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The China-North Korea Relationship

This article from the Council on Foreign Relations breaks down the relationship between the People's Republic of China and its regular but rocky ally the Democratic Republic of Korea. Find the article's full text here:

Relationship Under Strain

"China’s support for North Korea dates back to the Korean War (1950–1953), when its troops flooded the Korean Peninsula to aid its northern ally. Since the war, China has lent political and economic backing to North Korea’s leaders: Kim Il-sung (estimated 1948–1994), Kim Jong-il (roughly 1994–2011), and Kim Jong-un. But strains in the relationship surfaced when Pyongyang tested a nuclear weapon in October 2006 and Beijing backed UN Security Council Resolution 1718, which imposed sanctions on Pyongyang. With this resolution and subsequent ones, Beijing signaled a shift in tone from diplomatic support to punishment. After North Korea’s missile launch test in November 2017, China called on North Korea to cease actions that increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Still, China's putative steps have been somewhat restrained. While China has backed UN resolutions, in some cases it has withheld support until they were watered down. Additionally, Western officials and experts doubt China’s commitment to implementing even limited trade restrictions and have at times accused the country of circumventing sanctions.

Beijing continues to have sizeable economic ties with Pyongyang. Bilateral trade increased tenfold between 2000 and 2015, peaking in 2014 at $6.86 billion, according to figures from the Seoul-based Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency. With the advent of tougher sanctions, trade growth has slowed, but Pyongyang is still dependent on Beijing for economic activity.

Although Beijing has upheld some of the international sanctions against Pyongyang and taken some measures to squeeze it economically, including the suspension of fuel sales and restrictions on financial activities, relations appear to have thawed.


A Defense Alliance?

Experts say China has been ambivalent about its commitment to defend North Korea in case of military conflict. The 1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, up for renewal in 2021, says China is obliged to intervene against unprovoked aggression. But Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the Chinese government has tried to persuade North Korean leaders to revoke the clause that would force Beijing to come to Pyongyang’s defense. It has also intimated that if Pyongyang initiates conflict, it would not abide by its treaty obligation and instead stay neutral. Some experts, such as Oriana Skylar Mastro, have suggested that in the event of conflict, Chinese forces may not be involved in coming to North Korea’s defense, but rather would seek to play a significant role in shaping a “post-Kim peninsula to its liking.”

Kim and Xi did not meet for years but appeared to strike a more amicable chord in March 2018, when the two held a secretive meeting in Beijing that marked the North Korean leader’s first trip abroad since coming to power. Xi heralded the tradition of friendship between China and North Korea, and Kim reiterated a commitment to denuclearization and a willingness to hold a dialogue with the United States. The two leaders have since met four more times, in May 2018, June 2018, January 2019, and June 2019. During their most recent meeting, Xi was welcomed to Pyongyang, marking the first time a Chinese leader visited North Korea since 2005. (Xi previously traveled there in 2008 as vice president.)

The meetings between Xi and Kim came as North Korea also participated in summits with the South and with the United States. China has urged world powers not to push North Korea too hard, for fear of precipitating the leadership’s collapse and triggering dangerous military action."

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