China has long been North Korea’s ally, playing a big role in supplying food, arms and energy. A key reason to why China’s diplomatic ties with North Korea has endured is due to ideological similarities and geographic proximity, with its ties stretching all the way back to the time of the Korean War (1950-53). Relations between the two countries were more or less smooth until Pyongyang started dabbling with nuclear weapons and missile testings in October 2006, which pushed Beijing to support the UN Security Council Resolution 1718, and thereby having sanctions imposed on Pyongyang.
However with North Korea becoming more rogue in recent years, such as Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test and ballistic missile launch earlier this year, Sino-North Korea ties have become strained, especially with Beijing being the advocate to resume the Six Party Talks. What was initially seen as an inseparable and intricate alliance between the two powers, it now seems that the future of Sino-North Korea relations is on the rocks.
Pundits have raised various viewpoints over the development of Sino-North Korea ties. Some believe that because China has extended and built its bilateral relations over the years, Sino-North Korea relations are deemed as less important as compared to the past. Moreover, with the end of the Korean War and Cold War, the maintenance of Sino-North Korea ties is now less defined by ideological reasons than it is for economic reasons. Others feel that Sino-North Korea ties will endure because it safeguards China’s interests. For instance, in the event of a war, supporting North Korea would provide a strategic buffer between China and democratic South Korea, which is home to around 30,000 U.S. troops and marines. “For the Chinese, stability and the avoidance of war are the top priorities,” says Daniel Sneider of Stanford’s Asia-Pacific Research Center.
In addition, if North Korea regime collapses, China would have to face the prospect of having hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees at her doorstep. “China would prefer to avoid a calamity on its border especially since North Korea’s collapse would destroy China’s strategic buffer and probably bring U.S. troops too close to comfort,” write Yonsei University’s John Delury and Moon Chung-in.
Beijing has consistently urged world powers not to push Pyongyang too hard, for fear of precipitating a regime collapse. “Sanctions are not an end in themselves,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in January 2016. The refugee issue is already a problem: Beijing’s promise to repatriate North Koreans escaping across the border has consistently triggered condemnation from human rights groups
Historically, however, China-North Korean relations have never been significantly affected by North Korea’s nuclear programs. When North Korea launched the Taepodong-1 missile in 1998, an international outcry for sanctions ensued. Less than two years later, Kim Jong-il visited China in secret. Chinese President Jiang Zemin paid a reciprocal visit to Pyongyang in 2001, and was received by Kim with great ceremony.
Ties between China and North Korea continued to develop in the aftermath of the nuclear test. One indicator was Xi’s first visit to North Korea in 2008, after he was elected the vice president of China at the plenary sessions of the National People’s Congress and the National People’s Consultative Conference. Xi was also the first high-ranking Chinese official to visit North Korea after the National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2007.
After North Korea’s second nuclear test in April 2009, and the announcement shortly afterwards that it would quit the six-party talks, Premier Wen Jiabao still managed to visit the country in October 2009. Interestingly, 2009 was also the year of “China-North Korean Friendship.” In the same year, North Korean Premier Kim Yong-il was ceremoniously received in China.
Kim Jong-il visited China another three times in a row over the period of one year, in May and August of 2010 and later in May 2011. Then-Vice Premier Li Keqiang (now China’s premier) also visited North Korea in October 2011. From these visits it is obvious that high-level contact between the two countries was not affected by North Korea’s nuclear programs. Relations between the two countries only started to show signs of deterioration after the sudden death of Kim Jong-il.
China–North Korea trade has also steadily increased in recent years: in 2014 trade between the two countries hit $6.86 billion, up from about $500 million in 2000, according to figures from the Seoul-based Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency. Recent reports indicate that bilateral trade dropped by almost 15 percent in 2015, though it is unclear whether the dip is a result of chilled ties between Beijing and Pyongyang or China’s economic slowdown. Nevertheless, “there is no reason to think that political risks emanating from North Korea will lead China to withdraw its economic safety net for North Korea any time soon,” writes CFR Senior Fellow Scott Snyder.