The relationship between China and North Korea: Mutual Benefits?

15 May

The relationship between China and North Korea: Mutual benefits?

With North Korea’s recent nuclear programme at the forefront of the news over the last few months, the relationship between China and North Korea has also been concurrently discussed; with this relationship deteriorating as North Korea continues their nuclear programme.

The Beginning

To understand this relationship, you need to go back to the Korean War and China’s intervention in October 1950. There are differing views about why China intervened but one common factor between them was for China to protect itself. Some argue that they intervened because of how close the US forces, led by MacArthur, came to the Chinese border, others argue that they feared that if the Allies had won and turned North Korea democratic, they might attempt to do the same to China as they wanted to halt communism. So getting involved was a way of showing the strength of communism, and considering that North Korea’s goal was to unify Korea under a Communist government and North Korea borders China, it was in their best interests. So I’d argue that the main reasons for China wanting to help North Korea was due to ideology and to protect themselves, and these reason still hold to this day to an extent.

Benefits for North Korea

When we look at the benefits for each country, it is obvious that North Korea have benefited the most, both in the past and the future. Currently:

“Pyongyang is economically dependent on China, which provides most of its food and energy supplies. North Korea gets about 70 percent of its food and 70 to 80 percent of its fuel from China. Beijing is Pyongyang’s largest trading partner, and an estimated 300,000 North Koreans live in China, many of them migrant workers who send much-needed remittances back home.” (Pan, E., 2006)

This quote shows just how important the relationship is to North Korea. And that’s not including the political help the Chinese give them, which include blocking many UN Security Council resolutions against North Korea. After North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, China have participated in the Six-party talks, and have continuously been successful in bringing North Korean officials to the negotiating table at the Six Party Talks many times.

In recent years, it is clear that the relationship is being strained more and more with North Korea’s unpredictability and the continuation of their nuclear programme. People probably overestimate how much control the Chinese actually have over North Korea, and this added with the unpredictability has led to tensions in their relationship.

“Pyongyang is not an ally Beijing can count on. Kim Jung-Il’s foreign policy is, like its leader, highly unpredictable. “North Korea is extremely difficult to deal with, even as an ally…This is not a warm and fuzzy relationship,” he says. “North Korean officials look for reasons to defy Beijing.” Some experts say the missile tests were just one example of North Korea pushing back against China’s influence. “”It was certainly a sign of independence [and] a willingness to send a message to China as well as everyone else”” (Pan, E., 2006)

You’d think that due to how much they depend on China, that they would listen to them a bit more but this doesn’t seem to be the case anymore, but as we see later on, China have the ability to make North Korea listen, it just depends on how much they’re willing to damage the relationship.

Benefits for China

Some would argue that the relationship is not very important to China but necessary after all these years of backing:

“China has too much at stake in North Korea to halt or withdraw its support entirely “The idea that the Chinese would turn their backs on the North Koreans is clearly wrong,” says CFR Senior Fellow Adam Segal…and China’s trade with North Korea has steadily increased in recent years. Bilateral trade between China and North Korea reached nearly $6 billion in 2011” (Bajoria, J. & Xu, B., 2013)

There is no doubt who benefits more from the relationship, but that’s not to say that China don’t benefit at all. By allying with North Korea and keeping them ‘stable’, China can prevent a regime collapse which would probably lead to Korean refugees piling into China, something which China would be keen to avoid, as it’s already something which already happens in small doses. A country that has already experienced huge population growth, which had resulted in a one-child policy, can ill afford to take in so many more people. “Stability is a huge worry for Beijing because of the specter of hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees flooding into China “The Chinese are most concerned about the collapse of North Korea leading to chaos on the border”” (Pan, E., 2006)

North Korea also provides a buffer between China and South Korea, which is home to around 29,000 U.S. troops and marines, and gives them military strength in that region not only against the US but Japan as well. This shows how to some extent, China’s reasons for intervening all those years ago haven’t changed drastically yet. This relationship definitely has mutual benefits for both countries and it seems that China have helped North Korea too much that backing down now will just end up being detrimental to them.

The future of this relationship?

North Korea’s continued unpredictability will make this relationship an interesting one to keep an eye on over the next few years. It seems public opinion in China is already turning against North Korea after they detonated a nuclear test off the coast of China, with people fearing nuclear fallout. And it’s also not just the public who are starting to turn against North Korea:

Among Chinese officials, the mood toward the young North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has also darkened. The Chinese government is reported by analysts to be wrestling with what to do about a man who, in power for a little more than a year, thumbed his nose at China by ignoring its appeals not to conduct the country’s third nuclear test, and who shows no gratitude for China’s largess as the main supplier of oil and food. (Perlez, J., 2013)

Also, due to the amount North Korea depends on China they are in the best place to try and stop them from continuing their nuclear tests. China could easily cut off oil for example, which would cripple the North Korean economy., so in this relationship China still has the power to control North Korea, and it’d be interesting to what extent if any, it will decide to go to try and bring North Korea to heel.


Pan, E. (2006) ‘China-North Korea Relationship’ [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 14/03/2013)

Bajoria, J. & Xu, B. (2013) ‘The China-North Korea Relationship’ [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 14/03/2013)

Perlez, J. (2013) ‘Some Chinese Are Souring on Being North Korea’s Best Friend’ [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 14/03/2013)


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