North Korea: China’s Liability?

By Patrick McClanahan/ Harvard Politics Review

On 8th September 2016, North Korea launched its fifth nuclear test, demonstrating yet again its defiance in the face of widespread sanctions and international condemnation. The Hermit Kingdom’s repeated violations of international norms have earned it public rebuke even from its closest ally: China.

While China typically opposes UN sanctions against North Korea, it recently supported the harsh series of UN sanctions in response to the 7th February ballistic missile tests, an indicator of a recent cooling of Chinese-North Korean relations. China and North Korea have a longstanding alliance, rooted in parallel ideologies and mutual security interests. However, China’s rise as a global economic power and its increasing role in international politics have created a new set of goals starkly different from those established during its isolated and ideologically fervent founding. Should China continue to support the Hermit Kingdom despite its destabilizing and aggressive actions, China will hinder its strategic goals in East Asia and beyond.

Ever since Chinese troops surged across the border to push back the rapid American advance in the peninsula during the Korean War, China and North Korea have been tied together in a close defensive and economic alliance. The Chinese saw the presence of a friendly regime between them and U.S.-backed South Korea as a welcome buffer to check American influence near its border. With the perceived encroachment of the US military, rising tensions with other nations in the region, and the lack of another true military ally, China is reluctant to take action that would significantly strain its relationship with North Korea. The Chinese government continues to treat the D.P.R.K. as necessary to its regional security, especially given the rising antagonism in its relationship with other neighbours, such as Japan and Vietnam.


China is North Korea’s main source of food aid, weapons, and energy. It accounts for over 70 percent of the D.P.R.K.’s total trade volume, reaching a value of $6.86 billion in 2014. While trade volume dropped 15 percent in 2015, this may be due to China’s slowing economic growth, rather than any large shifts in the relationship. Additionally, China is the only nation that has not significantly reduced food aid to North Korea since the 2009 nuclear test, significant in a country the UN estimates to be 70 percent food insecure. It is estimated that the P.R.C. provides North Korea with 90 percent of its oil, 80 percent of its consumer products, and 45 percent of its food through trade and aid.

Despite China’s support for North Korea, it still hopes to establish a better relationship with South Korea. However, North Korea’s tests and aggressive behaviour seriously strain Chinese-South Korean relations. South Korea, much like Japan and Taiwan, has a more cooperative relationship with the United States than China due to political factors, economic ties, and regular military exercises. While Chinese relations with Taiwan and Japan will likely remain frosty due to mutual historical animosity, South Korea represents a unique opportunity for China, due to their intertwined economies. China is South Korea’s third largest investor, and in 2012, trade with China composed over 20 percent of all of South Korea’s foreign trade. However, public opinion of China in South Korea has drastically deteriorated over the last decade. In 2002, 66 percent of South Korean citizens held a very favourable to somewhat favourable view of China. In 2010, only 38 percent of the population reported similar attitudes, according to Pew, in large part because of China’s tolerance of North Korea’s second nuclear test. China cannot build a constructive political relationship with South Korea while still propping up the hostile Kim regime in the north.

North Korea’s volatile behaviour has also led the deployment of more U.S. military assets along China’s sphere of influence. The most recent nuclear test led the United States to announce plans to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (T.H.A.A.D.) battery in South Korea, a move China vehemently opposed for months before the official announcement. In February, the Chinese ambassador to South Korea warned in reference to the T.H.A.A.D. battery, “Much effort has been made to develop bilateral ties to today’s level, but these efforts could be destroyed in an instant with a single problem.” The T.H.A.A.D. battery, capable of intercepting ballistic missiles—including nuclear warheads—would shift the regional balance of power towards the United States and its allies, and weaken China’s regional power projection. Beijing considers the hardware threatening enough to its position in the region that it is willing to burn the political capital it has  built up with South Korea to prevent the missiles’ deployment. All of this can be directly traced to North Korea’s behaviour: referencing Chinese security concerns, President Obama stated, “I indicated to [President Xi Jinping] that if the T.H.A.A.D. bothered him, particularly since it has no purpose other than defensive and does not change the strategic balance between the United States and China, that they need to work with us effectively to change Pyongyang’s behaviour.”

Even without shouldering the political fallout of North Korea’s volatility, the Chinese government is already battling a reputation as a regional bully in the wake of its expansion into the South China Sea. After accusing Singapore of turning South China sea territorial disputes into an international issue, a top P.L.A. advisor told state radio, “It’s inevitable for China to strike back at Singapore, and not just on the public opinion front.” Aggressive behaviour and rhetoric have severely hampered China’s attempts to improve relations with its neighbours, pushing smaller nations deeper into the United States’ sphere of influence as they seek protection against the potential regional hegemon. North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile tests are an incredible and unpredictable threat to its neighbours, and China’s support of the regime only contributes to its image as a destabilizing regional force, which favours lackeys over partners.

The Chinese government finds itself at a crossroads: continue backing North Korea despite its erratic behaviour, or use its influence to encourage internal reform. Due to the regime’s unpredictable nature, Beijing has to consider the potential fallout from either course of action. Should they fully withdraw support, the regime may either collapse or drastically increase aggressive behaviour, in order to whip up public support for the resource-starved regime. Both these outcomes would lead to a flood of U.S. military assets into the region, with results very similar to the situation that drove China to action in the Korean War in the first place. Although the P.R.C. has so far managed to balance publicly condemning the D.P.R.K. while shielding them from harsher international rebuke, in the wake of North Korea’s increasingly erratic and aggressive behaviour, and the international community’s increasingly harsh stance, China may find its own strategic goals threatened by its oldest ally.

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