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China’s relationship with North Korea


The launch of two intercontinental ballistic missiles by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or ‘North Korea’) on 4 July and 28 July of this year induced a rapid reaction from Western states. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop described the 4 July launch as ‘provocative’, while the Government referred to the 28 July launch as ‘reckless and menacing’. Meanwhile, the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson condemned the launches, noting that ‘global action is required to stop a global threat’. Secretary Tillerson further stated that ‘any country that hosts North Korean guest workers, provides any economic or military benefits, or fails to fully implement UN Security Council resolutions is aiding and abetting a dangerous regime’. President Trump also recently averred that trade between China and North Korea had grown almost 40 per cent in the first quarter of 2017. Chinese media rejected the claim, but admitted that trade was growing. Both US statements suggest that China is key to maintaining the North Korean regime and that China has a broad capacity to restrict North Korean actions, and possibly its nuclear aspirations. But how does China view the situation?

China has refused to entertain the idea that it is solely responsible for dealing with the North Korean crisis, directly rejecting the ‘China responsibility theory’, and asserting, rather, that all sides need to work to reduce tensions. Nevertheless, China’s support of North Korea has been deep and continuing since the beginning of the Korean War in 1950. Today, China is North Korea’s largest trading partner by far—accounting for about 70 per cent of North Korea’s total trade—and further provides food and energy aid. China remains the major external relationship for North Korea.

The North Korean domestic nuclear program grew out of nuclear cooperation with the Soviet Union in the 1950s. In 2002, during trilateral talks between North Korea, the United States and China in Beijing, North Korea admitted that it possessed nuclear weapons. Since then, China has been involved, at least overtly, in efforts to control North Korea’s nuclear aspirations, beginning with the first Six Party Talks in 2003. The UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Pyongyang in 2006 over its ballistic missile and nuclear programs, and has gradually increased the measures in response to five nuclear tests and its repeated intermediate and long-range  missile launches. Since then, China has signed on to all UN Security Council resolutions imposing diverse sanctions against North Korea. Most recently, China’s agreement saw the Security Council unanimously adopting Resolution 2371 (2017) which extended the number and scope of sanctions against the DPRK.

In addition to implementing the raft of UN sanctions on companies and individuals involved in or connected with North Korea’s nuclear program, China also announced in February 2017 that it would cease importing coal from North Korea. The China National Petroleum Corp, a state-owned company, has also recently stopped diesel and gasoline sales to North Korea. The official Chinese Government position is thus to oppose and limit North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Together with the implementation of sanctions, much Chinese public commentary suggests either that China has been urging North Korea to give up its nuclear state aspirations, or that it does not have the capacity to influence it to that degree. North Korea’s state-run news agency also noted that Pyongyang rejected as ‘reckless’ demands by China that North Korea denuclearise. The commentary, continuing the diatribes of February 2017,  warned Beijing not to test the limits of North Korea’s patience. Taken at face value, these statements suggest that North Korea is prepared to risk going against its long-time ally and that China is unable to influence the development of North Korea’s nuclear program.

However, the February 2017 Report of the UN Panel of Experts established pursuant to UNSC Resolution 1874 (2009) to examine the UN sanctions imposed on the DPRK, notes that North Korea is ‘flouting sanctions through trade in prohibited goods, with evasion techniques that are increasing in scale, scope and sophistication’, and details how many of these evasion techniques involve Chinese companies and North Korean entities based in China.

This suggests that China is unwilling or unable to stem the assistance to the North Korean nuclear and missile programs which is flowing through China. Whether the PRC sees a nuclear-armed North Korea as being advantageous to China’s regional strategic aspirations is moot, but there is certainly a firm conviction in Beijing that the North Korean regime needs to maintain an independent existence. Beyond any rhetoric, China is working assiduously to ensure that the DPRK continues as a separate polity under its influence and that Korean reunification—possible only as a Seoul-dominated exercise—remains forever unrealised. A reunified Korean nation would threaten China in various ways.

First, the process of Korean reunification would necessarily involve regime breakdown in the North. This would mean floods of refugees into China and, inevitably, diminished Chinese influence in the Korean Peninsula.

Second, given the statutory role of the US in the defence of South Korea, a Korean reunification would see a US-linked and supported polity conterminous with the PRC and possibly, US forces stationed along China’s eastern borders.

Third, a reunified Korea would also likely make claims—cultural and possibly otherwise—on the more than 2 million ethnic Koreans who reside in China’s bordering Jilin Province.

None of these eventualities is desired by China and the maintenance of the Kim regime—nuclear armed or not—is currently seen as the most effective avenue for blocking them.

Thus, while South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in is promoting dialogue and proposing military talks with the North, and the US is preparing further sanctions on Chinese firms which support the DPRK’s nuclear program, China prefers to concentrate its efforts on extending the marketing of its One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative across Eurasia, underlining to South Korea that OBOR meshes with its Northern Policy. 

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