Despite Kim Jong Il paying regular visits to China in the final days of his life, under Kim Jong Un relations between Beijing and Pyongyang are widely viewed to have chilled – largely as a result of North Korea’s February 2013 nuclear test, which was conducted in the face of Chinese pressure.
And as relations have thawed, North Korea has increased its outreach to other countries in the region, with Russia and Japan being notable examples.
But although political relations between Beijing and Pyongyang remain cool compared to the Kim Jong Il-era, robust economic relations between the two continue to flourish.
Indeed, with South Korean business more or less locked out of the DPRK and Russians only starting to show any real interest, Chinese business has remained a critical source of revenue for the DPRK government.
What then to make of the future of this once unshakeable relationship? In part two of the NK News 2014 specialist opinion survey, NK News spoke to five specialists from China, South Korea and Russia to find out about the past, present and future of Sino-DPRK relations.
Q1) How would you currently characterize the state of Sino-DPRK relations?
The current North Korea – China relationship is strained. But North Korea isn’t going anywhere. China is not going to push North Korea toward the U.S. side.
In China, there are voices suggesting China and the U.S. work together to destroy North Korea. It is not realistic. There is no way the two countries can work together for this purpose. No one likes North Korea at this point, but what’s China’s choice?
No one likes North Korea at this point, but what’s China’s choice?
Currently we see a gradual deterioration of Sino-DPRK relations, largely initiated by the North Korean side. The new Chinese administration does not like the North Korean regime, and sends clear, if muted, signals about this attitude. For China, North Korea is a trouble-maker whose adventurism occasionally puts China’s long-term interests at risk and whose disregard for the Chinese warnings is remarkable.
Such feelings are reciprocated by the North Korean side: they see China is a hegemonic power, potentially capable of intervening in North Korean domestic politics. They also worry about the scale of the leverage China has potentially acquired by nearly monopolizing North Korea’s foreign trade. This mutual suspicion and dislike have intensified recently, driven by the personalities of the nations’ leaders.
Currently we see a gradual deterioration of Sino-DPRK relations, largely initiated by the North Korean side
Nonetheless, this distrust has little impact on actual relations: for North Korea, China remains the single most important trade partner
and aid donor, and this is not going to change any time soon. China and North Korea need one another. China needs North Korea as a buffer
state, and it needs the area to remain stable. North Korea needs Chinese money. Pyongyang would like to find a substitute, and is actively looking for a substitute right now, but these efforts are unlikely to succeed: neither Russia, nor Japan, nor countries of EU are willing and capable to match China’s level of economic involvement with the North. There is no escape for either party, so I would not expect anything dramatic.
The sides will find some token way to express their mutual displeasure, but the trade and aid will not stop. So while people in Washington believe that China can be bribed/blackmailed into pushing North Korea towards de-nuclearization (or other policy goals people in Washington consider desirable), I think these expectations are groundless.
China-North Korea bilateral ties have sunk to a low point.
To China, the relationship means a “normal relationship between states.” But China and North Korea are not the so-called “alliance” they once were. Still, we are trying to improve the relationship, and hope it could be repaired to a “traditional (and) friendly” one in the near future. Both countries have strong desires to do so. We hope dialogue can help make a difference.
President Xi Jinping , Premier Li Keqiang and the NPC standing committee chairman Zhang Dejiang sent a greeting note for North Korea’s Independence Day on September 9th. You can see China is trying. China wants North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, pursue an economic reform and integrate with the international society. But we also understand that these things can’t happen overnight.
We also understand that these things can’t happen overnight
Beijing does not trust Pyongyang, but needs it strategically.
For instance, Liu Jianchao, Assistant Minister in the Chinese foreign ministry, recently noted in a June 2014 statement that the bilateral relationship between China and North Korea is not an alliance, but rather a normal state-to-state relationship. However, this does not mean that China regards North Korea as simply another neighboring country.
Under the current structure of strategic competition between the U.S. and China, the strategic value of North Korea to China is comparatively high. China does not trust and is frustrated by North Korea. Yet, at the same time, China has no plans to abandon North Korea for the time being.
This does not mean that China regards North Korea as simply another neighboring country
The China–DPRK relationship is at a turning point. North Korea’s nuclear test in 2013 shook the relationship between the two countries, which was hit again by the execution of Jang Song Thaek, a leading figure of the DPRK. From a political point of view, there is no official contact between the top leadership of the two countries now. Xi Jinping ended the tradition of visiting the DPRK before South Korea in every new term of Chinese leadership. The relationship between the DPRK and China heated up after Park Geun-hye’s visit to China.
On the DPRK side, the officials attempted to build contacts with Europe and America directly, bypassing China. The China–DPRK relationship has recently declined to a record low. In terms of economic relations, while the Economic Development Zone on the borders of China and DPRK and the “New Yalu River Road Bridge” project has been suspended, crude oil exports from China to DPRK have also stopped (Editors note: One recent report said the bridge would open in October, though it is not known when)
More recently, DPRK has been sending frequent signals and has shown that it has the intention of reform and openness, but China still holds a tepid attitude. While distrust between the two has been growing, DPRK’s behavior, things like nuclear tests, have also worried China.
What concerns China most is whether it can keep DPRK within a controllable range. However, at present, DPRK appears to look more like overcoming China. Due to historical factors, there has not been much change in practice between the two. It could be said that the relationship between the two countries is still at a subtle point which may still develop toward normalization.
Q2) What’s been the most surprising development in Sino-DPRK relations in the past five years?
The key issue is North Korea’s nuclear program, which has jeopardized China’s national interests.
China tried every possible way to prevent North Korea from conducting the third nuclear test, but Pyongyang simply ignored their efforts. Of course, China is upset. The third-nuclear test is the turning point of the relationship. Kim Jong Il ‘s death, by the end of the day, didn’t affect the bilateral ties that much. But this test has directly affected China.
Policy wise, both sides have been implementing the same policies. Kim Jong Un inherited his father’s policy toward China, and developing nuclear weapon remains as North Korea’s important policy. Kim has tried to visit China. But (such a visit) really depends on Pyongyang’s attitude toward its nuclear program.
China tried every possible way to prevent North Korea from conducting the third nuclear test, but Pyongyang simply ignored their efforts.
Great changes have taken place in North Korea over the last five years, with the change in leader one of the most important events. North Korea’s third nuclear test subsequently infuriated China’s leadership, and senior level exchange between the two countries has been suspended since then. There were over 40 senior level exchanges from 2009 to 2012, but the number during 2013 and 2014 dropped to just two.
Kim Jong Un did not visit Beijing, nor did senior Chinese officials visit North Korea. These changes, including the fishing boat incident, reveal an unexpected cooling down of the political relations between China and North Korea.
There were over 40 senior level exchanges from 2009 to 2012, but the number during 2013 and 2014 dropped to just two.
Economic relations and trade between the two countries are losing vitality as well.
China used to export 500 thousand tons of crude oil to North Korea every year, but the statistics from General Administration of Customs of the People’s Republic of China show that the export from China to North Korea has remained at zero for seven consecutive months since January 2014, which has rarely been seen. Analysts points out that this may be an attempt by China to put pressure on North Korea’s leadership in order to force Pyongyang to stop its nuclear programme and return to the Six-Party Talks. (Editors Note: Yonhap reporting of data is likely incorrect).
The third nuclear test was the turning point of the two nation’s bilateral ties. Jang Song Thaek’s purge was another incident that hurt the relationship. What Kim Jong Un did is actually more cruel than what his grandfather did to his political enemies. Jang had been a key figure in North Korea’s engagement with China. What happened to him really surprised Beijing.
In the meantime, China has worried about losing North Korea to the U.S. like as has happened in Burma. It has been difficult for China on maintaining the relationship. Beijing doesn’t have that many options when it comes to North Korea.
Jang had been a key figure in North Korea’s engagement with China. What happened to him really surprised Beijing.
I was surprised by the level of thinly veiled hostility the North Korean government has been willing to display in regard to China since Kim Jong Un’s succession.
While they do have reasons to be afraid of China, I still suspect that the recent increase in hostile gestures largely reflects Kim Jong Un’s own ideas, and his ardent wish to get away from China, to switch to what might appear to him as more respectable sponsors/partners, preferably in Europe. The attacks of China in the days of Jang Song Taek’s purge or the recent incident when the congratulatory message from Chairman Xi Jinping appeared on the third page of Rodong Sinmun – all these actions are completely unnecessary.
Objectively, China is the only country which might be able and willing to assist the North Korean regime (of course, it is driven by its own national interests, but does this really matter?). I think, if Kim Jong Un wants to keep power, China is his only ally. So, I am surprised by these minor attacks which now seemingly happen once every few months.
I think, if Kim Jong Un wants to keep power, China is his only ally. So, I am surprised by these minor attacks which now seemingly happen once every few months.
China’s policy position toward North Korea has changed from one of pampering and protection to adjustment within its broader engagement policy.
After North Korea’s second nuclear test in 2009, the Chinese government decided to engage North Korea. And after Wen Jiabao visited North Korea in October 2009, China significantly increased its aid and economic assistance. In addition, it offered important political and diplomatic support to the Kim Jong Un regime following the death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011.
However, under President Xi Jinping, China has attempted to readjust its relationship with North Korea and made clear that North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile tests have seriously harmed China’s security interests in Northeast Asia, and that China will not accept it any longer. At the same time, Beijing has promoted its relationship with Seoul, which has become another source of pressure on Pyongyang to change.
China’s policy position toward North Korea has changed from one of pampering and protection to adjustment within its broader engagement policy.
Q3) What do you judge will be the greatest hurdle to warming Sino-DPRK relations in the next five years?
Relations might warm if Kim Jong Un comes to admit the uncomfortable fact: China is bossy and arrogant, but it is the only major country which is willing to support him consistently. If he comes to realize it, relations will improve.
It will help if he makes some minor concessions to Chinese interests and shows some restraint when it comes to the nuclear and long-range missile tests (not stopping the nuclear program, but merely choosing more appropriate timing for another nuclear test).
If the North Korean government refrains from unnecessary provocations, like those mentioned above, it will help even more. Such changes are not impossible, but I suspect that Kim Jong Un and his advisers are a bit too arrogant and insecure to make the necessary concessions.
Relations might warm if Kim Jong Un comes to admit the uncomfortable fact: China is bossy and arrogant, but it is the only major country which is willing to support him consistently.
North Korea’s continued development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, as well as the unwillingness of the Kim Jong Un regime to adopt economic reforms in earnest.
In recent years, North Korea’s military provocations, including nuclear and long-range missile tests, have been the main rationale for the United States to enhance its security cooperation with its allies in Northeast Asia. The increasing U.S. military/security influence in the region has definitely harmed China’s national defense and regional strategic interests.
Therefore, the Chinese government has seriously warned North Korea and asked it not to conduct anymore military provocations. However, Pyongyang cannot accept the denuclearization of North Korea given that it would fatally undermine the Kim regime. On the other hand, the Chinese government has recommended North Korea to adopt Chinese style economic reform and open-up policy. However, North Korea has regarded that it can be another fatal threat to the Kim’s family regime.
Pyongyang cannot accept the denuclearization of North Korea given that it would fatally undermine the Kim regime.
It is obvious that North Korea won’t abandon the nuclear program overnight. The first step would be Pyongyang’s returning to the six party talks, negotiating how North Korea could abandon the program. On the other hand, the fourth nuclear test would damage the ties terribly.
Russia and a Japan are both trying to improve their ties with North Korea. But neither of them can go as far as China. To Russia, its priority is Ukraine, the US and Europe. North Korea isn’t that significant to Russians. I don’t see Russia fully supporting North Korea.
It is possible that Pyongyang tries to improve its ties with Japan to pressure China. But China doesn’t worry about it at all. How far can Japan go?
Structure wise, the two relationships’ improvement won’t change anything fundamentally.
Relations will probably remain deadlocked for everyone. China isn’t happy to see Japan and Russia’s efforts to improve ties with Pyongyang.
Japan and North Korea have both showed eagerness to improve ties, but Washington is blocking them and Pyongyang seems to have difficulties revising Kim Jong Il’s conclusion on the abductee issue. Abe probably won’t dare to go to Pyongyang without Washington’s endorsement.
On the other hand, South Korean President Park Geun-hye has been too stubborn. If she hangs out an olive branch to Pyongyang, the whole geopolitical landscape would change rapidly. But it is unlikely.
If Pyongyang conducted a fourth nuclear test, then China-North Korea ties would completely collapse. The U.S., Japan and South Korea would be happy to see that. Once that happens, Washington would hang out the olive branch to Pyongyang.
If Pyongyang conducted a fourth nuclear test, then China-North Korea ties would completely collapse.
By comparing the relationship with what happened among China, the Soviet Union and the U.S., you’d see how Pyongyang could walk away from China should it reach any substantial agreement with Japan or the U.S. (China walked away from the Soviet Union after it reached an agreement with the U.S.)
The problem is the U.S. -China ties will become jeopardized should Pyongyang joins the U.S. team.
As a “non-typical small state,” North Korea is well aware of its significance in geopolitics, taking advantage of both China and the United States.
Judging by its reform progress and its attitude toward the outside world, North Korea may undergo tremendous changes in the next five years. With the country’s growing confidence in its nuclear capability, Sino–North Korea relations will turn subtle, and the nuclear issue will become the most challenging impediment to improving relations.
In the near future, the situation in the Korean Peninsula will become more intense and the likelihood of military conflict between North Korea and the United States, Japan and South Korea will rise. The North Korea issue will also influence Sino–America, Sino–Japan, Sino–South Korea relations and other bilateral and multilateral relations. North Korea’s refusal to abandon its nuclear programme will only worsen its military confrontation with America, Japan and South Korea and draw the Peninsula further away from peace and stability.
It will neither benefit North Korea’s economic development nor improve its people’s livelihood. For China, losing its right of discourse on the issue will undermine its negotiation power with America, Japan and South Korea, which may bring about the risk of sharing more responsibilities.
Andrei Lankov – A professor and historian at Kookmin University in Seoul, who studied as a foreign student in Pyongyang during the early 1980s
Cui Yingjiu – A retired professor at Peking University, who studied at Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung university in the 1960s
Ka-ho YU – Lecturer, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Research Fellow, European Centre For Energy and Resource Security, PhD Candidate, Department of European and International Studies, King’s College London
Kim Han-kwon – is a Research Fellow and the Director of the Center for Regional Studies at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. Previously, he was a Visiting Professor in the Center for Chinese Studies at the Korean
Lu Chao – a specialist of Korean Peninsula studies at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences
Main picture: Eric Lafforgue
Additional Reporting: Phebe Kim
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