TING WEI TAI highlights China’s shifting attitudes towards North and South Korea.

On August 20, 2015, troops in Pyongyang fired artillery shells over the Demilitarized Zone, prompting their counterparts in Seoul to return fire and evacuate nearby residents. The next day, China’s Foreign Ministry stated that it was “paying great attention to the situation” and “willing to work with all parties toward the peace and stability of the peninsula.” Despite the neutrality of its official response, China’s long-standing alliance with North Korea has recently encountered many difficulties. At the same time, the country’s bilateral relationship with South Korea is steadily improving. Is China currently making a move to shift from the North to the South?

The alliance between China and North Korea dates back to the Cold War. During the Korean War, China sent its army to fight against the United Nations Command, accepted North Korean refugees and students, and assisted Pyongyang in post-war reconstruction. The two countries signed the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty in 1961. Today, it is still in force and binds them to defend each other if either nation is attacked. North Korea also has close economic ties with China. Sino-North Korean trade has been steadily increasing over recent years, growing by more than 10 percent to $6.5 billion from 2012 to 2013, according to Forbes.

While China has embraced free market reforms and opened up the country to the rest of the world since the eighties, North Korea has continued its policy of isolationism. The estranged relationship that North Korea shares with the rest of the world has also resulted in heavy dependence on China as an ally.

Lately, however, Sino-North Korean relations have been severely strained. Professor Adam Cathcart, lecturer at Leeds University and editor-in-chief of the website Sino-NK, has described the bond as “very much a residual alliance—and a very distrustful one.” North Korea’s decision to launch a third nuclear test in February 2013, defied China’s requests not to risk open confrontation and spurred China to pass new trade sanctions, reduce energy supplies and call for denuclearization talks. In a particularly remarkable instance of public criticism, Xi Jinping implied that North Korea was creating regional instability for “selfish gains.”


Since his succession, Kim Jong-un’s approach to North Korea’s relationship with China has been less cordial than his father’s. In contrast to Kim Jong-il’s regular visits, Kim the younger has not yet visited Beijing and even declined an invitation to this year’s 70th anniversary celebration of the end of World War II in China. In turn, Xi Jinping has reversed the usual customs of Chinese state leaders traveling to North Korea before South Korea. He visited Seoul in 2014, but is yet to visit North Korea.

Nevertheless, Yongmin Lee, analyst at Sino-NK, notes that although Kim Jong-un did not attend the 70th anniversary, he did send a senior ranking member of the Korean Workers’ Party, Choe Ryong-hae. Similarly, China also sent a high-ranking member of the Communist party, Liu Yunshan, to North Korea for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the North Korea Worker’s Party in October, 2015. Clearly, high level diplomatic relationships have been maintained.

There has been a significant discussion within China whether its commitment to North Korea as an ally is even in its national interest. In a late 2013 report, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a group directly controlled by the State Council of China, publicly disavowed the idea that China would continue to support North Korea under any circumstances. Among the Chinese populace, negative views on North Korea’s influence (46 percent) outnumbered positive views (20 percent) in a 2014 BBC World Service Opinion Poll.

So what has caused the Chinese people and their government to question the alliance with North Korea? To start, Pyongyang’s value as a communist ally against the capitalist bloc has diminished with the end of the Cold War. Moreover, under the helm of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, China abandoned rigid adherence to communist ideological orthodoxy. As a result, “China now places more value on national interest, over alliances blinded by ideology,” writes Jaewoo Choo for the Council on Foreign Relations, an assistant professor of Chinese foreign policy at Kyung Hee University in South Korea. In this regard, China may not even choose to stick to the terms of the 1961 Treaty strictly, if forced to make a decision. “China conceives itself to have the right to make an authoritative interpretation of the “principle for intervention” in the treaty,” adds Choo.

The economic situation also differs greatly from the Cold War era. While China has experienced dramatic prosperity and growth after Deng’s reforms, the North Korean economy has languished in stagnation under its command economy. Beijing is North Korea’s biggest trading partner, as China constitutes over 60 percent of total trade volume and provides its northeastern neighbor with most of its food and energy supplies. North Korea also accounts for about half of all Chinese foreign aid. Though North Korea remains heavily dependent on China, the converse is not true in any way.

On the other hand, China enjoys a thriving and mutually beneficial economic relationship with South Korea. China has surpassed the United States as South Korea’s largest trading partner, and South Korea is also one of China’s top five trading partners. “Both China and South Korea are faced with economic reality,” argues Yongmin Lee. There is more for China to gain in cooperating with South Korea’s dynamic and competitive economy than with North Korea, which poses a significant economic burden in its constant requirement for aid.


On the political front, Pyongyang’s regime has also proven to be more unpredictable and erratic as an ally than Seoul’s. In May 2013, for instance, North Korea seized a Chinese fishing boat and demanded a ransom payment of ¥600,000, forcing the Chinese government
to step in. In December of the same year, Pyongyang executed Jang Sung-taek, Kim Jong-il’s uncle, a leading reformer who advocated Chinese-style economic reform and an important liaison with Beijing. Zhu Feng, professor of international relations at Peking University, described this as “a very ominous signal” in the New York Times, for Jang was “the man China counted on to move the economy in North Korea.”

Since Beijing is Pyongyang’s primary backer, its antics have also had a reputational cost that Chinese officials have been increasingly reluctant to bear. Roger Cavazos, a former US Army intelligence officer who is now at the Nautilus Institute, says, also in the New York Times, that Chinese academics are concerned that Mr. Kim is “more and more out of control.”

In comparison, South Korean President Park Geun-hye has been adept in managing relations with China. She attended the aforementioned anniversary celebrations, and, in March 2014, she facilitated the repatriation of 437 Chinese soldiers from the Korean War in an official ceremony at the Incheon International Airport. This was a powerful symbolic gesture of historical reconciliation. As Professor Cathcart explains, “It’s been an easy decision to work with the Koreans that will work with them … [the Chinese] trust the South Koreans not to start an incident with the North, they don’t trust the North Koreans—and are very suspicious of North Korean military adventurism.”

Another force that helps to explain improving China-South Korea relations is Shinzo Abe’s rightwards shift in Japan’s foreign policy. Having been invaded and occupied by Japan during the Second World War, both China and South Korea share fears of an emboldened and militarily strengthened Japan. Both countries, therefore, have been perturbed by what they perceive to be Japan’s inability to come clean regarding its military past as well as Abe’s push to increase military expenditure and remove legislative constraints on military action, as seen in new security legislation passed in September 2015 that permitted Japan to deploy troops overseas.

This worrying trend has inadvertently strengthened relations between China and South Korea by heightening perceptions of a common threat. In a survey conducted from April to May 2015 by Genron NPO and South Korean think tank East Asia Institute, 36.8 percent of South Koreans surveyed viewed China as a military threat whereas 58.1 percent viewed Japan as a military threat, up from 46.3 percent last year. “South Korean people have an image of Japan as being a militaristic country based on their historic memories of the war and Japan’s colonial rule. Prime Minister Abe’s recent foreign policy is enlarging that image of Japan,” said Jeong Han Wool, executive director and senior researcher at the East Asia Institute, in the Japan Times.

Does this mean that China will change its approach to North Korea anytime soon? That depends on what China perceives its strategic interests to be and how it should achieve them. First, it aims to have a stable and peaceful Korean Peninsula. Any turmoil, be it war between North and South or the implosion of Pyongyang’s regime, could potentially unleash a massive refugee influx across the North Korean border, something China is keen to avoid.

Second, to the extent that South Korea remains a strong US ally and that the US succeeds in implementing its vision of a Japan-Korea-US security triangle in East Asia, China will prefer a North Korean buffer against South Korea. As Darcie Draudt, assistant editor at Sino-NK and non-resident fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS says, “different preferences for regional alignment, especially over the US-ROK alliance, preclude large changes in China’s foreign policy toward South Korea.” However, this situation has been disrupted by Abe’s aggressive right-wing foreign policy. In the not-too-distant future, South Korea may be sufficiently alienated such that it perceives Japan as more of a security threat than China.

For the moment, China is likely to continue its alliance with North Korea, albeit in a significantly weaker form than the Cold War era. China will continue to face the difficult situation of having the most leverage in pushing for North Korea’s denuclearization compared to other countries, but being unable to exercise it without destabilizing North Korea and endangering its own interests. It is likely to continue to play a mediating role in the Korean conflict as it has done in the Six Party Talks, urging Pyongyang to return to the negotiation table in yet another familiar cycle of military provocation, nuclear brinkmanship and political bargaining.

TING WEI TAI is a freshman at Yale University. Contact him at weitai.ting@yale.edu.