The relationship between China and North Korea has oscillated considerably since 2015. In Beijing, attitudes on North Korea shifted from cautiously optimistic in 2015 to alarmed in 2016, visibly exasperated in 2017 and finally increasingly confident in 2018.

During that time, a considerable amount of new information about Sino-DPRK relations under Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping has come to light, and the bilateral relationship has been tested in unprecedented ways.

References to China and North Korea as close as “lips and teeth” and prideful recollections of the “war to resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea” abound in Chinese media.

However, the relationship between China and North Korea is much more complex than cursory observation suggests. The economic and regional forces pushing both sides together are the strongest they have been since the Korean War, but deep and possibly unresolvable political rifts underlie the Yalu and Tumen Rivers which divide both nations.

The North Korean buffer as a Cold War relic

Sino-DPRK relations reached a trough in 2017. Nuclear tests in North Korea in 2016 and 2017 caused earthquakes which frightened residents of Northeast China and led Chinese scientists to question the stability of Mount Mantap, the site of the tests. The possibility that a nuclear test would inadvertently cause an eruption of Mount Paektu was even raised in Chinese media in 2017.

China surprised many observers by supporting several rounds of U.N. sanctions against North Korea in response to its 2016 and 2017 nuclear tests. This became a severe impediment to Sino-DPRK relations.

At the time, North Korea’s belligerence was, in China’s perception, playing into the strategy of the U.S. to militarize South Korea, culminating in the deployment of THAAD in 2016. Before that, China enjoyed strong relations with South Korea (which have since resumed).

Chinese observers noted that U.S. and South Korean weapons have advanced enough to more easily overcome the gap between the DMZ and Yalu River if circumstances conspired. Furthermore, there was no assurance that North Korea would not turn its nuclear weapons against China someday.

As a result, in 2017, some Chinese observers discarded the importance of North Korea as a strategic buffer and called on Beijing to rethink its North Korea strategy.

In many ways, those observers are correct—North Korea is less useful as a military buffer than it was during the Cold War. However, North Korea’s significance to China has evolved, and now the country is perceived by Beijing as key to the economic revival of Northeast China.

2018 saw three summits between China and North Korea | Photo: KCNA

Kim turns the tables

March 2018 brought a flurry of Sino-DPRK bilateral diplomacy on the heels of North Korean engagement with South Korea and the U.S. It became clear to the world that, despite their differences, China was unwilling to allow North Korea to slide too far from its orbit, and North Korea still appreciated China’s economic and geopolitical strength.

The precise outcomes of the multiple summit meetings held between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un in 2018 have not been disclosed. However, based on the subsequent developments, it appears likely that North Korea agreed to open its economy to cooperation with China and halt tests of nuclear devices and long-range missiles in exchange for loosening of sanctions enforcement and a renewed campaign for lifting of international sanctions against North Korea on the part of Beijing.

The optimistic outlook: reform and opening

Beijing has long hoped for economic reform in North Korea along the lines of China’s experience. Pyongyang’s recent apparent interest in this path dovetails perfectly with China’s 2018 commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the launch of its Reform and Opening policies.

China hopes North Korea will follow in its footsteps, as this would provide stability along the border shared by both countries, a powerful demonstration to the world of the applicability of China’s economic model, and a catalyst for the economic renewal of Northeast China, where development has lagged that of other parts of the country in recent decades.

However, this is hardly the first time China has attempted to jump start economic growth in North Korea, and the region of North Korea bordering China is littered with stalled Chinese investments. If Kim’s outreach to China and the world in 2018 has been enabled by his consolidation of power in Pyongyang, Sino-DPRK economic projects may find political backing and success.

If North Korea were to successfully pursue China’s path of development, Northeast Asia would become an economic powerhouse, even if North Korea’s growth did not match that of China. Similarly, if Pyongyang cultivated a stronger relationship with Beijing in the process, their bilateral relationship could become unbreakable.

The pessimistic outlook:  political fault lines

2018 has seen a dramatic turnaround in Sino-DPRK relations. Given the history of the bilateral relationship, China’s growing regional leadership and North Korea’s apparent interest in engaging with the world, on the surface the two sides seem perfectly positioned to make their alliance stronger than ever.

In reality the relationship between China and North Korea may never progress past an uneasy alliance of convenience. In 2017, reports surfaced suggesting that Chinese officials had met with Jang Song Thaek in August 2012, three months before Xi Jinping was sworn in as China’s president, as part of a planned coup against Kim Jong Un. Kim Jong Nam, Jong Un’s half brother who was more friendly toward China, was to be installed in Jong Un’s place.

Kim’s later discovery of the plan contributed to his decision to have Jang executed in December 2013, which caused a deep chill in China-North Korea relations. The February 2017 assassination of Jong Nam, who had long lived in China, also undermined Sino-DPRK political relations.

Tensions between China and North Korea are not unique to the Kim Jong Un era. Kim Il Sung was reportedly enraged by China’s decision to open relations with South Korea in 1992. Mandarin language sources reported in 2017 that North Korean officials were recycling Kim’s 1992 grievances against China as a result of China’s support for UN sanctions in response to North Korea’s nuclear tests.

Despite a shared political ideology and cultural similarities, historians have documented North Korea’s reluctance to align too closely with Beijing even at the height of the Cold War.

In addition, regardless of high-level efforts in 2018 by Chinese officials to smooth over relations with North Korea and promote grassroots exchange, a gulf in mutual perception by citizens of both nations lingers.

Chinese netizens have long poked fun at “fatty Kim the third” on social media platforms. Condemnation of North Korea’s bellicose nuclear and missile tests resounded with a high degree of uniformity on social media in 2016 and 2017.

Even as North Korea has improved relations with China and the rest of the world in 2018, some Chinese observers maintain wariness on social media, wondering if North Korea is going to sell out China in its diplomatic interactions with others or if Kim is simply making a pretense at dismantling the country’s nuclear program.

Sources suggest that distrust of China abounded among North Koreans in 2017. At the time, China received the brunt of the blame for international sanctions against North Korea due to critical editorials in North Korean state media and unflattering pronouncements by North Korean officials. It is unclear whether this had any lasting impact on perceptions of China among North Koreans.

newspaper photo

A string of negative state media editorials on China reflected Pyongyang’s displeasure with Beijing| Photo by nknews_hq

Uncertainty and loss of face

In 2018, Beijing regained some valuable leverage over Pyongyang, and North Korea continues to hold considerable potential as a partner. However, its strategic value to China is undermined by its strongly negative image in the international community and its hesitance to adopt reforms which would benefit both countries. In material terms, China provides much more to North Korea than it receives in return.

However, from Beijing’s perspective, the most difficult aspect of its relationship with North Korea is the uncertainty. Not only does China have limited influence over North Korea, the events of 2016 and 2017 demonstrated that Beijing sometimes knows as little about what is happening in Pyongyang as anyone else.

While China will blame the U.S. for any North Korean reversion to nuclear tests, it would likely support new U.N. sanctions due to the risk such tests pose for China. In addition, the tests in 2016 and 2017 apparently caught China by surprise and undermined Beijing’s image both domestically and internationally, further compelling China to support U.N. sanctions.

China prefers to maintain stability and face in its foreign relations. North Korea’s willingness to make overtures to South Korea and the U.S. in early 2018 apparently without consulting China and allow its officials to publicly criticize China, in addition to the executions of pro-China officials and nuclear tests, is anathema to Beijing.

However, unpredictability strengthens North Korea’s international stance and Kim’s style is not to mince words. This contrast will continue to act as a drag on Sino-DPRK relations.

Possible outcomes

Given the geopolitical tectonics in Northeast Asia and current trends in North Korea’s relationships with regional powers, there are three possible trajectories for Sino-DPRK relations in the coming years:

  • Embrace – Robust political and economic interdependence develops between North Korea and China. North Korea abandons (or at least suspends) development of nuclear weapons. China successfully lifts international sanctions against North Korea and spearheads international investment in North Korea;
  • Balance – Sino-DPRK relations remain positive but North Korea balances its reliance on Beijing with engagement with Russia, South Korea, the U.S., and other partners. Sino-U.S. tensions and regional frictions continue to complicate China’s efforts to fully engage with North Korea;
  • Retrenchment – North Korea’s diplomatic opening of 2018 does not last and is not accompanied by economic engagement. Facing unabated international pressure and not getting everything it wants from China, North Korea resumes nuclear testing and provocative actions. More international sanctions and a chill in Sino-DPRK relations follow.

China earnestly hopes for the first outcome. Denuclearization of North Korea (or at least a cessation of its efforts to build nuclear devices) is important to China, as is having a stable and successful partner along its Northeast border which can support its economic revival and link China more closely to the Korean peninsula and Japan through its One Belt, One Road and regional infrastructure initiatives.

China is maintaining vigilance in case the lattermost possibility materializes. It has shifted military forces to its Northeast in recent years and enhanced the security of its border with North Korea. The latter is an effort to stem the flow of migrants fleeing across the Yalu and Tumen Rivers but the former represents readiness for conflict, however unlikely, on the Korean peninsula.

In addition, China has consistently laid all blame for the current stall in U.S.-DPRK rapprochement at the feet of the U.S., which Beijing accuses of having given nothing in exchange for the many concessions (namely its vague commitment to denuclearize, suspension of nuclear tests and closure of the Sohae satellite launch facility) made by North Korea in their current negotiations.

However, of the three possible outcomes, the second is most likely at present. North Korea continues to rely on China and finds value in its partnership with Beijing, but history suggests that North Korea is reluctant to draw too close to China (or any one other power) and maintain a balance in the interest of maximizing its own benefits. Political rifts and mutual negative perceptions will undermine the powerful potential of an ironclad Sino-DPRK relationship.

North Korea paid tribute to the Chinese leader at a recent mass games performance | Photo: NK News


China has long sought to lead the international community and the DPRK in negotiating a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue. In 2015, Chinese officials often reiterated the importance of restarting the Six-Party Talks, with the likely objective of economic engagement to follow a solution to DPRK nuclear development.

China now seeks to be North Korea’s lead partner in opening to economic engagement with the world as well as steer North Korea’s bilateral interactions with South Korea, the U.S. and others. As global attention to the North’s mothballed nuclear program fades, China hopes there will be no need for a formal process to curtail DPRK nuclear development and focus can shift to the North’s economy.

Despite concern on the part of the U.S., enhanced DPRK cooperation with China would deliver significant economic benefits to the North Korean people and further stabilize the region.

Though human rights violations would continue in North Korea and the U.S. would have a harder time gaining a geopolitical foothold there, these are unlikely to change in the short term regardless of developments in Sino-DPRK relations.

China offers much to North Korea. It has political, economic and military power not nearly matched by North Korea’s few other partners. In addition, China has demonstrated willingness to give North Korea more than it receives in return, as well as flexibility when North Korea takes provocative actions or engages with Beijing’s rivals in China’s absence, as was the case in March 2018.

However, no matter the potential upside, North Korea is unlikely to lean heavily on China and will remain a burdensome partner for Beijing.

Featured image: KCNA

Edited by Oliver Hotham