China and North Korea share a long period of relatively close and friendly relations in their contemporary history. North Korean communists offered safe heaven and support for their Chinese comrades in their power struggle leading to establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Not long later, China reciprocated with large scale military intervention in the Korean War (1950–1953), saving the Korea under Kim Ill Sung regime from total collapse in the face of U.S.-led United Nations forces pushing back the North Korean assault in pursuit of unification of the Korean Peninsula. It marked the beginning of the new era of Beijing-Pyongyang strategic ties later referred to as “close as lips and teeth”.
In 1961, China and North Korea concluded the “Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance”, the 20-year validity of which was renewed twice in 1981, 2001 and is up for another renewal in 2021. The treaty obliges China to intervene against any unprovoked aggression directed at North Korea. A year later and in another initiative that cemented further the bilateral relation, Beijing agreed to resolve a dispute over the demarcation of its border with North Korea on terms said to be more favorable to Pyongyang. Notwithstanding all the apparent mutual warmth and goodwill displayed by the two ideologically allied neighbors, China and North Korea rarely got along fully, and through the Cold War, the Soviet Union bypassing China acted as the principal supporter of North Korea.
Despite being regarded initially as ideological allies, China and North Korea gradually parted ways portraying a fading image of what was known as "closer than lips and teeth" partners. In 1980, Beijing criticized the planned hereditary transfer of power in North Korea from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong-Il and called it a “vestige of feudalism”. Beijing lost much of its ideological influence over Pyongyang due to adjusting its revolutionary state in favor of economic development while North Korea remained committed to its non-resilient zealous red ideology. China’s establishment of diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992 was viewed as a dreadful betrayal by North Korea. Having eroded the base of its ideological leverage, Beijing had to rely on its economic influence over Pyongyang. In 1993, Beijing altered the terms of its bilateral trade with North Korea from concessional arrangements and bartering to a cash-based market approach which in turn, coupled with the aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and suspension of aids coming from Moscow pushed the North Korea’s economy to the verge of collapse. Beijing in mid-1990s agreed to more flexible terms for its food and fuel exports to North Korea, even as bilateral trade plummeted and political relations remained tense. During 1990s and as North Korea began its nuclear breakout, Beijing succeeded in bringing Pyongyang to the negotiating table for what became known as “The Six Party Talks”, with Russia and Japan participating alongside the two Koreas, China, and the United States.
A new phase of strained relationship surfaced when Pyongyang tested a nuclear device in October 2006. Beijing backed the UN Security Council Resolution 1718, which imposed sanctions on Pyongyang. Despite its apparent concurrence with the international punitive measures aimed at North Korea, China for the large part remained opposed to harsh international sanctions on Pyongyang and for a decade took a minimal approach to interpreting and full enforcement of the 2006 resolutions in anticipation of possible regime collapse and a refugee influx across its 1400-Km long border with North Korea. Further on and against all the odds China remained committed to deepening economic and political ties with North Korea despite the collapse of the Six Party Talks, North Korea’s second nuclear test in 2009, and its provocative military conducts against South Korea the following year.
The demise of Kim Jung-Il and the succession by Kim Jong Un in 2011 did not immediately contribute to a more smooth Beijing-Pyongyang relations. Instead, Kim early in his tenure decided to assert his independence from Chinese wishes by a satellite launch in late 2012, in defiance of an advice from Chinese President Xi Jinping asking him not to do so, followed by yet another nuclear test. The Chinese leader clearly rebuked Kim’s actions by publicly stating that “no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain”.
The relations took another negative turn in 2017 as Pyongyang’s face-off with the United States appeared to be pushing the Korean Peninsula to the brink of armed conflict. Beijing reacted with sharp warnings and pledged support for tougher U.N. Security Council sanctions. In February 2017, after Pyongyang test-fired a missile into the Sea of Japan, China announced that it would suspend all coal imports from North Korea for the remainder of the year. In response, North Korean state media issued unusually direct and harsh-worded attacks against China. A fresh North Korea’s missile launch in November 2017, draw Beijing’s reaction by calling North Korea to “cease actions that increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula.” The test also spurred the adoption of another U.N. sanctions resolution that for the first time targeted North Korea’s lucrative coal exports in a bid to curtail the country’s access to hard currency. China’s approval of the resolution appeared to signal a willingness to take a tougher approach towards North Korea
The year 2018 brought a remarkable turnabout on the Korean peninsula, including fresh round of U.S. and South Korean dialogues with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But as diplomacy accelerated, concern was mounting in Beijing that China was being sidelined and North Korea was drifting out of its sphere of influence. The skillful Kim Jong Un’s initiatives of diplomatic outreach to Seoul and Washington had provided a new impetus for both Pyongyang and Beijing to quickly repair their relationship. China moved decisively to reassert itself and manage relations with North Korea through an unprecedented series of summits between President Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un, and renewed contacts between party and military officials. In March 2018, Kim Jong Un made his first visit to Beijing. As North Korean talks with South Korea and the U.S. progressed over the next year, Kim made three additional visits to China, meeting with Xi before and after the Singapore summit as well as a month prior to the second U.S.-North Korean summit in Hanoi. On June 20, 2019 Xi Jinping arrived in Pyongyang marking the first visit by a Chinese leader to North Korea in 14 years. The course of events made it to conclude that Kim Jong Un after spending his first six years in power highlighted with less inclination towards Beijing, had managed to engage with China on terms much closer to his own.
China today serves as North Korea’s economic lifeline and window to the world monopolizing the vast majority of Pyongyang’s trade and foreign investment. International sanctions imposed on Pyongyang have made the country more dependent than ever on Beijing for trade and other supports. While Beijing appears willing to condemn its neighbor’s nuclear headway, its policies remain focused on safeguarding stability. It so appears that Chinese leaders value stability as their foremost priority on the Korean Peninsula, fearing the consequences of a North Korean collapse or a conflict sparked by its emerging nuclear capabilities. China is also faced with a dilemma vis-à-vis its 1961 inked commitment to defend North Korea in case of a major military conflict which by all means runs counter to its endeavor not to be dragged into any large scale armed confrontation that poses inevitable risks at its economic growth.
Noteworthy is that Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions have, at various stages, been both an asset and a burden for Beijing, threatening regional stability on one hand, but simultaneously providing China with an important leverage in its dealing with the United States on the other. Beijing’s support for North Korea also ensures maintaining a valuable buffer between China and the U.S. allied South Korea home to a considerable American military might.
With Beijing’s reset of ties with Pyongyang, China’s overall approach to North Korea is shifting, including signs that it is prepared to live with a nuclear North Korea. It also indicates clearly that with China’s revitalized relationship with North Korea, the United States can no longer expect Beijing to effectively support further sanctions and pressure on Pyongyang.
In general, and in line with a pattern that has continued to the present day, any upheaval in Beijing-Pyongyang relations is unlikely to touch the breaking point, and would sooner or later be followed by joint initiatives to push the relations back to the track of normalcy. Though the two sides are far from being considered as friendly allies, they may settle for further engagement as partners of geopolitical necessity.
Hossein Ebrahim khani
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)