Ever since China came to the aid of the North Korean regime in the Korean war, China has been a reliable partner with North Korea. By maintaining good relations with North Korea, China hopes it will not stand alone against the United States, Japan, and South Korea in times of confrontation. Today China, by far, is North Korea’s primary economic backer and supplies most of its food and energy accounting for about 90 percent of North Korea’s trade volume.
For those countries that seek stricter international sanctions against North Korea, China is often a barrier. China has regularly attempted to block or dilute U.N. legislation condemning North Korea’s transgressions. For instance, China was very critical in February of 2014 of a U.N. report detailing North Korea’s human rights abuses. Also in 2014 and later in 2015, China attempted to block U.N. Security Council meetings on North Korea.
China’s support for North Korea does have its limits. North Korea’s nuclear tests are tying China’s hands. Earlier this year, Beijing suspended some coal trade—China’s greatest point of economic leverage—to Pyongyang. While China has attempted to suspend coal trade in the past, this time it seems to be enforcing its words with actions having turned away North Korean vessels delivering coal. There has been some chatter of curtailing or banning oil exports to North Korea if Pyongyang continues its nuclear tests. This past June the state-owned oil giant China National Petroleum Corporation suspended its fuel sales to North Korea out of fear the regime would be unable to make payments.
For many, it is unclear if these events are signaling that China is losing patience with Pyongyang, or if the moves are simply more tactical and short term to show goodwill towards a new Trump administration.
There are those inside China that are pushing for Beijing to sever ties and abandon North Korea all together. These voices feel China has erred by not doing enough to prevent North Korea from getting nuclear weapons. Because of which, in their view, it has given the U.S. an excuse to deploy the THAAD (Terminal High Area Altitude Defense) missile defense system in South Korea. They believe the missile defense system is not aimed at North Korea, but in fact aimed at China.
Chinese political commentator Zhao Lingmin wrote earlier this year in the Chinese version of the Financial Times, “The U.S. decision to deploy THAAD in South Korea is a disaster for China and it is time China changes its mindset.” That mindset is of the old Mao mindset of a close relationship with Pyongyang. Advocates like Lingmin believe China has moved on into a modern society and North Korea has chosen to stay in the past becoming a serious liability for China geopolitically.
Washington on the other hand appears to be losing patience with not only North Korea but also China. In a Rose Garden ceremony with South Korean President Moon Jae-in last month Trump declared, “The era of strategic patience with the North Korean regime has failed… And, frankly, that patience is over.” Trump’s statement came a day after his administration imposed sanctions on China’s Bank of Dandong. The sanctions come on the heels of Trump’s statement earlier this year that if “China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.”
In the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs North Korean experts Joshua Stanton, Sung-Yoon Lee, and Bruce Klingner argue that it is stability the Chinese seek in their relationship with Pyongyang. They write, “China will be most likely to put diplomatic and financial pressure on North Korea if it believes that failing to do so will lead the United States to destabilize the regime on its northeastern border. Accordingly, Washington must make clear to both Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping that it would prefer the regime’s chaotic collapse to a stable, nuclear-armed North Korea.”
The situation in North Korea is probably the most complicated issue facing the world today. And with the focus on China’s relationship with the North Korean regime, it remains to be seen how far China will go to keep its relationship intact before severely alienating itself internationally.