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Deciphering North Korea

China will likely keep backing North Korea. But with a leadership transition, Pyongyang shouldn’t push too hard.

By Ong Suan Ee for

Earlier this week, Chinese President Hu Jintao reaffirmed his country’s commitment to its traditionally close ties with North Korea, lauding Kim Jong-un’s leadership, despite concerns over Pyongyang’s recent rocket launch and rumors of an impending third nuclear test.

Hu made his statement in a meeting with Kim Yong-il, the Korean Workers' Party director of international affairs, in Beijing. Hu and Chinese State Councillor Dai Bingguo both reiterated China’s stance of friendship with North Korea, calling for stronger communication and coordination on key international issues, particularly over the Korean Peninsula’s peace and stability.

In covering this event, Chinese national broadcaster CCTV didn’t mention North Korea’s April 13 rocket launch, which Pyongyang insists was aimed at putting an earth observation satellite into orbit. This is despite the fact that China was actually quick to criticize the launch, joining its fellow U.N. Security Council members in condemning the launch and warning Pyongyang of serious consequences if it were to carry out another missile launch or nuclear test. At the same time, though, China’s response to calls for further sanctions on Pyongyang has been has been tepid at best. 

So what’s going on?

China and North Korea are longtime allies. In 1950, China entered the Korean War in support of North Korea, and in 1961, the two countries signed the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, which charges China with defending North Korea in the event of unprovoked external aggression. This treaty has been renewed twice – in 1981 and 2001 –and is valid until 2021.

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Some are skeptical of the usefulness of this treaty as it’s ultimately down to China to determine the conditions under which it would intervene. Additionally, in the post-Cold War era, China has consistently shown that its own national interests trump ideology.

Still, China and North Korea are bound by trade, with China being North Korea’s number one trade partner, making up more than 70 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade. North Korea for its part sells commodities like copper, coal and iron ore to China. Indeed, China’s trade with North Korea has more than doubled since 2006, peaking at $5.1 billion last year.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s investment in North Korea and Chinese border infrastructure is also rising, moves that some see as part of a Chinese strategy to encourage North Korea to institute Chinese-style market reforms. If North Korea is to ever have a chance of achieving its goal of becoming a “strong and prosperous” nation (something that was meant to officially happen this year) it will need China on side.

The problem for both Beijing and Pyongyang is that the rest of the world is growing increasingly frustrated with North Korea’s antics, and by extension the perceived soft touch that China offers it. Announcements such as that made this month by national broadcaster Korean Central News Agency, which interrupted regular programming to announce that North Korea would “soon” use “unprecedented peculiar means and methods” that would reduce the government of South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak and his supporters to ashes, certainly don’t help.

This comes as South Korean intelligence officials have released satellite images showing that the North has been digging a tunnel believed to be part of preparations for a third nuclear test. Officials in Seoul have predicted that the test could take place as early as sometime in the next two weeks, although Reuters has reported that North Korea might consider abandoning its third test if the United States were to agree to a peace treaty.

The wild card in handling North Korea this year is the fact that China and the United States face leadership changes and a presidential election, respectively, meaning neither power can afford to show weakness towards the other. Yet although it’s unlikely the U.S. will want to ease pressure on China to get tough on North Korea, it also seems implausible that Washington would further up the ante knowing as it does that China is faced with a particularly delicate political transition.

As a result, we can likely expect more of the same – China will continue to support North Korea in much the same way it always has, but will still crave some sort of international legitimacy, as we saw through its decision to condemn North Korea at the Security Council.

The question now is whether Pyongyang will push a distracted and sensitive Beijing a little bit further than usual – with dangerous repercussions.

Ong Suan Ee is Senior Research Analyst at the Centre for Multilateralism Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.