China Power

China and North Korea

Zhu Feng is one of China’s leading experts on North Korea. The Diplomat’s David Cohen will be speaking with him.

This month, I’ll be speaking with Zhu Feng, an internationally renowned expert on North Korea and nuclear disarmament. Zhu is the deputy director of Peking University’s Center for International and Strategic Studies and one of China’s leading scholars of international relations.  He’s a frequent guest on Chinese TV and enjoys high-level policy access as an advisor to China’s leaders.

North Korea is a major diplomatic headache for Chinese leaders, and China is central to understanding the behaviour of the reclusive state.  As tensions have risen again on the Korean Peninsula over the sinking of a South Korean ship and an exchange of fire between the two countries, all eyes have been on China. As the source of 60 percent of the North’s foreign trade and the country’s only major ally, China is the only country that appears to have much influence. However, China has consistently refused to censure North Korea’s leaders, keeping the country’s food and oil lifelines open despite hopes that it would use them to discipline its neighbour.

The relationship between the two Republics was ‘forged in blood’ during the Korean War, which is remembered in China as a victory against the United States. In the 1950s, the two sides shared a common ideology, as well as manifold common enemies. But since reform and opening, they have had less and less in common, with analysts noting frequent rows, although they are still formally bound by a mutual defence treaty. Zhu is a critic of China’s North Korean policy, describing the alliance as ‘morbid comradeship.’ In an editorial published in English last year, he warned: ‘If North Korea fails to restrain itself, and China’s approach remains tantamount to coddling a dangerous, nuclear-armed state, strategic rivalry across East Asia might revive around a Washington-Tokyo-Seoul axis vis-à-vis a China-North Korea coalition.’

China’s relationship with North Korea has grown costly, both in direct foreign aid and diplomatically. It strains ties with the United States as well as China’s northeast Asian neighbours, and fears of North Korea could drive Japan to seek a nuclear armoury, triggering a regional arms race. But China has been unable to extricate itself, fearing an influx of refugees if the totalitarian regime collapses. Reunification of the Korean peninsula could also bring US troops stationed in South Korea up to the Chinese border.

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