Commentary

China and North Korea: The Odd Couple Lives on, Frenemies Forever?

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea never has been an easy client state for China. The DPRK’s Kim Il-sung plunged the Korean peninsula into war barely a year after the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The PRC then spent more than two years battling the U.S. and its allies to preserve a buffer state in the northern half of the peninsula.

Beijing succeeded, but only after suffering hundreds of thousands of casualties. Yet the North never fully recognized its ally’s essential contribution. In the latter 1950s Kim Il-sung purged cadres friendly to the PRC and ordered China’s troops home. Bilateral relations plunged during the 1960s with the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s criticism of Kim’s plans for a familial succession. Pyongyang later objected to Beijing’s opening to the U.S. and recognition of South Korea.

North Korea probably is the most badly governed and most irresponsible state on the planet.”

Perhaps most striking has been the DPRK’s refusal to take advice from its only significant international friend. For years China hosted Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, showcasing its dramatic development and urging economic reform. Just as regularly, North Korea’s leaders returned home and enforced their policy of impoverished autarchy. Even mass starvation in the late 1990s resulted in few changes. As the state weakened private markets arose, but the authorities later restricted even this limited private commerce. The DPRK also routinely ignored Beijing’s pleas to reduce tensions on the peninsula. Instead, Pyongyang initiated nuclear and missile tests, challenged South Korean military forces, and spewed vitriolic threats far and wide.

Yet through it all the PRC has remained the North’s most reliable ally. China provides the bulk of the DPRK’s food and energy. Chinese companies are investing in North Korea and especially the latter’s natural resources, providing essential financial resources. Beijing routinely shields the North from UN censure and sanctions, and only indifferently enforces those restrictions, which it permits to take effect. Most recently the PRC denounced the United Nations’ well-documented report on North Korea’s grievous human rights violations.

Nevertheless, reports that China exported no oil to the North during the first quarter of 2014 again have raised international hopes for a breach in relations. Academic and popular attitudes have turned sharply against Pyongyang. More important, the Xi government appears to be taking a harder attitude.

A year ago top (though recently demoted) official Choe Ryong-hae visited Beijing and is thought to have requested a summit invitation for Kim. That evidently was refused. (In contrast, South Korean President Park Geun-hye has enjoyed a state visit to Beijing.) Last December’s execution of Jang Song-taek, Kim’s uncle and supposed mentor—and the DPRK’s most important interlocutor with the PRC—put the entire bilateral relationship at risk.

Jang was thought to be an advocate of economic liberalization and to have played an important role during the waning years of Kim Jong-il’s rule in spurring Chinese investment and trade. Jang’s 2012 trip to Beijing to promote investment zones with the PRC received wide attention.

Although Jang’s ouster probably reflected internal power politics, he also was criticized for his economic activities. The bill of particulars included “making it impossible for the economic guidance organs including the Cabinet to perform their roles” and preventing the development of “Juche” fertilizer, iron, and vinalon industries. One can only guess at the specifics, but it sounds like Jang was pushing unwanted reforms at home and openings abroad.

Worse, from China’s standpoint, Jang was charged with the “selling of precious resources of the country at cheap prices” and having “made no scruple of committing such act of treachery in May last as selling off the land of the Rason economic and trade zone to a foreign country for a period of five decades under the pretext of paying those debts.” He also was cited for corruption involving a 2011 project at Rason.

The charges seem too detailed to be boilerplate, and suggested that Kim Jong-un, or powerful regime factions, decided that Jang was too close to the PRC, the unnamed “foreign country.” Even if Kim did not blame Beijing for Jang’s behavior, his officials likely would be wary of expanding bilateral economic relations, at least in the near term. And Kim may view any advice or deal emanating from China with extra suspicion.

More recently there were reports, denied by Beijing, that the PRC had created contingency plans for North Korea’s collapse. In fact, it would be surprising if the Chinese government did not consider what to do in a worst case in the North. But the leak, assuming the claim to be genuine, itself is significant, suggesting that some officials may be fed up with Pyongyang. Even before Jang’s ouster former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell cited “indications that China has grown steadily more concerned by” events in North Korea.

However, so far increasing concern with the North has not changed Beijing’s policies. China continues to fear the impact of a North Korean collapse—chaos along the border, mass refugee flows across the Yalu, armed conflict within the North, loose nuclear materials, U.S. and South Korean troops occupying a deflated DPRK, and a united Korea allied with America while hosting U.S. troops. The latter concern likely will intensify so long as Beijing perceives Washington engaged in a hostile policy of containment, which would be advanced by reunification on the West’s terms.

North Korea probably is the most badly governed and most irresponsible state on the planet. Aiding such a country has an obvious cost, which explains the downward trajectory of its relations with China. However, from Beijing’s standpoint all other options are worse.

Only if the U.S., backed by the ROK and Japan, offers a better alternative—for instance, to share the burden of a North Korean collapse and withdraw U.S. troops in the event of reunification—is the PRC’s calculus likely to change. That still might not be enough to move the residents of Zhongnanhai to abandon their long-time frenemy. However, it offers the only strategy likely to have any realistic chance of success.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (Cato) and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (Palgrave/Macmillan).