China and North Korea historically have had a close relationship—as close as “lips and teeth,” as leaders in both countries were fond of saying during the Cold War. To this day, China is North Korea’s largest trading partner, energy provider, and source of aid. Despite these close ties, however, the past eighteen months have revealed fissures in the relationship. Since coming to power, neither Chinese President Xi Jinping nor North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has made an official state visit to see his counterpart; Xi even chose to visit South Korea first. In Pyongyang, the execution of Jang Song-taek, a major proponent of engagement with China, caused consternation in Beijing.
Even as the political relationship appears to have cooled, however, the two countries’ vibrant border trade continues. In the latest installment of the Asia Unbound podcast series, I speak with Northeast Asia expert James Reilly, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, about China’s commercial trade and investment with North Korea. The author of two studies on China’s economic engagement in North Korea, Reilly draws on interviews he conducted on the border between the two countries to deepen our understanding of their opaque economic relations. Listen to this podcast for a discussion of how Reilly conducts his on-the-ground research on China-North Korea border trade, the significance of leadership changes in both Beijing and Pyongyang, and how Beijing’s engagement with Pyongyang is leading to a more market-oriented and externally engaged society.