UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


DPRK - Relations with China

North Korea and China have common strategic objectives, starting with removal of American forces from the Korean peninsula, and extending to removal of the American presence in Japan, if not Guam. However rocky the relationships seems from time to time, the DPRK is Beijing's pointy end of the spear, the "bad cop" in China's "good cop, bad cop" tag team of ejecting American influence from Asia and the Western Pacific.

North Korea exports commodities such as minerals, metallurgical products, textiles, and agricultural and fishery products. According to the CIA World Factbook, the North Korean economy is one of the world’s least open economies. The CIA World Factbook reported that as of 2012, its main export partners were China and South Korea. China is North Korea’s closest ally and accounts for upwards of 90% of its trade.

Korean and Chinese communists had a developed close ties during the early twentieth century. In the 1920s, the newly formed CCP was a political outlet for Korean communists and many joined the party, to include the future North Korean leader Kim Ilsung. Building upon a mutual anti-Japanese nationalism, the Korean and Chinese communists had developed a strong bond during the 1930s, through World War II, and into the Chinese civil war. Korean citizens supported the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and by the late 1940s the PLA’s 156th, 164th, and 166th Divisions, three of the best divisions of the Fourth Field Army, were mainly composed of Korean-Chinese soldiers.

Their armed forces fought shoulder-to-shoulder in the Korean War. 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.

DPRK - Relations with China - Kim Jong-un

Victor Cha, former director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, has argued, China and North Korea are "caught in a mutual hostage relationship – the North needs Chinese help for their survival, and the Chinese need the North not to collapse". Once described as ‘as close as lips and teeth’, the relationship between China and North Korea has become increasingly strained. Beijing has conflicted motivations in its policy towards the North. It resents the disruption North Korean provocations bring to Northeast Asia. Beijing's North Korea policy is illogical, as it increases anti-Chinese resentment and support for America's military presence in Asia. Beijing apparently calculates that these problems are outweighed by the risk of regime collapse, which would result in large numbers of refugees entering northern China, and a reunified Korean peninsula under Seoul's control, allied with the United States. The prospect of a US military ally as a neighbor, and possibly US troops on its China's borders, is deeply alarming to Beijing.

The 2013 Report To Congress Of The U.S.-China Economic And Security Review Commission reported in November 2013 that North Korea’s recent provocations — including its December 2012 long-range rocket launch and February 2013 nuclear test—have led to a ‘‘subtle shift’’ in China’s policy toward North Korea, according to former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell. Observable manifestations of this ‘‘subtle shift’’ are Beijing’s stronger and higher level public signals of its frustration with Pyongyang. Most notably, President Xi indirectly criticized North Korea in an April speech when he said, ‘‘No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains.’’ 118 This appears to be the first time a Chinese president has publicly reproached North Korea. Nevertheless, most U.S. analysts agree China has not fundamentally altered its North Korea strategy. Beijing’s recent diplomatic moves have been temporary, limited, easily reversible, and more symbolic than substantive.

In September 2013, several Chinese government ministries jointly issued a new 236-page list of technologies and materials to be banned from export to North Korea. The proscription list focuses on dual-use items that could be used to produce weapons of mass destruction or ballistic missiles. However, according to the Nautilus Institute, ‘‘nothing indicates that by issuing tighter controls, China is fundamentally changing its policy toward North Korea, let alone abandoning it . . . The degree to which China enforces the prohibition of trade in items on this list will mostly determine the success of the program.’’

Although China in March 2013 voted to approve new and strengthened UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea, Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, then North East Asia project director and China adviser for the International Crisis Group, in July noted that China’s implementation of the sanctions had been ‘‘underwhelming.’’

In May 2013, state-owned Bank of China Ltd. closed its account with North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank. However, Ms. Kleine-Ahlbrant explains, ‘‘It is unclear whether there was any money in the Foreign Trade Bank’s accounts when they were closed. For months already, North Koreans had been limiting their use of major Chinese banks to avoid scrutiny. Third countries are often used for such transactions, as well as provincial Chinese banks, which operate with considerably more autonomy than the larger state-owned banks. Furthermore, most of North Korean trade with China skirts the banking system altogether by engaging in cash transactions via trading companies in China, processing payments in the form of gold or gemstones, or even bartering.’’

Joel Wuthnow, analyst at the CNA Center for Naval Analyses, warned: ‘‘this refrain is familiar. For instance, China’s harsh rhetoric and vote in favor of UN sanctions after North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test was followed in 2007 by a push for dialogue; a similar pattern developed after China’s approval of sanctions in response to [North Korean] provocations in 2009, with a more conciliatory approach in 2010.’’

The sudden and brutal removal of Jang Sung Taek thought to be close to Beijing, was a blow to China, and the Kim regime seemed to be trying to push China out of its circle of influence. Kim Jong-un unexpectedly purged and executed Jang Song-taek, his uncle and second-highest official in North Korea, in December 2013. Jang had been the chief North Korean agent in North Korea’s engagement with China, and official North Korean statements about the circumstances of his purge and execution suggest his relationship with China was treasonous. The event stunned and upset Chinese officials, and Jang’s execution likely had the effect of discouraging other North Korean officials from seeking close ties with Beijing.

Michael Pilger and Caitlin Campbell noted that trends in the frequency and content of China-North Korea exchanges between 2009 and 2014 appear to support the assessment, widely shared in the China- and North Korea-watching communities, that relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have soured in recent years. Since 2010, the number of reported high-, senior-, and presidential-level exchanges has fallen significantly, and in 2014 reached its lowest point in six years. Though OSC reported three times as many China-North Korea exchanges in 2014 as in 2009, this increase was due primarily to the tripling of reported low- and medium-level exchanges, which rarely produced major policy outcomes. upper-level exchanges between party officials appeared to have ceased completely.

Following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January 2016 and a rocket launch the following month, there had been a growing perception that Pyongyang was forcing Beijing to close ranks with its strategic and economically dependent ally. Many Chinese saw Pyongyang’s disregard for Beijing’s repeated calls for restraint and dialogue as humiliating. And the Xi Jinping government was criticized as being increasingly impotent and unable to exert any influence over its ally.

Pyongyang’s dependence on China has increased even as its relations with Beijing grow worse. President Xi’s travel to Seoul to meet with President Park Geun-hye, before meeting with the leader of the North, was unprecedented… as was Park’s decision to close the Kaesong industrial complex, the last economic link between the two countries.

Several days after the assassination of Kim Jong Nam on 13 February 2017, China announced it would suspend imports of North Korean coal for the rest of 2017. The North's coal exports account for about one-third of the country's total export income, generating an estimated $1 billion a year for the regime. In an apparent protest against China's ban, North Korea's state media on Thursday harshly criticized China without mentioning its name. It accused China of "dancing to the tune" of the United States. Once deemed the legitimate heir to North Korea's ruling regime, Kim Jong Nam was known to be favored by China.

Christine Wormuth, former undersecretary for policy at the U.S. Defense Department, said "One could read [the assassination] as a sign that Kim Jong Un is basically showing the Chinese that he can reach all the way to Malaysia and take out the potential successor that China might have preferred".

An editorial in China’s state-run Global Times 23 April 2017 stated "Pyongyang needs to revise its understanding that North Korea is a sentinel and on guard duty for China, therefore, whatever it does, Beijing has no other alternative except to endorse Pyongyang. If North Korea really thinks this, it is making a mistake."

An editorial in China’s state-run Global Times 27 April 2017 stated "The relationship between China and North Korea has already been severely affected. Since Kim Jong-un became the leader of North Korea, there have been no leadership meetings between the two sides. ... The current bilateral relationship should be a normal country-to-country one first, and they can form a close friendship based on that. But the precondition is that China's national interests shall not be violated and Beijing shall not pay the price for Pyongyang's extreme policies. The issue around the peninsula generally is the conflict between the US and North Korea. But Pyongyang carries out nuclear tests only 100 kilometers from the Chinese border, and this threatens the security of Northeast China. North Korea's development of nuclear and missile technologies also intensified the situation in Northeast Asia, giving Washington an excuse to enhance its military deployment in the region. This means China cannot be a bystander.... Some Chinese people worry [China] ... could lose its strategic buffer in Northeast Asia. ... As long as China breaks Pyongyang's illusion that it can ease Beijing's sanctions through diplomatic means, China will establish its authority toward North Korea.... China should make clear to the US and South Korea that China is not key to solving the North Korean nuclear issue."

China's imports of North Korean iron ore in the first half of 2017 more than doubled from the same period a year ago. Chinese customs authorities said the country purchased 11.5 million dollars' worth of iron ore from North Korea in June, down 1.7 percent from the same month last year. But, imports in each month from January through May recorded year-on-year increases.

Imports in the first half reached 86 million dollars, 2.4 times the amount in the same period the previous year. Purchases of iron ore from North Korea are banned in principle by a UN Security Council sanctions resolution, but are permitted if the transactions exclusively serve livelihood purposes. In February 2017, China announced it would stop buying coal from the North for this year in line with another UN Security Council resolution. Coal exports had been North Korea's main source of foreign currency. China's total iron ore imports from the North last year amounted to less than 10 percent of its coal purchases.

Chinese state-run paper the Global Times said 11 August 2017 if North Korea launches an attack that threatens the U.S., then China should be neutral. It's a position that might make Pyongyang think twice about its threat against Guam. At the same time, the editorial said, if the U.S. and South Korea were to attack then China would resist and prevent them from changing the status quo on the Korean peninsula. The Global Times said China is not able to persuade either side to back down, but emphasized that it will respond with a firm hand when its interests are threatened, whichever side it may be.

Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly proposed to Donald Trump that the armistice that ended hostilities in the Korean War be turned into a peace treaty signed by the two Koreas, the U.S. and China. Citing multiple U.S. and Chinese diplomatic sources, Japan-based Kyodo News reported that President Xi made the proposal in a phone conversation with President Trump on 09 March 2018. That was a couple of weeks before North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited President Xi in China. The Kyodo report highlighted that Japan and Russia, though members of the long-stalled six-party denuclearization talks, were excluded from President Xi's proposal as a way to seize the initiative on the North Korea issue. It said Trump did not reply definitively to the suggestion but did ask China to keep up its pressure on the North.

Kim Jong-un, chairman of the Workers' Party of Korea and chairman of North Korea's State Affairs Commission, paid an unofficial visit to China 25 to 28 March 2018, and was warmly received by Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and Chinese president. The two leaders held candid and friendly talks, stressing the need to inherit and carry forward the traditional China-North Korea friendship. Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and safeguarding peace and stability on the peninsula were also top on the agenda.

GlobalTimes reported that "Given the sophisticated geopolitical environment in Northeast Asia, the historic traditional Beijing-Pyongyang bonds and their realistic political and economic ties have been a focus of widespread attention, and have affected the way other forces assess the regional situation. Despite trials and hardships, the basic elements of friendly China-North Korea ties are solid and unshakable.

"To begin with, Beijing and Pyongyang respect each other and are equal partners. The China-North Korea state-to-state relationship is led by their party-to-party relationship. Their friendly ties have a solid political basis. The Chinese party, government and mainstream society respect the North Korean people's political choice, respect North Korea's spirit of independence and self-reliance, and firmly oppose other countries' attempts to interfere in North Korea's political system. The two countries have a profound basis for friendship and immense room for cooperation.

"Some international forces have been attempting to obstruct and undermine China-North Korea relations. They affix a variety of labels to the friendship between Beijing and Pyongyang, and spread rumors that distort bilateral relations. However, the deep roots of the China-North Korea relationship are solid beyond their imagination. The Xi-Kim meeting will renew their understanding of the bilateral relationship. It's believed those with a sincere hope for peace and stability on the peninsula will welcome today's China-North Korea relations."

Kim Jong-un was seen as a reclusive leader, who looked like he would not travel abroad. But by June 2018, in the space of three months, he had visited China three times, gone to Singapore to meet with President Trump, and even gone South of the inter-Korean border to meet with President Moon Jae-in.

Chinese state media announced Kim's visit BEFORE his arrival. This is a big departure from his previous two visits, where it was only confirmed after he left. 2a - The first time he visited Beijing, he took that special train. It looks like Kim has gotten over his supposed fear of flying.

There is speculation that Kim would have discussed with Xi the roadmap towards the regime's security alongside denuclearization. Kim's trip coincided with the announcement that South Korea and the U.S. would be suspending one of their joint-military exercises in August. China has been calling for this for a long time. Beijing would have welcomed this development.

The sight of North Korea and China getting so close again has started to worry some watchers. For example, there are already signs that China is easing sanctions on North Korea. After the last time Kim met with Xi, Trump accused Xi of changing Kim's attitude towards the US. China may use the North Korea situation to try and influence the trade talks with the US. South Korea's presidential office said they are keeping a close eye on developments in Beijing. It was in the Moon administration's interest to try and facilitate good relations between North Korea and the US so that the denuclearization process goes smoothly.

By 2020 North Korea was in a very difficult situation. It sealed off its border with China since late January 2020. China accounts for 95 percent of North Korea’s total trade. It is easy to imagine that North Korea’s economic difficulties have become even more severe. According to the National Intelligence Service’s report to the parliamentary intelligence committee on May 6, trade volume between North Korea and China fell 55 percent in the first quarter, year-on-year, and plunged 91 percent in March alone. It seems commercial activities in North Korea have shrunken as fewer markets remain open, with Pyongyang citizens hoarding daily necessities. Needless to say, North Korea is in desperate need of help from China. In this situation, it remains to be seen how their relations may evolve.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is focusing on diplomacy with China. On May 7, Kim sent a verbal message to Chinese President Xi Jinping to congratulate China for successfully containing the spread of COVID-19. The message came at a time when both North Korea and China were preparing to normalize their respective economies after gaining control over the virus situation to some extent.

To resolve the urgent problem of economic difficulties, North Korea is likely to focus more on its ties with China, putting its relations with the U.S. on the back burner for the time being. Also, any meaningful improvement in inter-Korean relations will likely be made in line with progress in nuclear negotiations between North Korea and the U.S. and the possible, subsequent easing of sanctions on North Korea.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 30-06-2021 11:42:45 ZULU