shift to disregard efforts toward unification with the South as “remnants of the past” could be provocation for war, writes Sue Mi Terry, former director of the Asia Program and the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Wilson Center, in Foreign Affairs. Beijing has expressed concern about U.S. sanctions imposed on North Korea and urged “all sides” to exercise restraint following Pyongyang’s various ballistic missile launches. At the same time, China and Russia have consistently vetoed UN sanctions responding to the missile test that would have imposed additional restrictions on gas imports.

How has the United States influenced the China-North Korea relationship? 

The United States has pushed North Korea to irreversibly give up its nuclear weapons program in return for aid, trade, diplomatic benefits, and normalized relations. But experts say Washington and Beijing, while sharing the goal of denuclearizing North Korea, have different views on how to reach it.

Washington has tried to pressure Beijing to lean more heavily on Pyongyang and leverage China’s economic influence over the North by imposing sanctions on firms or individuals who contribute to Pyongyang’s ability to finance nuclear and missile development. Some of the U.S. sanctions target North Korea’s funds in Chinese banks, while others focus on its mineral and metal export industries, which make up an important part of trade with China. Other U.S. sanctions have targeted Chinese businesses and individuals believed to be facilitating North Korean financing in violation of sanctions. 

The past decade of escalating U.S.-China tensions over trade, Taiwan, human rights, and regional influence in the Asia-Pacific has weakened the two countries’ collaboration in the UN Security Council on tackling North Korea’s nuclear developments. 

Meanwhile, the Joe Biden administration has failed to initiate dialogue with North Korea despite extending a series of standing offers to engage with North Korea diplomatically. Unsuccessful attempts at dialogue, along with increased U.S.-China competition and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have led to greater cooperation among Beijing, Moscow, and Pyongyang, writes Terry. “As a result, Russia and China now refuse to work with the United States to impose or enforce sanctions on North Korea.”

Recommended Resources

This September 2022 report by the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission  details the modern history of the China-North Korea alliance, from 1992 to present.

CFR Senior Fellow Scott A. Snyder and San Francisco State University Assistant Professor See-Won Byun examine recent developments between China and North and South Korea in this January 2022 article for Comparative Connections. 

In Foreign Affairs, experts Sungmin Cho, of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, and Oriana Skylar Mastro, of Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, argue that North Korea’s military advancements could benefit China. 

This 2023 report that CFR’s Synder wrote for the Korea Economic Institute of America outlines the evolution in perceptions of the trilateral relationship involving the United States, South Korea, and North Korea.

The New York Times profiles a woman who built a commercial empire on trade between China and North Korea.

This 2016 CFR Independent Task Force report, A Sharper Choice on North Korea, argues that China’s policy toward its neighbor will critically affect the fate of Asia.

Lindsay Maizland contributed to this Backgrounder. Michael Bricknell created the map.

For media inquiries on this topic, please reach out to [email protected].
Close

Top Stories on CFR

United Kingdom

CFR experts discuss the results of presidential elections in France and the United Kingdom, as well as what to expect from the 2024 NATO Summit in Washington, DC.

Election 2024

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This Week: Republicans are gathering in Milwaukee next week optimistic about their chances in November.  

France

The surprising shift to the left in snap elections has broken the far-right populist fever in France, but now a crisis of governability looms in Paris that has further weakened President Emmanuel Macron’s grip on power.