Double or Nothing

Double or Nothing

The Future of the Fraying China-North Korea Relationship.
Matt Donnelly

Within the past few years, the belligerence of North Korea’s nuclear policy has caused diplomatic problems with China that has weakened the alliance between the two Asian powers. Historically, China and North Korea have partnered to defend East Asia against Western influence. The official partnership between China and North Korea began during the Korean War in 1950-53. While China initially sent military support onto the peninsula, after the hostilities of the Korean War China’s assistance became political and economic. [1] In 1950, Zhou Enlai compared the relationship between China and North Korea to lips and teeth: “If the North Korean “lip” was gone, China (the “teeth”) would feel cold.” [2] This phrase exemplifies China’s interest in North Korea as a buffer between them and the strong Western presence in the Southern peninsula. [3] Even though China doesn’t need the support of Pyongyang, their mutual interest of defending against Western expansion has inspired them to form a one-sided partnership with the North Korean regime.

Because of this alliance, China has supported North Korea economically and politically. Economic assistance has been a staple of the alliance between China and North Korea. In fact, China accounts for 85% of North Korean imports and 80% of North Korean exports. [4] This economic relationship has been very important to North Korea, but isn’t significant to China. One reason for this large amount of trade is North Korea’s dependence on Chinese energy. Chinese oil is very important for the energy deficient Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). [1] China has also stood behind the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea politically over the years. For example, at the beginning of their alliance in the 1950s, China backed the DPRK in the conflict with both military support and political recognition. [1] This political recognition is important for North Korea by establishing its legitimacy as backed by one of the superpowers of Asia. [5] China has also backed Korea in the U.N., a bold statement about its political commitment to North Korea. [6]

However, over the past decade, China has begun distancing itself publicly from North Korea while still providing some support. Because of North Korea’s blatant disregard for international nuclear protocol, China has recently taken measures to cut back on the support it provides in this one sided relationship. For example, China was in favor of UN-backed economic sanctions on North Korea. These sanctions had a harsh impact of the North Korean economy. Specifically, this impacted their relationship as Chinese imports into North Korea fell 88% in the first six months of 2017. Exports from North Korea into China also declined over a year long period in 2017. [5] China also began to distance itself from North Korea politically. According to sources, the political relationship between the Chinese government and the DPRK is strained. [7] This strain “began to surface when Pyongyang tested a nuclear weapon in October 2006 and Beijing supported UN Security Council Resolution 1718, which imposed sanctions on Pyongyang. With this resolution and subsequent ones, Beijing signaled a shift in tone from diplomacy to punishment. After North Korea’s latest missile launch in November 2017, China expressed “grave concern and opposition,” calling on North Korea to cease actions that have increased tensions on the Korean peninsula.” [1]

The current negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea have further strained China’s relationship with North Korea even more. President Trump’s June trip to Singapore to meet with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un was a huge political statement that affected China as well as the rest of the free world. Until then, China’s historical benefit from North Korea was its function as a buffer between it and the U.S. influences in South Korea along its southern and eastern borders. Analysts say “China worrie[s] that the United States could also use the Singapore meeting to engineer a united Korean Peninsula that joins the North with South Korea, one of Washington’s closest allies. For China, that raises the uncomfortable specter of American troops on China’s doorstep, erasing North Korea’s traditional role as a buffer.” [8]

Going forward, the U.S. can be expected to either work out a deal that leads to the withdrawal of troops or a resumption of hostilities as a result of failed negotiations. An ultimate goal of U.S. foreign policy is to work towards the reunion of the Korean peninsula. [9] While some consider the attainment of this mission impossible, the U.S. could become the negotiator that unifies Korea. However, one danger of reuniting North and South Korea is that it will result in the withdrawal of the majority of U.S. military forces in Eastern Asia. In theory, this could create a power vacuum which China could exploit to gain more influence.

Another concern for U.S. policy makers is that China will become afraid for its influence in North Korea and relax its sanctions in order to retain North Korea’s favoritism. In fact, President Trump accused China of doing exactly that, but China rejected the claims as a distortion of fact. [10] While the State Department should keep this concerns in mind, there are still two strategies left open that counteract China’s attempt to remain North Korea’s main ally. First, the U.S. could try to simply out-give Chinese aid. The U.S. has given humanitarian aid, both officially and through NGOs, in the past. [9] This strategy could possibly buy the favor of Pyongyang, but that result is unlikely. The second strategy the U.S. could adopt is a hard stance against China that makes it too costly to remain allies with North Korea. President Trump has showed that he’s willing to use tariffs as a form of economic pressure on China. It wouldn’t be inconceivable for him to use them for political pressure as well. [11]

In summary, the U.S. should take advantage of the strain on the relationship between North Korea and China and cement itself as North Korea’s new guardian superpower on the conditions of denuclearization of the peninsula and the reunification of North and South Korea.

  1. Eleanor Albert, “The China–North Korea Relationship,” Council on Foreign Relations, 28 March 2018, backgrounder/china-north-korearelationship
  2. Yu-Hua Chen, “China and North Korea: Still ‘Lips and Teeth’,” The Diplomat, 21 July 2018, https://
  3. Cheng Xiaohe, “The Evolution of the Lips and Teeth Relationship: China-North Korea Relations in the 1960s,” International Relations and Comparisons in Northeast Asia, 2015, chapter/10.1057/9781137455666_8
  4. “Who are North Korea’s trading partners?,” AL JAZEERA, 7 Aug 2017, https:// interactive/2017/08/north-korea-tradingpartners-170807142149131.html
  5. “China’s trade with North Korea nosedives as United Nations nuclear sanctions bite,” Associated Press, 13 July 2018, diplomacy-defence/article/2155136/chinastrade-north-korea-nosedives-united-nations
  6. Lesley Wroughton and David Brunnstrom, “At U.N., U.S. at odds with China, Russia over North Korea sanctions,” Reuters, 27 September 2018, https:// -un/at-u-n-u-s-at-odds-with-china-russiaover-north-korea-sanctionsidUSKCN1M725O
  7. Cui Tiankai, “‘China has done its utmost’ on North Korea,” USA Today, 8 May 2017, opinion/2017/05/08/china-done-utmostnorth-korea-editorials-debates/101437338/
  8. Jane Perlez, “Before Kim Meets Trump, China Gets Jittery About North Korea’s Intentions,” New York Times, 10 June 2018, https:// trump-kim-korea-china.html
  9. “U.S. Relations With North Korea,” BUREAU OF EAST ASIAN AND PACIFIC AFFAIRS, 17 July 2018, https://
  10. Scott Neuman, “Trump Says China To Blame For Hurting U.S.-North Korean Relations,” National Public Radio, 30 August 2018, https:// -says-china-to-blame-for-hurting-u-s-northkorean-relations
  11. Stephanie Dhue & Ylan Mui, “American businesses paid 50% more in tariffs in September due to Trump’s trade war, industry coalition says,” CNBC, 5 November 2018,

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