Existential dependence is characteristic of North Korea’s relationship with China. In addition to being the North’s largest trading partner, China is also its chief food and fuel supplier and defender in the international political arena.
Their tenuous relationship, built on bonds of socialist camaraderie tracing back to the Korean War, is increasingly at the whim of shifts in global politics and abating Chinese tolerance for the Kim regime’s obstinacy.
The manifest iciness of the present relationship can be attributed to several key events. The first is the ascension to power of a brash, capricious yet inexperienced Kim Jong-eun, whose approach to Beijing-Pyongyang relations has been diametric to that of his late father, Kim Jong-il, a proponent of close economic ties. The second was the execution of high-ranking adviser and Kim Jong-eun’s own uncle, Jang Sang-thaek, viewed as a key facilitator of exchange with Beijing.
The third, and perhaps most pivotal unilateral act, was the North’s nuclear missile test in 2013. The response by China, marked by harsher rhetoric than that conveyed following previous tests in 2006 and 2009, was indicative of its frustration with Kim’s pursuit of nuclear capability. For the Chinese CCP, North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship is more than a mere threat to regional security; it provides the pretext for the US to justify its regional military presence. It is no secret, too, that China fears isolation and damage to its reputation as central player in six-party talks, the likely consequence of adopting a soft stance on provocations by the North.
The complexion of Beijing-Pyongyang ties first began to transform following the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s and establishment of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Seoul in August 1992. September’s military parade in Beijing, at which South Korean president Park Geun-hye took centre stage while the North’s envoy was relegated to the back row, was a conspicuous and calculated move to demonstrate the weight China now places on bilateral ties with each of the two Koreas respectively. Pundits have suggested that China’s rapprochement with the South, although ostensibly driven by economic imperatives, is a strategic move with the geopolitical objective of countering US influence in the region.
Meanwhile, in dystopian Pyongyang, Kim Jong-eun held a parade of his own to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party. In spite of a request by Kim for the attendance of Premier Li Keqiang, China only saw fit to dispatch lower ranked emissary Liu Yunshan, member of the Standing Committee of the CCP, a deliberate move that according to analysts was made to avoid angering the South.
As Seoul’s policy stance vis-à-vis its westerly neighbour warms, China is said to be increasingly favourable towards the prospect of Korean unification, according to Andrei Lankov, North Korean expert at Kookmin University, Seoul. Meanwhile, the North Korean ‘buffer zone’ concept, traditionally postulated by observers as the underlying reason for China’s persistence in propping up the Kim regime, is ironically more important now for the North, which leverages its ally as a political, economic and diplomatic shield.
China does, however, have a critical interest in the relationship with North Korea and more specifically, the stability of the present government. The prospect of regime collapse and an ensuing refugee crisis with potentially millions spilling over the border is a potential dilemma that the Politburo is keen to avoid. In this regard, China will find itself obliged to continue the provision of economic assistance and subsidisation, and act as a ‘big brother’ figure for the North in international forums in the name of regional stability.
Despite the diminishing political utility of its alliance with the North, maintaining close ties with its neighbour could provide China with a diplomatic card, enabling it to leverage its influence over the North in order to mitigate international backlash over the escalation of its contentious operations in the South China Sea. Conversely, the North will need to be more measured in its provocations to avoid further alienating its neighbour, without which collapse of the Kim regime would be inevitable.
Michael Parker is the January - June 2016 East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image Credit: (stephan) (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)