North Korea and China: a Friendship on Its Last Legs

Georgiana Wilkes | 9 March 2018


The ties of friendship that used to tether the rogue state to its colossal neighbour are beginning to fray: and nuclear weapons aren't helping.

If someone had posed this question in 2014, one could reasonably expect some intellectual snickering from international commentators. In 2015, trade between China and North Korea was 10 times greater than it had been in 2000, peaking in 2014 at $6.86 billion (!) - these rosy relations were not ripe breeding grounds for a coup. But things have changed.


But not everything has changed; with 90% of the DPRK’s total trade volume coming from China, China is still easily their biggest trading partner. They effectively keep the country running, evidenced by the lack of a crisis as substantial as the famine of the 90s (despite recent droughts and crop failings in the region), and they have the closest links of anyone else in the international community to the North Korean leadership.


It has been impossible to ignore the news that Kimmy-J has (finally) succeeded in getting his hands on some nuclear capabilities. While the POTUS seems set on using the greatest weapon at his disposal (Twitter) to deal with the potential problems the most recent North Korean missile launches pose to world peace - China’s response has been rather more interesting. When in a similar situation in 2006, China effectively switched its stance on the DPRK, from support to punishment, choosing to support UN sanctions against the country following the nuclear tests they had carried out. Not only does this show that China is, to put it lightly, unkeen for North Korea to have nuclear capabilities, it also suggests that sanctions alone do not work. Beijing may well choose to simply adhere to international sanctions this time around; and indeed, we did see China’s commerce ministry suspend coal imports from North Korea this time last year in February 2017, albeit temporarily. Should we expect more definitive action from China’s leaders?


But the situation is still more confusing than this. In the first three quarters of 2017, Chinese exports to North Korea actually went up 20.9%, despite trade restrictions in everything from textiles to seafood, and reports suggest that North Korean businesses still operate in China. All this is also supplemented by a considerable smuggling network along the border. However; there was a 16.7% drop in Chinese imports from North Korea. While a high-speed rail network runs between the border city of Dandong and Shenyang (the capital of the Liaoning province), and exchanges with North Korea made up 40% of the city’s total trade in 2015, a $350 million bridge over the river Yalu to connect Dandong and Sinuiju remains unfinished - a physical monument to the cooling of relations between Beijing and Pyongyang.


Furthermore, the recent nuclear advancement of the DPRK threatens the peace in China’s own backyard. Ely Ratner, from the Council of Foreign Relations, states that “stability on the Korean Peninsula has always been prioritised” by Beijing. In response to recent events, they have sought to strengthen relations with Seoul. As a result, South Korea now ranks fourth in China’s list of trade partners. This is despite China taking retaliatory measures against Seoul in response to the deployment of an American missile defence system to the Eastern province of North Gyeongsang, showing that they are willing to go to some lengths to ensure stability on the peninsula.


In terms of treaties, the Chinese government’s perceived reluctance to honour treaties that would see them embroiled in war alongside North Korea again betrays the attitude of a concerned leadership. China is obliged to come to North Korea’s aid in an instance where they are the victim of unprovoked military action, thanks to the 1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance. While Beijing has been somewhat irresolute about whether it would come to North Korea’s aid in case of military conflict (it has been suggested by Bonnie Glaster of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies that the Chinese government has been trying to entice North Korean leadership into revoking the clause that requires this), there have been no quips in the international community over whether China would remain neutral if North Korea initiated military conflict - it will. Beijing has also been quite clear in its requests to the international community not to push Pyongyang, - much, one would imagine, like the exasperated friend of a particularly drunk person trying to prevent any scraps after a typical Monday Night Heat.


Interestingly, experts such as Oriana Skylar Mastro have hypothesised that China would be very keen to sculpt “a post-Kim peninsula to its liking” in the event of military conflict - implying that China does not expect the Kim Dynasty to survive military conflict, and also that there is no real affection for Kim Jong Un within the Chinese leadership.


So is there likely to be a coup?


In short, if there is going to be a coup, then it is far more likely for it to happen now than at any point in the past. Relations between the two capitals that were cool to begin with are becoming less cordial; relations between North and South grow more fractious each day (although recent overtures of good will surrounding the Winter Olympics may temporarily halt that), decreasing the peninsula’s stability. And of course,  Pyongyang’s newly developed nuclear capacity threatens peace, and along with it, China’s neutrality. A well executed coup would eliminate the possibility of a military takeover, ease relations with the US (over nuclear fears at any rate), and allow China to shape the peninsula to be more easily influenced by Beijing.


While a Chinese coup is certainly not a foregone conclusion, it is also one that had become far less laughable in the last year. Little Rocket Man may soon have more than just gout keeping him awake at night.


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