The Peculiar Relationship between China and North Korea

25 Apr

The recent posturing by Kim Jong Un and North Korea has brought to the world’s attention the fact that his odious regime is supported by China. In fact China is one of the very few supporters that he has. Without Chinese aid his country would not be able to survive. North Korea cannot feed itself, and a huge, disproportionate amount of the country’s income goes on its enormous army, plus the lavish lifestyle of the young dictator. The same goes for Zimbabwe, where the ageing, increasingly deranged dictator Mugabe is only sustained in power to continue to ravage his country by Chinese money and military support. Kim Jong Un’s nuclear escapades have raised two questions. Why does China support North Korea, and why have they not been able to prevent Kim’s ridiculous posturing in recent weeks?

At first sight, there is little obvious benefit to China in such an unequal relationship. North Korea has very little to offer China. Trade between the countries is minimal, and there is no real diplomatic advantage to be gained by having North Korea as an ally. If North Korea has nuclear weapons (which remains uncertain), it is very unlikely indeed that the regime has the means to do much harm with these, since they lack the means to deliver them. Their empty threats are very much like those of Saddam Hussein prior to the second gulf war. The western powers and Israel are unlikely to be fooled a second time without really clear proof that North Korea can deliver its threat. Nevertheless, China does have something to gain through these alliances with dodgy dictators. North Korea proves a very useful distraction for the Chinese. The west cannot move against North Korea militarily for fear of being drawn into a conflict with China. They are therefore forced not only to negotiate with North Korea, but also to rely on China’s good offices and support to restrain Kim Jong Un. China can thus pose as the good guy, especially since it has recently come close to condemning its ally. When North Korea does eventually back down, China will be able to claim credit for its restraint.

Furthermore, regimes such as North Korea absorb so much international attention and energy that there is little chance of any serious diplomatic pressure being brought to bear against China for the undoubted Chinese abuses of human rights. If the West should dare to criticise China, then Chinese influence over North Korea could be withdrawn. Effectively, there will be no restraint at all on North Korea. Should North Korea get to the point where it is able to deliver a realistic nuclear threat, the West will be on its own at the mercy of an unstable dictator who just might be mad enough to carry out his threats. These unstable allies are also very useful at the United Nations. It is no coincidence that China has faced very little UN criticism in recent years. This is clearly in part due to the economic pressure it can now exert, which has grown exponentially in the past two decades. If any regime will attract criticism, it is comforting for the Chinese to know that there are governments out there which are far more loathed and feared internationally than its own.

However, in some ways China looks rather silly internationally since it cannot control its weaker and dependent ally, rather like a parent with an out of control child running wild in a supermarket. China does, however, have a real problem with North Korea. It is clear that China is very worried at the prospect of an unstable power on its border. China fears domestic instability probably more than it fears anything else. For China, at least at the moment its neighbour is internally stable. The North Korean people may be oppressed and miserable, but they are not rebellious, and therefore there is no danger of North Korean discontent spilling across the border into China. If China withdraws its support for Kim Jong Un and he is forced out of power, whatever follows may be much worse for China. It makes sound sense for the Chinese to support the devil they know.

However, China does look reckless in supplying weapons to such an unstable regime. Ultimately, China hopes that it will be able to pull Kim Jong Un back in line if it needs to. Just at the moment, China is probably quite enjoying the West’s distress. After all, China is not threatened by North Korea, and it does the West no harm in China’s eyes to feel under threat from another regime. China can generally afford to laugh at Kim Jong Un. For the West, he does not appear to be quite so funny.


Nanto, Dick K., and Mark E. Manyin. “China–North Korea Relations.” North Korean Review 7.2 (2011): 94-101.

Masako, I. “China-North Korea : renewal of the “blood alliance” Asia Pacific Bulletin. 158. (2012)

Ji, You. “China and North Korea: a fragile relationship of strategic convenience.”Journal of Contemporary China 10.28 (2001): 387-398.

CHUNG, JAEHO. “Between Ally and Partner: Korea±China Relations and the United States.” The China Quarterly 191 (2007): 755-791.

Laney, James T., and Jason T. Shaplen. “How to deal with North Korea.”Foreign Affairs (2003): 16-30.

Sigal, Leon V. Disarming strangers: nuclear diplomacy with North Korea. Princeton University Press, 1999.


One Response to “The Peculiar Relationship between China and North Korea”

  1. Zoe Skousbo April 27, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

    As a geographical neighbour, it seems crucial that China maintain dialogue with North Korea, however cold or distant it may be. Yet, when North Korea’s recent aggressive military and nuclear stance is taken into account, coupled with the ongoing human rights abuses, famine and denial of personal freedoms amongst other abuses committed by the North Korean elite, the argument for the maintaining of amicable relations between the two nations seems suspect. In light of North Korea’s kneejerk aggression after the US imposed even tougher sanctions – directed mostly at the country’s elite, China will have to be very wary of how it deals with the rogue nation, especially as China is the only main trader with North Korea. Even so, China will not be motivated to break ties through loss of moral superiority, but if and when these ties will be broken is yet to be seen although there are various arguments to support both cases. Logically, it seems that China would benefit economically from greater cooperation with the West instead of side lining with such as unpredictable and volatile a country as North Korea, yet this cooperation will bring with it a rising US military presence in the area – one of the reasons why China has lacked so much enthusiasm in its joint condemnation of the famine-ridden country by the US. For the time being though, China can make the most of their neighbour in the respect that Kim Jong Un in distracting US attention away from them and onto Pyongyang. Furthermore, if the North Korean regime were to fall, the influx of refugees into China and the humanitarian situation in the malnourished country would require a huge amount of resources which China will naturally be reluctant to provide to such a vast diaspora. For the time being, it seems China is heading towards a catch-22 situation, caught between appeasing a volatile yet politically decisive tyrannical state and its economic interests in the West.


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