China and North Korea: From Comrades-In-Arms to Allies at Arm's Length
Authored by Dr. Andrew Scobell. | March 2004
The China-North Korea relationship remains the most enduring, uninterrupted bilateral friendship for both the People?s Republic of China (PRC) and Democratic People?s Republic of Korea (DPRK). This brother-in-arms relationship was solidified early during the Korean War. Sharing a common border and ideology, both China and North Korea confront the frustration of divided nations. And while, on the one hand, each views the United States as hostile, Beijing and Pyongyang, on the other hand, appear to crave better relations with Washington.
Arguably, each clings to the other because they have nowhere else to turn?each believes that close cooperation with the other is vital to its own national security. No doubt each country would prefer to depend less on the other. China has a major stake in ensuring the continued survival of the North Korean regime and may be willing to go to considerable lengths to guarantee this. North Korea, meanwhile, seems destined to remain heavily dependent on China for morale support and material assistance.
Despite this type of relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing, there are significant limits to China?s influence on North Korea?in part due to China?s unwillingness to apply hard pressure and in part because, even if China did apply such pressure, North Korea might not respond in the desired manner.
China was spurred into action in early 2003 by heightened fears that North Korea might be the next target of U.S. military action after Iraq. China undertook an unprecedented diplomatic initiative to bring Washington and Pyongyang to the same table in Beijing thrice in the space of 10 months: three-party talks in April 2003, and then six-party talks in August 2003 and February 2004. China deserves considerable credit for these significant accomplishments.
Nevertheless, China may have reached the limits of its influence on North Korea in terms of what actions the United States can expect from Beijing and what impact Chinese influence is likely to have on Pyongyang. The most the United States probably can expect is for China to push on to continue the six-party talks.
- Don?t expect too much from Beijing.
- Don?t underestimate China?s commitment to protect its own national interests.
- Don?t force China to choose sides.
- Don?t expect much movement from Pyongyang.
- North Korean distrust of outsiders may be almost insurmountable.
- Don?t count on China to dissuade North Korea from going nuclear.
The relationship between the People?s Republic of China (PRC) and the Democratic People?s Republic of Korea (DPRK) remains the most enduring, uninterrupted bilateral friendship for both countries. This monograph examines the significance of the relationship from Beijing?s perspective. First the author considers the logic of China?s ties with North Korea, and then surveys the various dimensions of this multifaceted relationship. Next, he analyzes China?s evolving views of North Korea and assesses its activist initiative in 2003 seeking to resolve the nuclear issue. Then he discusses Beijing?s preferences for the future of the Korean peninsula, summarizes conclusions, and offers the implications for U.S. national security.
Arguably China and North Korea cling to each other because they have nowhere else to turn?each believes that close cooperation with the other is vital to its own national security. According to the closing paragraph in a recent article from the official Beijing Review:
A strengthened China-DPRK friendship is . . . vital to the economic and social development of both countries in the 21st century. China needs peace and stability along its border, in order to ensure its rapid modernization. Likewise, the DPRK needs China?s cooperation, in order to press ahead with its socialist construction. Since both countries need each other for these economic and social purposes, stronger bilateral relations are inevitable.106
If anything, this quote understates the significance Beijing places on the relationship.
Almost certainly, each country would prefer to depend less on the other. Indeed, Beijing seems to view Pyongyang as a troubled teenager lacking adult supervision who lives right next door in a decrepit old house with a large arsenal of lethal weapons and exhibiting strong self-destructive tendencies. A confrontation, or?heaven forbid?battle between the teen and the police threatens to damage China?s newly remodeled mansion, and worse case scenario could lead to the complete destruction of other homes in the Northeast Asian neighborhood, including China?s. The DPRK looks to balance against total reliance on the PRC in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In any case, the DPRK leadership has probably realized that there is a limit to what the PRC is willing or able to provide for it. Since the late 1990s the DPRK has engaged in an unprecedented flurry of diplomatic activity and established official ties with more than two dozen states. Pyongyang has made efforts to seek a rapprochement with the United States, including hosting then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in late 2000 and sending Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok to Washington. More recently, Kim Jong Il paid a visit to Russia in mid-2001.
In the final analysis, China has a major stake in ensuring the continued survival of the North Korean regime and may be willing to go to considerable lengths to guarantee this. North Korea, meanwhile, seems destined to remain heavily dependent on China for moral support and material assistance. This is unlikely to change unless Pyongyang more actively re-engages with Seoul and/or pursues a thoroughgoing rapprochement with the United States, and undertakes a major reorientation of its economy toward market reforms and external trade and investment. Thus, for the foreseeable future, China and North Korea seem destined to remain close to, but uncomfortable with, each other.
Three possible paths may lie ahead for China-North Korea relations: (1) no change in the relationship, (2) a warmer and closer relationship, or (3) a cooler and more distant relationship. What is the likelihood of any of these coming to pass, and what would each of these mean for the United States? To start with the third possibility, frostier ties between Beijing and Pyongyang are a distinct possibility. The most likely way for the relationship to sour further would be for North Korea to pursue brinkmanship with the United States and continue its nuclear weapons program, and discard any pretense of making reforms. This would likely create more opportunities for cooperation and consultation between the United States and China. The result would also likely be a more isolated and desperate North Korea which would make it more unpredictable and dangerous.
An improved relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang would be the best turn of events for the United States because it would signal real, positive change. This would likely come about if North Korea became more moderate and reasonable in its relations with the United States, took tangible steps to discontinue its nuclear program, and permitted foreign inspectors wide access to its facilities. Pyongyang would also likely embark on significant thoroughgoing economic reforms.
However, the most likely path ahead in China-North Korea relations is no significant change. This might prove the most disappointing outcome for the United States. Nevertheless, there should be some consolation that this is probably a better outcome than a worsening or severing of the Beijing-Pyongyang link. However, at least persistence of the status quo in its relationship with China provides North Korea with some level of reassurance and a dissuasion against irresponsible and erratic behavior. And the status quo also holds out the possibility of positive future change. From the U.S. perspective, more of the same in Beijing-Pyongyang relations at least permits China to play a role in encouraging North Korea to moderate its stance, contemplate ending its nuclear program, and continuing a multilateral dialogue.
106. Xiao Zan, ?Beijing and Pyongyang Get Closer,? Beijing Review, September 27, 2001, pp. 9-10.