What’s China’s relationship with North Korea really like?

What’s China’s relationship with North Korea really like?

The latest nuclear test by North Korea has focused the world’s attention on China. Much of the international community believes China is key to making North Korea behave. But just how powerfully can China pressure its only ally?

La Trobe’s Nick Bisley, Professor of International Relations and Executive Director of La Trobe Asia, unpacks their tricky partnership to reveal the limits to China’s control.

An uneasy partnership with geopolitical perks

Since the rapid division of the Korean Peninsula at the end of the Second World War, North Korea has acted as a physical and political buffer between China and US-allied South Korea. China supported North Korea during the Korean War (1950–1953). And in 1961, the Chinese and North Korean governments signed the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty. The treaty formalised their relationship and remains in effect today.

According to Nick, the treaty means China is beholden to help North Korea if an outside military attack occurred. Notwithstanding this, he says, they are ‘uneasy bedfellows’.

“The treaty says, ‘We’re with you, we’ll protect you’. It doesn’t mean they have to like each other,” says Nick.

“Even though North Korea is right next to China, even though China had lost hundreds of thousands of soldiers defending North Korea, they never really got along. Through the Cold War, the principal supporter of North Korea was the Soviet Union, not China.”

Rather than being friendly allies, then, China and North Korea are partners of geopolitical necessity. Their relationship is fraught – historically, even their views on Communism differ. To date, three generations of the Kim family dictatorship have ruled North Korea. This family succession was something former Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-Tung ‘completely opposed’.

A two-edged relationship: like ‘lips and teeth’

The tension in China and North Korea’s relationship is common knowledge in contemporary China, where citizens describe it as being ‘like lips and teeth’.

“The Chinese will often use the phrase in public. North Korea’s the lips and China’s the teeth. The teeth are protected by the lips. But also – and this is the North Korean perspective – the teeth can bite the lips,” Nick says.

“So there is a complex relationship that says on the one hand we’re your ally and we’ll protect you in the event of conflict, but it doesn’t mean we have to like you. And in fact below the surface of an alliance there is a great deal of antipathy.”

For China, being North Korea’s principal guarantor is a double-edged sword. On the positive side, most North Korean trade takes place with or through China. China is the largest provider of food and industrial machinery to North Korea. It also ‘keeps the lights on’ by controlling a pipeline of crude oil that crosses the Yalu River on the countries’ border.

On the downside, China’s advantages are neutralised by the threat of North Korea’s regime collapse. If trade arrangements were stopped, North Korea would collapse within two or three weeks. This situation would have disastrous flow on effects for China.

“The Chinese ability to coerce North Korea is actually pretty limited,” Nick says.

“Even though they have this enormous leverage, that’s all they have. And if they turn that off – which is to say they turn the lights off – the consequences for North Korea would be so devastating that they would hurt China as much as, if not more than, they’d hurt North Korea.”

Nick posits that if Kim Jong-Un’s regime were to collapse, millions of North Korean refugees would likely flood across the border into China. The ensuing reunification of Korea would put US military on China’s border. And the unchecked flow of military hardware could put nuclear material and technology into even more catastrophic hands. These are all scenarios China wants to avoid.

But China also wants to avoid embarrassment – and right now, North Korea is making it blush. At China’s 19th National Communist Party Congress in October 2017, Chinese president Xi Jinping will strive to consolidate his power, but North Korea’s behaviour threatens to embarrass him and undermine his efforts.

“Xi Jinping’s at the top of the pile, but he’s still dependent on various coalitions. You don’t want to be embarrassed internationally. And what’s North Korea doing? It’s embarrassing him,” Nick says.

“As the junior alliance partner, you’re meant to go and pay your respects to the senior partner. The North Koreans haven’t gone to Beijing.”

As tensions between North Korea and the US amplify, China remains in a difficult, ambivalent position. So far it’s balancing new UN sanctions on North Korea with its need to not completely undermine the regime. Will it work?

Discover more about China’s emergence as a global power at our Bold Thinking Series event, Kevin Rudd on China’s rise and a new world order, in Melbourne on 26 October 2017.

Professor Nick Bisley

Professor Nick Bisley is Executive Director of La Trobe Asia and Professor of International Relations.