China Power

Caught Between Allies: China’s North Korea Dilemma

Recent Features

China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

Caught Between Allies: China’s North Korea Dilemma

Rapprochement between Moscow and Pyongyang has caused mixed feelings in Beijing, as China’s own relations with North Korea are far from close.

Caught Between Allies: China’s North Korea Dilemma
Credit: Depositphotos

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to North Korea marked a rare trip abroad and only his second trip to the country in his 24 years of power. The two leaders signed a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement that includes a clause of mutual assistance if either country is attacked. 

The deepening ties between Russia and North Korea have sparked significant concerns in the United States regarding the potential impact on the war in Ukraine and security on the Korean Peninsula. 

But the rapprochement between Moscow and Pyongyang has also caused mixed feelings in Beijing, as they create new uncertainty for China. Despite being North Korea’s neighbor, economic lifeline and formal ally, China’s relations with North Korea are far from close, as recent developments indicate. 

North Korea’s condemnation of a joint statement by South Korea, Japan, and China during their first trilateral summit since 2019 was seen as a rare rebuke against China. The statement  mentioned denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Pyongyang’s provocative actions around the same time further signaled its displeasure with the summit. It is remarkable that the Kim regime chose to launch a military spy satellite into orbit during a major diplomatic initiative involving China. The last time North Korea clearly sought to embarrass China was shortly prior to the inaugural Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in May 2017, when it conducted a missile launch from a base near the Chinese border. Since then, the regional dynamics have shifted significantly. 

After hitting their lowest point in decades in 2017, China-North Korea relations began to improve significantly following the first meeting between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un in March 2018. Despite having met five times since then, their relationship is not back to being “as close as lips and teeth,” as described once by Mao Zedong.  

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea closed all its borders and halted practically all trade, including with its largest trading partner, China. It was only in April 2024 that China conducted a high-level visit to North Korea with Zhao Leji, China’s third-highest ranked official, leading the delegation. 

This visit took place against a backdrop of increasing international concern regarding North Korea, which has intensified its aggressive rhetoric and military missile test activities. In early 2024, Kim Jong Un announced a major policy shift toward South Korea, ruling out any possibility of a peaceful Korean reunification and thereby signaling a preference for hostility over reconciliation. In 2022, North Korea experienced an unprecedented year of missile tests, and in 2023, it successfully launched a military spy satellite into space – with Russian assistance.  

Since its invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s isolation from the West has led to a deepening of relations between Moscow and Pyongyang, resulting in enhanced military cooperation between the two states. It is believed that in exchange for large amounts of North Korean munitions and ballistic missiles for Russia’s war in Ukraine, Moscow is providing North Korea with military technology, increasing Pyongyang’s military capabilities. The newly close North Korea-Russia relationship poses a serious challenge for the West in Europe and Northeast Asia. 

Beijing, a key partner of both Pyongyang and Moscow, has refrained from commenting on these recent developments. However, the Chinese media was quick to blame the United States, claiming that its “hostile” policy has driven Russia and North Korea closer together, thereby undermining the security situation in both regions. The Chinese portrayal of the United States as the primary instigator of tensions reflects China’s belief that Washington is its greatest threat and enemy, not Pyongyang. 

In response to North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities, the United States has strengthened its military cooperation with South Korea and Japan, much to China’s dismay. Beijing has long accused Washington of using the North Korean nuclear issue as a pretext to expand its military presence in the region, thereby further exacerbating tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Most of China’s foreign policy thinkers believe that Washington’s overall goal. is not to deter North Korea but to contain China. 

Given that China views its foreign policy through the lens of its broader rivalry with the United States, both in Asia and globally, it is highly unlikely that Beijing will exert pressure on either North Korea or Russia to resolve the conflicts in Northeast Asia or Europe. For China, the Kim regime remains an important buffer zone against an increasing encirclement by the U.S. and its allies, while Russia serves as an important ally in countering a U.S.-led world order. 

However, Beijing’s choice to not “interfere” might, in the long run, undermine its own strategic interests. By staying on the sidelines as ties between Russia and North Korea deepen, China risks potentially exacerbating tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

With Russia’s help, the Kim regime is likely to accelerate the development of its nuclear capabilities. This could lead to a stronger response from the United States, and, in a worst-case scenario for Beijing, lead up to the formation of what the Chinese call a U.S.-led “Asian NATO” aimed at targeting China. 

Furthermore, an emboldened North Korea increases the possibility of a more aggressive and provocative behavior, possibly stepping up its weapon testing or, even more concerning, conducting a seventh nuclear test. This inevitably would place China in a position where it is exposed to the escalation of conflicts it prefers to avoid. As a result, Beijing would face intense international pressure, particularly from the United States, to take a stronger stance against the Kim regime. 

The Trump administration serves as a stark reminder of how tensions on the Korean Peninsula could exacerbate existing bilateral frictions and extend into other areas of Sino-U.S. relations. In 2017, China’s perceived inaction on North Korea became intertwined with U.S. concerns about its trade practices, ultimately leading to a trade war and sanctions that continue to this day. 

China’s longstanding strategic priority to maintain stability over pursuing denuclearization has allowed North Korea to advance its nuclear capabilities to a point where it has become very difficult to stop its progress. Officially, China has always adhered to the three principles: “no war, no instability, and no nukes,” reflecting the order of its priorities regarding the Korean Peninsula. But it has become evident over time that pursuing these three goals simultaneously is impossible, as the first two ultimately undermine the third, and vice versa. Beijing is well aware that without denuclearization, achieving peace and maintaining sustainable stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia will be unattainable. In this regard, the expanding relationship between Pyongyang and Moscow has intensified China’s dilemma.

As world politics is increasingly framed as a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, there is a tendency to view growing ties between Russia and North Korea as part of a formation of a trilateral axis with China, aiming at countering the United States, Japan and South Korea. Beijing has denounced this narrative as a revival of “Cold War mentality” and “bloc politics,” accusing the U.S. of attempting to divide the region along ideological lines in order to build an anti-China front. The Chinese leadership is particularly concerned over the increasing trilateral coordination and cooperation linking Japan and South Korea with the United States. 

Rather than antagonizing its neighbors, Beijing has a great interest in improving relations with Seoul and Tokyo to reduce frictions and counterbalance U.S. influence. Economic cooperation and trade are viewed as crucial for boosting China’s post-pandemic economic recovery and maintaining regional peace and stability. Nevertheless, North Korea remains a thorny issue and its provocative actions are disruptive to China’s efforts to forge a more cooperative environment in Northeast Asia.

Despite Beijing’s economic and diplomatic support for Pyongyang, they are anything but close friends. The very fact that Kim’s first post-pandemic foreign trip was to Russia rather than China raises questions about the current state of their relationship. While Kim Jong Un has now held two summits with Putin in less than a year, Xi Jinping has not met the North Korean leader since 2019.

Moreover, North Korea’s efforts to strengthen its ties with Iran further alleviate its isolation, signaling a strategic attempt toward diversifying its alliances and bolstering its nuclear and ballistic missile cooperation. These new dynamics significantly complicate China’s balancing act in the region.