Frenemies: Strained Relations Between North Korea and China

North Korea-China Friendship, Flickr, (CC). Source

Less than two weeks after terrorist attacks in Brussels shook the world, the U.S. hosted the fourth Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C.  Representatives from over 50 nations met to continue a discussion started by President Obama in 2009 on the need to secure global nuclear material to prevent nuclear terrorism.  While the summit addressed recent terrorist attacks and the threat of ISIL, it also focused on meetings between President Obama, Shinzo Abe (Japan), Geun-hye Park (South Korea), and Xi Jinping (China) to discuss recent advancements in North Korea’s nuclear program.  Ironically, just hours after these meetings, North Korea, who was not present at the summit, tested a short-range, anti-aircraft missile off of it’s east coast.

This year, we’ve seen North Korea ramp-up development of its nuclear and weapons programs: it conducted an alleged hydrogen bomb test in January, a rocket launch to space in February, multiple missile launches in March, and weapons tests since early April.  This recent activity reflects Kim Jong-un’s commitment to his father’s “Songun”, or “military first” policy by focusing on the expansion of weapons development to secure North Korea’s presence in the global community.  He has also taken the policy to a new level through increased, targeted threats to the U.S. and South Korea. 

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is notorious for sending mixed signals regarding its position on nuclear and weapons development.  For example, in 2009, North Korea withdrew from the Six Party Talks, a multilateral effort to denuclearize the country, but shortly after increased diplomatic engagement with the international community.  In August 2015, North and South Korea engaged in marathon negotiations and reached what was perceived to be a landmark agreement, ending a military standoff between the two nations that occurred just weeks earlier.  In December 2015, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon received “positive signs” from North Korea regarding a proposed visit to the country, signaling a possible end to its isolationist behavior.  However, a month later in January 2016, DPRK undermined this progress by allegedly detonating its first hydrogen bomb, undoing any peaceful diplomatic efforts it had made until then.

In response to North Korea’s increased nuclear and military activity, the 15-member UN Security Council reached a unanimous vote in early March to toughen sanctions against the country.  This agreement was negotiated for weeks between the U.S. and China, whose partnership in countering North Korea’s weapons advancements has strengthened in recent months.  At the Nuclear Security Summit, President Obama and President Xi Jinping stated that they were committed to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and united in wanting to prevent North Korea from carrying out any more nuclear tests.  China’s cooperation with the UN Security Council and international community to curb DPRK’s nuclear program adds to growing tensions between China and North Korea, and possibly signals a new era in relations between the two countries.

China has has been North Korea’s largest trading partner and greatest ally since the Korean War, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union.  According to the Council of Foreign Relations, China accounts for more than 70% of North Korea’s trade volume and serves as its main source of food, arms and energy, showing just how heavily North Korea relies on its northern neighbor.  Economic trade between the two countries do not show signs of slowing, as bulk cargo shipping and high speed bullet train routes were established between the two countries in late 2015.  Politically, China has been North Korea’s most outspoken ally, historically opposing sanctions and actively speaking out against reports of human rights violations in the country.  More recently, China began to use a mix of both soft and hard power with North Korea, urging North Korean leaders to rejoin the Six Party Talks, but also punishing North Korea’s military activity through sanctions.  Militarily, China is obliged to defend North Korea against “unprovoked aggression” under a treaty signed in 1961, but experts believe that China’s commitment to the treaty is waning.

Strained relations between the two countries began a few years after North Korea withdrew from the Nonproliferation Treaty and test-fired several missiles in 2006, under then Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il.  For the first time, China took a punitive approach to North Korea’s actions through its support of UN sanctions.  Since then, China has also sent mixed messages to the international community regarding its relationship with North Korea.  On the one hand, China has been active in publicly denouncing North Korea’s recent military activity.  On the other hand, it showed support of Kim Jong-un’s regime by sending a high-level official to Pyongyang to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of North Korea’s ruling party in late 2015.  These conflicting actions hint that there is perhaps a deeper and more stable connection between the two countries that is able to resist the day-to-day inconsistencies in behavior toward each other.

It is in China’s interest to maintain stability in the Korean peninsula.  If North Korea were to initiate an act of war on either the U.S. or South Korea, China would have to take decisive action on whether or not to defend North Korea; upholding the 1961 security treaty would jeopardize China’s relations with many of its allies, but abandoning the treaty would likely end ties between the two countries.  In addition, the collapse of the North Korea’s regime would not only result in an influx of North Korean refugees to China, but would also dismantle the buffer zone that North Korea provides to China.  Since the end of the Korean War, U.S. and South Korean troops have been stationed along the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea.  The destabilization of North Korea would bring U.S. and South Korean military forces closer to China’s border, which China does not want.  Likewise, North Korea depends on China for the majority of its livelihood: food, aid and energy.  With rumors that North Korea is facing another famine, China will be North Korea’s main lifeline for assistance.

Cooperation between China and North Korea is essential to maintaining stability within each country and the region, but Kim Jong-un’s increasingly erratic behavior and unilateral decisionmaking will undoubtedly strain the relationship.  Without China’s support, North Korea would become a true hermit kingdom in the global community, isolating its leaders and citizens from any connection to the outside world.  While its rocky relationship with China may not be ideal, it is North Korea’s last chance at maintaining some sort of leverage within the international community and nonviolent interaction with the rest of the world, making it one of the most crucial partnerships in foreign relations today.


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