So what is the Relationship Between China and North Korea?

China is North Korea’s most important trading partner, ally and main source of arms, food, and energy. Historically, China has opposed harsh international sanction on North Korea and helped sustain the Kim Jong-un’s regime in the hope of avoiding a refugee influx across their 870-mile border and also system collapse. In early 2016, Pyongyang tested its fourth nuclear and also launched a ballistic missile something that complicated its relationship with Beijing which has always advocated for the multilateral framework, Six Party talks which aim at the denuclearization of North Korea. There have been concerns after the young N. Korean president rose to power with China questioning the direction the North Korean leadership was taking. However, China’s policies towards N. Korea have hardly changed even with the latter’s successive nuclear tests.

Overview of China: North Korea Relations

The China- North Korean alliance dates back to 1950-1953 during the Korean War when China’s troops thronged the Korean peninsula to offer support to their northern friend. From the war, China has been quite supportive of N. Korea offering economic and political backing to the N. Korean leaders first with Kim Il-sung (1948-1994), then Kim Jong-il (1994-2001) and now with Kim Jong-un from 2011. Following October’s 2006 Pyongyang’s testing of a nuclear weapon, strains in the China- N. Korea relationships began to surface. This was mainly because Beijing had supported the UN Secretary Council Resolution 1718 that had imposed sanctions on Pyongyang. China summoned the North Korean ambassador when N. Korea executed its third nuclear test February 2013. It also reduced energy supplies to North Korea, implemented new trade sanctions and called for denuclearization talks. But even so, Beijing has maintained its wide range of ties with Pyongyang including several economic exchanges as well as high-level state trips, for instance, Li Yunshan, Chinese Community Party member’s visit to attend the 17th anniversary of N. Korea’s ruling party that went down in October 2015.

On separate accounts, China has barred an international punitive action against N. Korea over the human rights violations. The February 2014 UN report that had details on North Korea’s human rights violations including forced starvation, crimes against humanity and torture was highly criticized by China and even attempted to stymie UN Security Council session on the country’s human rights status that was held in December 2014 and 2015.Even with such a conclusive evidence of Pyongyang’s involvement in the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, China refused to take a stance against North Korea in March 2010.

It’s a common belief that Beijing feels much safer having China-North Korea border than the US ardent ally South Korea. However, early this year, China voted for the UN resolution condemning Pyongyang’s nuclear test, going against N. Korea. Some analysts believe that China voted in support of sanctions to respond to the North Korea’s military attempts to claw back the power it had initially lost under the regency rule of Jang Song-talk, Kim Jong-un’s uncle and his aunt, Kim Kyong-hui. For some time, this had posed a challenge for China, and it was a safer bet to have the Regency holding power.

China- North Korea trade has always been on a steady increase in the recent years with the 2014 Seoul-based Korea Trade- Investment Promotion Agency report showing how the two countries had hit $ 6.86 billion from $500 million in 2000. However, recent reports show a drop in 2015 by almost 15% which is unclear if it’s tied to the economic woes China has been experiencing, or it’s as a result of the chilled ties between Pyongyang and Beijing. But still there is no red alarm yet and to think that China would withdraw its economic safety net for North Korea due to the political risks can be quite misleading.

Trade and Aid for North Korea.

Statistics shows that China is the current significant economic for North Korea accounting for almost 70% of N. Korea’s total trade volume. North Korea sources most of its food and energy supplies from China. To boost N. Korea’s coal export to China, the two countries did open container shipping route and bulk cargo in September 2015. Also the high-speed rail route to connect China-North Korea border opened by China was to the same effect. The Geomean border trade zone was also opened in Dandong in October 2015 with the sole intention of boosting the bilateral economic linkages between the two countries. Dandong has grown to become such a vital hub for investment, tourism, and trade between the two countries with the North Korea exchanges making up 40% of the city’s total business. North Korea’s dependence on China grows with the increase in its isolation hence a significant trade imbalance between the two countries. China uses the trade deficit as an indirect alimony since N. Korea cannot finance its trade deficit through borrowing.

Japan, the US, South Korea and China have always provided food aid to North Korea from 1995 but after the 2009’s collapse of the Six Party Talks, donations from all the countries have significantly shrunk save for China. UN agencies deemed 70% of North Korea food insecure after they experienced the worst drought in a decade in 2015 resulting in serious damage on the harvest. Since China doesn’t have systems in place to monitor shipments, there has been growing concerns regarding the distributions of food aids. In the recent years, Beijing has been weaning Pyongyang off complete aid focusing much more on viable commercial ties.

China’s Priorities regarding North Korea.

China majorly cares about avoidance of war and stability and it supporting N. Korea is to see to it that the country is friendlier and offers a buffer between the democratic South and China. The thought of having thousands of refugees thronging into China is a serious concern and worry to Beijing. China prefers avoiding China North Korea war since if N. Korea collapses, it would easily destroy the strategic buffer provided by China and the US troops will be too close for comfort.

To this effect, China has always emphasized to the international world the importance of not pushing China too hard with fear of the collapse of the regime. China believes that sanctions are not the only way of handling this issue. As it is, the refugee issues are quite a challenge and even with Beijing constructing a barbed wire fence on the China-North Korea border more than a decade ago, not so much has changed since more and more girls are escaping to China. President Kim Jong-un has jumped in to help reduce the outflow of refugees by strengthening border controls.

China has been quite irresolute regarding its commitment of depending North Korea in a case of military conflict. Technically, China is obliged to step in and help North Korea against unprovoked aggression following the 1961 Sino- North Korean Treaty of Friendship Cooperation and Mutual Assistance. This gets so uncomfortable for Beijing, and it has been trying to revoke that clause. China has maintained that if Pyongyang initiates any conflict, it is not going to abide by the treaty and wouldn’t stand up for them.

The US believes in using pressure on North Korea so that it can give up its nuclear weapons but Chinese approach is quite different, and they believe pressure and sanctions tactics are just humiliating and very much counterproductive. At the start of Obama’s term in 2009, most people believed that they would be able to strike direct talks with North Korea, but all hopes were dimmed after Pyongyang’s subsequent rocket test. The US approaches have not come to fruition even after convincing China to take a much tougher stance on N. Korea. The possibilities of striking a deal with President Kim’s regime keep growing dimmer since North Korea uses nuclear development for survival.

The relations between China and North Korea can easily go in the books as quite confusing. China thinks it’s a safer bet having N. Korea as friends than enemies in as much as they are unhappy with the China-North Korea nuclear developments. To avoid a sudden collapse of the regime and even if China has an enormous bargaining chip over North Korea in many aspects, it doesn’t feel like its planning to go against N. Korea anytime soon. China harbors such profound strategic interests in denuclearization and stability of the Korean peninsula and to achieve that; then Beijing must invest on improving the ties with Pyongyang for the restoration of its clout.