The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is considered as the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) or North Korea’s closest ally. Beijing and Pyongyang established their diplomatic relations just before the outbreak of the Korean War, with the Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong meeting with North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Il-sung in Beijing in May 1950 and the PRC assisting North Korea in a period of war and great unrest. China’s President Xi Jingping’s recent visit to Pyongyang to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un marked the first state visit from Beijing to Pyongyang in 14 years. Notably, this is the fifth meeting between the two leaders in the last 15 months — but the first in North Korea. However, close watchers of the relationship argue that this meeting has displayed limited significance in the improvement of the relationship between the two countries. The year 2019 also marks 70 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two PRC and the DPRK.
As North Korea’s largest trading partner, PRC has primarily focused on increasing the economic accountability and regional stability with Kim Jong-un’s government and the region as a whole.
The lack of China’s economic support would be detrimental to Beijing’s desire to assert its influence in the region and therefore, it is in the PRC’s best interest to recognise the importance of North Korea in its regional strategy. More recently- the interactions between the Kim regime and the Trump Administration have also precipitated a change in PRC’s approach to North Korea.
Overall ties between the two neighbors have grown even amid a drop in trade caused by sanctions. In 2018, Chinese imports from North Korea plummeted by 88 percent, while exports dropped by 33 percent. Even in the face of mounting trade restrictions, established informal trade along the China-North Korea border in items such as fuel, seafood, silkworms, and cell phones appears to be ongoing, signaling that China may be softening its restrictions.
The two countries have expanded physical links in recent years. In September 2015, they opened a bulk-cargo and container shipping route to boost North Korea’s export of coal to China, and China established a high-speed rail route between the Chinese border city of Dandong and Shenyang, the provincial capital of China’s northeastern Liaoning Province. The same year, the Guomenwan border trade zone opened in Dandong with the intention of bolstering bilateral economic exchanges, much like the Rason economic zone and the Sinujiu special administrative zone established in North Korea in the early 1990s and 2002, respectively.
Beijing also provides aid directly to Pyongyang, primarily in food and energy assistance. China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States have provided more than 75 percent of food aid to North Korea since 1995. North Korea, whose famine in the 1990s killed between eight hundred thousand and 2.4 million people, has repeatedly faced extensive droughts and severe flooding, which seriously damage harvests, threatening the food supply. UN agencies estimate that up to 43 percent of the population, or eleven million people, are undernourished and food insecure. An estimated one in five children suffers from malnutrition.
Kim, since declaring his country’s nuclear force complete in late 2017, seems poised to prioritize policies aimed at rejuvenating and modernizing the economy. While China has been a source of aid, analysts say the isolated Kim regime is likely to be more interested in exploring potential economic opportunities with its neighbor, including foreign investment.
China has regarded stability on the Korean Peninsula as its primary interest. Its support for North Korea ensures a buffer between China and the democratic South, which is home to around twenty-nine thousand U.S. troops and marines. “While the Chinese certainly would prefer that North Korea not have nuclear weapons, their greatest fear is regime collapse.”
The specter of hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees flooding into China has been a worry for Beijing. China’s promise to repatriate North Koreans escaping across the border has consistently triggered condemnation from human rights groups, and Beijing began constructing a barbed-wire fence more than a decade ago to prevent migrants from crossing. The majority of North Korean refugees first make their way to China before moving to other parts of Asia, including South Korea. However, tightened border controls under Kim Jong-un have decreased the outflow of refugees.
Though Beijing favors a stable relationship with Pyongyang, it has also bolstered its ties with Seoul. China’s Xi Jinping has met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, on several occasions. China was South Korea’s top trading partner in 2018 and the destination for more than a quarter of the South’s exports. Meanwhile, South Korea ranked fourth among China’s trade partners.
Experts say China has been ambivalent about its commitment to defend North Korea in case of military conflict. The 1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, up for renewal in 2021, says China is obliged to intervene against unprovoked aggression.
Chinese government has tried to persuade North Korean leaders to revoke the clause that would force Beijing to come to Pyongyang’s defense. It has also intimated that if Pyongyang initiates conflict, it would not abide by its treaty obligation and instead stay neutral.
Some experts have suggested that in the event of conflict, Chinese forces may not be involved in coming to North Korea’s defense, but rather would seek to play a significant role in shaping a “post-Kim peninsula to its liking.”
Xi heralded the tradition of friendship between China and North Korea, and Kim reiterated a commitment to denuclearization and a willingness to hold a dialogue with the United States. The two leaders have since met four more times, in May 2018, June 2018, January 2019, and June 2019. During their most recent meeting, Xi was welcomed to Pyongyang, marking the first time a Chinese leader visited North Korea since 2005. (Xi previously traveled there in 2008 as vice president.)
China has urged world powers not to push North Korea too hard, for fear of precipitating the leadership’s collapse and triggering dangerous military action.
In tandem with Kim’s nuclear ambitions, the potential improvement in North Korea’s economic interactions with the PRC will solidify the reign of Kim Jong-un’s regime. He needs support from China for the overall advancement of the country, but also in case no benefits emerge from the bilateral negotiations with the US. It is well-known that there is underlying tension between the leaders of the PRC and North Korea, but severing the alliance between the two would be more detrimental than beneficial. Both countries have independent issues with the US, but their leverage vis-à-vis the US is predicated upon the strength of their alliance. For China, a diminution of its influence over the Korean Peninsula would have ruinous effects on its national interests. Although there is uncertainty about level of Chinese influence over North Korea, the series of high-level interactions between the two countries suggests a boost in the relationship and reveals the extent to which China accords importance to the Korean Peninsula and its ties with Pyongyang.
The PRC is attempting to use its influence in North Korea as a bargaining chip to assert its authority both in the region and in its negotiations with the United States. By improving relations with North Korea, Xi can project China’s regional hegemony, continue North Korea’s dependence on China and sway Kim to look towards Beijing for economic development. A closer relationship with Pyongyang will demonstrate the PRC’s ability to also act as a mediator in the de-nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula with the US and the international community. Steady cooperation between Beijing and Pyongyang will help them realise their national and international interests. In the future, China is likely to tread carefully in the case of North Korea in order to ensure the balance of power remains intact and more optimistically shifts to its advantage regionally and increases Beijing leverage vis-a-vis the US.