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China and North Korea: From Comrades-In-Arms to Allies at Arm's Length

China and North Korea: From Comrades-In-Arms to Allies at Arm's Length - Cover

Authored by Dr. Andrew Scobell.

March 2004

45 Pages

Brief Synopsis

At first, it might not seem surprising to have a formal military alliance that has endured more than 4 decades between two communist neighbors, China and North Korea. After all, their armed forces fought shoulder-to-shoulder in the Korean War 50 years ago. However, Beijing's ties to Pyongyang have weakened considerably over time, and China now has much better and stronger relations with the free market democracy of South Korea than it does with the totalitarian, centrally planned economy of North Korea. In many ways Pyongyang has become a Cold War relic, strategic liability, and monumental headache for Beijing. Nevertheless, the China-North Korea alliance remains formally in effect, and Beijing continues to provide vital supplies of food and fuel to the brutal and repressive Pyongyang regime.

Since the ongoing nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, which emerged in October 2002, the United States and other countries have pinned high hopes on Chinese efforts to moderate and reason with North Korea. Beijing's initiative to bring Pyongyang to the table in the so-called Six-Party Talks and host them seems to substantiate these hopes. Yet, as the author points out, it would be unrealistic to raise one's expectations over what China might accomplish vis-à-vis North Korea. Beijing plays a useful and important role on the Korean Peninsula, but in the final analysis, the author argues that there are significant limitations on China's influence both in terms of what actions Beijing would be prepared to take and what impact this pressure can have. If this analysis is correct, then North Korea is unlikely to mend its ways anytime soon.


The China-North Korea relationship remains the most enduring, uninterrupted bilateral friendship for both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). This brother-in-arms relationship was solidified early during the Korean War. Sharing a common border and ideology, both China and North Korea confront the frustration of divided nations. And while, on the one hand, each views the United States as hostile, Beijing and Pyongyang, on the other hand, appear to crave better relations with Washington.

Arguably, each clings to the other because they have nowhere else to turn―each believes that close cooperation with the other is vital to its own national security. No doubt each country would prefer to depend less on the other. China has a major stake in ensuring the continued survival of the North Korean regime and may be willing to go to considerable lengths to guarantee this. North Korea, meanwhile, seems destined to remain heavily dependent on China for morale support and material assistance.

Despite this type of relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing, there are significant limits to China’s influence on North Korea―in part due to China’s unwillingness to apply hard pressure and in part because, even if China did apply such pressure, North Korea might not respond in the desired manner.

China was spurred into action in early 2003 by heightened fears that North Korea might be the next target of U.S. military action after Iraq. China undertook an unprecedented diplomatic initiative to bring Washington and Pyongyang to the same table in Beijing thrice in the space of 10 months: three-party talks in April 2003, and then six-party talks in August 2003 and February 2004. China deserves considerable credit for these significant accomplishments.

Nevertheless, China may have reached the limits of its influence on North Korea in terms of what actions the United States can expect from Beijing and what impact Chinese influence is likely to have on Pyongyang. The most the United States probably can expect is for China to push on to continue the six-party talks.

Recommendations include:

• Don’t expect too much from Beijing.
• Don’t underestimate China’s commitment to protect its own national interests.
• Don’t force China to choose sides.
• Don’t expect much movement from Pyongyang.
• North Korean distrust of outsiders may be almost insurmountable.
• Don’t count on China to dissuade North Korea from going nuclear.

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