As Close as Lips and Teeth? A Re-examination of Chinese-North Korean Relations

As I mentioned before on this blog, China’s relationship with the regime of Kim Jong-Un has stood on shaky ground since North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in February 2013. Not only have Chinese diplomats condemned the test, but China also co-sponsored a United Nations resolution that imposed greater economic sanctions on the regime. Following North Korea’s fourth missile test, it is unclear whether relations between the two countries will endure such provocative behavior.

A Shift in Policy: Chinese Animosity

Within recent months China has become increasingly vocal in its displeasure with North Korean activities. For instance, on May 7, 2013, the state-controlled Bank of China ended all dealings with North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank. Furthermore, as per its commitment to international sanctions, China stepped up security checks on shipments to and from North Korea. Facing growing pressure from Washington to tame its longstanding ally, it is proving increasingly difficult for China to allow North Korean actions to continue unchecked.

Within recent months China has become increasingly vocal in its displeasure with North Korean activities.The Bank of China's recent action is the latest illustration of this.

A degree of resentment is evident in recent Chinese statements, which indirectly criticize the recklessness of North Korean provocations. On April 7, 2013, at an economic forum in Hainan province, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated, “No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains. While pursuing its own interests, a country should accommodate the legitimate interests of others.” In an interview with a leading Chinese newspaper as well, Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui stated, “We don’t want to see any warfare or chaos on the Peninsula. We oppose any side making provocative statements or doing anything that undermines peace and stability on the Peninsula and in the region.”

These tensions are further exacerbated when North Korean actions interfere with the livelihood of Chinese citizens. Earlier this month it was announced that armed North Koreans seized a commercial Chinese fishing boat with 16 men aboard, demanding a payment of $600,000 renminbi ($98,000 USD) to release them and the vessel. Although the crew was eventually released, this incident was viewed with significant outrage by state media. An editorial by the Global Times, an influential Chinese tabloid that is published by the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, called for greater action against North Korea. As stated in the editorial, “If North Korea continues to go rogue, China should take actions to push it toward a more measured response…If it is difficult to teach North Korea in words, we can make it understand in deeds.”

The Future of Chinese-North Korean Relations

Although a shift in Chinese policy is evident, it is unlikely that China will completely abandon its longtime ally. While North Korea has posed a significant threat to international peace and security, it is viewed by China as a key buffer against American-backed South Korea. Furthermore, a destabilized North Korea would not only prompt a mass flow of refugees into China, but will prove detrimental to the growing number of Chinese firms that have invested in the country.

Stability aside however, if North Korean activities and rhetoric are left unchecked, it is unlikely that the peninsula will continue to avoid a military confrontation. As such, China should leverage its considerable influence to curtail North Korean belligerence.

About Khalid Mahdi

Khalid Mahdi is a Research Analyst and former Editor of the NATO's Arc of Crisis program at the NATO Association of Canada. Khalid holds a Master of Global Affairs (MGA) Degree from the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. Khalid also holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and Political Science from the University of Toronto. His research interests lie in the areas of East-Asian security, nuclear proliferation and security, and terrorism. In February 2015, Khalid received a Graduate Research Award for Disarmament, Arms Control, and Non-Proliferation from the Simons Foundation and Global Affairs Canada, for his position paper on the efficacy of multilateral export controls pertaining to the regulation of dual-use sensitive space technologies. Khalid can be reached at khalid.mahdi27@gmail.com