China plays a central part in determining North Korea’s future, as it is a key international backer and ally as well as its largest trading partner and source of food and energy. However, China’s relationship with North Korea is complex and its future ambiguous, particularly in light of the recent leadership change in North Korea. There are a number of potential scenarios which could seriously upset the already unstable bilateral relationship.
Overall, the Sino-DPRK relationship is characterised by historical and ideological ties as well as official declarations of friendship. During the past year there was frequent high-level communication between the two states, though recent years have seen increasingly complicated bilateral relations. North Korea’s nuclear tests have strained its neighbour’s patience and China has played a key role in international negotiations over denuclearising the peninsula. The North Korean succession is likely to be accompanied by further uncertainty in bilateral relations, particularly this coming year with a new incoming Chinese leadership.
China’s desire for a stable North Korea is its central concern in dealing with Pyongyang. While encouraging economic reform, the stability of the North Korean regime is high on the Chinese agenda for a number of reasons, not least border security. Were the North Korean regime to fall, China’s North-Eastern border would be flooded by refugees, affecting economic development and stability in North-Eastern Chinese provinces. Moreover, failure of the regime leaves potential for reunification with South Korea, a strong U.S. ally, leaving China without a buffer zone and a potential for U.S. troops near China’s border. This issue is particularly important considering the American military presence in Japan. So in this sense China needs to continue to support Kim-Jong Un’s regime for political reasons.
This desire for stability in the peninsula has been reaffirmed by President Hu on a number of occasions in the past weeks, including during talks with the Japanese and South Korean leaderships, accompanied by official calls for caution in dealing with the new situation. While tied to defend North Korea through their 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, the wording of the treaty leaves some ambiguity over how China would react in practice were it called to defend its increasingly problematic neighbor.
Several sources suggest China’s president Hu pushing Kim Jong Il for market reforms, and during Kim Jong Il’s multiple official visits to China in 2011 he was taken to the most economically developed regions and cities of China. Moreover, the levels of Chinese economic investment in North Korea makes it difficult for the regime to ignore China. It will be particularly interesting to see how Kim Jong Un deals with similar pressure from a powerful neighbour. North Korea has never before been so dependent on a single ally, having previously juggled first China and the USSR for decades, and then ROK and China for the majority of the 2000s. This current dependency on China could make the regime more persuadable to a new U.S./ROK government looking for engagement, and may open the door for another round of the six party talks.
China is likely to view any such rapprochement with suspicion, like it does any developments which could involve increased U.S. power in the region. It would be unlikely to react strongly in public, however, and in the longer term would most likely even accept reunification of the two Koreas if done well and its own border and trade guaranteed as before.
Moreover, Chinese style economic reform in North Korea may be difficult, if not impossible. DPRK officially aims to become a ‘great and prosperous’ nation in 2012, which could signal a time for closer ties with China if the focus shifts from the military to the economy. However, because of the central role of the military, any change in focus will be limited. This may further complicate relations with China. As Kim Jong Nam recently stated, ‘Without reforms, North Korea will collapse, and when such changes take place, the regime will collapse’.
However, because of the inevitable implications of a possible collapse, China is likely to continue to support the North Korean regime for now. It will be very interesting to see what kind of strategic partner Kim Jong Un will become, in light of the unpredictability of his father and predecessor. His lack of experience and age could turn out to be a positive for China-DPRK relations, as he may be more liable to seek external support to maintain power in North Korea. He may continue his father’s policies due to lack of experience or lash out to establish power.
Any economic change without Chinese approval would cause serious problems in the bilateral relationship. This includes any changes DPRK might make to business rules in areas with many Chinese enterprises, in particular in the border areas. However, without another international backer or ally such behavior from North Korea would be irrational, which China is well aware of.
More likely then, if Kim Jong Un chooses a lashing out approach to establishing power, would be further nuclear tests. This could seriously complicate Sino-DPRK relations as China has supported denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. Moreover, China’s only public criticism of North Korea occurred after its first nuclear tests in 2006. China would be unlikely to take unilateral action even if further nuclear tests were carried out however, and would in that case most likely work with the other parties in the six party talks (U.S., Russia, Japan and ROK) to ensure North Korean disarmament.
If North Korea were to collapse, or significantly weaken, some have suggested that China may ‘prop up’ the country, effectively making it a dependent satellite state. However, this is highly unlikely as China has seen the difficulty Western states have had with similar enterprises. Moreover, it exaggerates Chinese attachment to DPRK and would directly contradict China’s official policy of non-intervention in other states internal affairs. It would be more likely to deal with a collapsed or significantly weakened North Korea in conjunction with the international community or within six party group.
Overall, the future of Sino-DPRK relations is uncertain, and depends on the approach Kim Jong Un takes as he consolidates power. While China’s official support for North Korea remains strong, in reality it has its own strategic interest at heart and would be unlikely to support a North Korea that goes too far down the nuclear route and does not listen to its powerful ally.