North Korea’s nuclear development has been all over the headlines lately. Accordingly, some Western media and Chinese observers seem to believe that it would be within China’s strategic interests to cool down, or even break off, its relationship with North Korea. In view of their real national interests, however, China and North Korea will not turn away from each other, despite their cooling relations. From a long-term, historical viewpoint, ties between the two countries will eventually stabilize and strengthen, but under one condition – North Korea’s nuclear impasse must not drag on forever.
Among all of China’s diplomatic ties with its various neighbors in Northeast Asia, relations between China and North Korea have been relatively stable, with plenty of flexibility. Geographic proximity, a condition neither party is able to change, makes it unrealistic for the two sides to break off relations. As part of his foreign policy, President Xi Jinping has been vigorously looking for allies among China’s neighbors, and has even approached Japan and the Philippines in order to bridge differences. Why should he abandon North Korea and create a large flashpoint right along China’s northeast border?
The significance of China-North Korean relations can be better appreciated when one looks at China’s relations with the Asia-Pacific powers. China and the United States disagree in many areas – Internet security, human rights, trade, and the South China Sea, just to name a few. China is in dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and the interpretation of history (symbolized by Yasukuni Shrine). China and South Korea have thorny issues between them as well, such as competing claims over Ieodo/Suyan Rock, the U.S. military presence in South Korea, and defectors from North Korea.
No major bilateral flashpoint exists between China and North Korea. The exception is North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, which is actually a multilateral dispute that goes beyond bilateral ties between China and North Korea and involves South Korea and the United States as well. China is aware that North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons would severely threaten the security environment of China and all of Northeast Asia. Thus, as North Korea’s closest friend, Beijing proposed the six-party talks to allow the parties involved to negotiate and resolve the dispute. The six-party talks are in fact China’s attempt at “testing the water” as a responsible player in regional and international affairs. The West is aware of this. This is why every time the Korean nuclear issue rears its head, the United States points fingers at China.
Historically, however, China-North Korean relations have never been significantly affected by North Korea’s nuclear programs. When North Korea launched the Taepodong-1 missile in 1998, an international outcry for sanctions ensued. Less than two years later, Kim Jong-il visited China in secret. Chinese President Jiang Zemin paid a reciprocal visit to Pyongyang in 2001, and was received by Kim with great ceremony.
When North Korea dropped out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty* in 2003 and was determined to develop nuclear weapons, China promptly hosted a six-party talk. In October of that same year, National People’s Congress Standing Committee Chairman Wu Bangguo visited North Korea and was welcomed with unchanging hospitality. This was followed by another visit by Kim Jong-il to China in April 2004.
President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Pyongyang in 2006, one year prior to a North Korean nuclear test, was not only an endorsement of the friendly and positive relations between the two countries, but also intended to show concern over the escalation of North Korea’s nuclear program. Confidential diplomatic talks between China and North Korea continued after the nuclear test, with Beijing becoming the de-facto key to engaging North Korea. Kim Jong-il visited Beijing again in secret in January 2006, three months after Hu’s state visit. In October 2006, North Korea detonated a nuclear device.
Ties between China and North Korea continued to develop in the aftermath of the nuclear test. One indicator was Xi’s first visit to North Korea in 2008, after he was elected the vice president of China at the plenary sessions of the National People’s Congress and the National People’s Consultative Conference. Xi was also the first high-ranking Chinese official to visit North Korea after the National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2007.
After North Korea’s second nuclear test in April 2009, and the announcement shortly afterwards that it would quit the six-party talks, Premier Wen Jiabao still managed to visit the country in October 2009. Interestingly, 2009 was also the year of “China-North Korean Friendship.” In the same year, North Korean Premier Kim Yong-il was ceremoniously received in China.
Kim Jong-il visited China another three times in a row over the period of one year, in May and August of 2010 and later in May 2011. Then-Vice Premier Li Keqiang (now China’s premier) also visited North Korea in October 2011. From these visits it is obvious that high-level contact between the two countries was not affected by North Korea’s nuclear programs. Relations between the two countries only started to show signs of deterioration after the sudden death of Kim Jong-il.
Since Kim Jong-un took power, North Korea has carried out two nuclear tests, in February 2013 and February 2016. In between these two dates, North Korea’s military second-in-command Choe Ryong-hae showed up in China twice; and on the Chinese side, Vice Chairman of the National People’s Congress Li Jianguo, Vice President Li Yuanchao, and Politburo Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan have all paid visits to North Korea.
Although less intense and frequent, top-level contact between China and North Korea has continued despite the two countries’ cooling relations. Xi’s policy toward North Korea does show a subtle departure from policy under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. But in essence, the bilateral ties between China and North Korea are not challenged by any major, hard-to-bridge differences, especially ideological differences, such as those China has with the United States, South Korea, and Japan. Relations between the two countries are only beset by North Korea’s nuclear development – a multilateral dispute.
China and North Korea will not turn away from each other over North Korea’s nuclear programs. In fact, the political and pragmatic logic behind China-North Korean relations remain unchanged.
Xi’s intention to develop normal relations with North Korea, something beneficial to both countries, is perfectly understandable. Some Chinese observers believe China should not develop relations with North Korea, a country that is not democratic, is closed to the outside world, and has no human rights. In fact, American pundits would sometimes use the same rhetoric about China, but the official ties between United States and China continue to strengthen. National interests are rational, something very different from value judgments.
China cannot afford to turn away from North Korea. Keeping a distance is part of diplomacy between two countries with normal relations. Turning completely away from North Korea, however, is not in line with Xi’s policy of developing normal relations with China’s neighbors. Normal relations involve a willingness to negotiate and resolve differences. The two parties might be displeased with each other, but they should not damage their basic diplomatic contact or their mutual interests.
Whether during the era of Jiang and Hu or under the leadership of Xi, China’s basic policy toward North Korea should be to navigate the balance between intimacy and antipathy. The apparent difference of Xi’s approach to North Korea from his predecessors goes no further than strategic adjustments toward one of the two poles, without actually breaking the balance. A move toward outright enmity is an unlikely scenario within the foreseeable future.
Another analogy is the love-and-hate relations between the United States and its major ally in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia. Many Americans are furious over the “Saudi elements” involved in the 9/11 attack, but the U.S. government kept on friendly terms with its ally. The United States did not turn away from or criticize Saudi Arabia because of its monarchial regime, nor did it compromise the common strategic interests it shares with the Saudis in the region, despite domestic outrage. The Sunni rulers, meanwhile, are apprehensive about American animosity, but they continued to regard the United States as the most reliable friend in the Middle East.
If one day, China and North Korea can develop a partnership like that between the United States and Saudi Arabia, their relationship will have reached a true balance.
*Corrected. The original stated that North Korea dropped out of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty. In fact, North Korea was never a signatory.