Dynamics of China’s relations with North Korea

Dynamics of China’s relations with North Korea

Table of Content:

  • Introduction
  • Hypothesis statement
  • Research Questions
  • Literature Review
  • Theoretical framework (Defensive Realism-Kenneth Waltz)
  • Sino-Korean alliance
  • Mutual gain between China and North Korea
  • Beijing’s influence
  • Conclusion


North Korea is the state that is being considered as the most isolated state in the world. China is the only state that is supporting North Korea since Korean War. At the period of Korean War USSR and China backed North Korea. South Korea and North Korea are on the same peninsula whereas; North Korea shares its borders with China, Russia, Japan and Mongolia but does not have good relations with any state except China. Trade impediments have been put on North Korea but China supported them throughout and acknowledged as the biggest trade partner of North Korea. During the Korean War, Soviet Union provided military assistance to North Korea but circumstances are quite different now. As we are living in unipolar world and US is the super power, China is threat to US because of its emerging economic and military power. US supported South Korea in Korean War and they still have ample relations with each other. The reason of fragmentation of Korea is shift in ideology, North Korea was a Communist state and that is again a threat to US because US didn’t want several states that follow Communism. On the other hand China was and still is a Communist state and a cause of having a soft corner for North Korea. South Korea is the Democratic state and has been backed by US. [1]

China is aiding Pyongyang in terms of both soft power and hard power but does not want them to have their own military weapon. Proliferation of Nuclear weapon may lead towards unhealthy relations between China and North Korea and off course US silently supporting this particular act of China against North Korea. From 2006-2013 Pyongyang’s tried Nuclear Tests for the three times but it turned relations in tensed situation and settled afterwards when North Korea agreed on denuclearization at Six Table Talks. For now North Korea does not afford disturbed relations with China because it’s the only state that is providing economic and military trade to them. When Korea split North Korea had better economy and GDP than South Korea but now South Korea is more developed and flourished because of Democracy and support of US whereas North Korea being the follower of Communism and have Dictatorship has poor economy plus have non friendly relations with its neighbors. [2]


North Korea’s alliance is important to Beijing as an important tool of balancing power in the region with the US & its allies, especially South Korea & rising Japan.

Research Questions:

The purpose of the study is to find out the answers of these questions:

  • Why North Korea is important for China in the regional context of Asia Pacific?
  • Will Sino-Korean alliance be able to balance power with the United States & its allies in the region?
  • What is the Western Perception of Sino-Korean alliance?

Literature review:

As China and North Korea’s relationship is one of the ongoing debates for the world since Korean War so scholars like to write about it and by giving different analysis on the particular issue makes the topic more interesting. The Congressional Report has been published on December 2010 by Dick. K. Nanto and Mark. E. Manyin. The main crux of the report was that US being the opponent of China still highlighted the mutual interests of China’s foreign policy towards North Korea. The reason behind that is China wants to see North Korea as a stabilized state in terms of strong economy but does not want North Korea to become a Nuclear power and this is the point where US is with China.

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The Book “North Korea and North East Asia” edited by Samuel. S Kim and Tai Hwan Lee talks about Beijing’s continuous support to Pyongyang is its own interest because if it will stop the economic assistance to North Korea, then the complete dependence on China would affect the economy of China as well. Weak economy of North Korea means less job opportunities and facilities of life. As North Koreans are not in good terms with their neighbors except China they will start moving towards it, this fear is making China to provide soft power to North Korea so they stay in their own state and not become the refuges of China.

There is a report from Washington named as China’s North Korean Policy by Gates Bill published in 2011 and another report “Balancing Chinese interests on North Korea and Iran” by Lora Saalman (April 21013). In this report author has discussed that US, South Korea and Japan are allies but somehow they are agreeing on China’s foreign policy towards North Korea as it discussed about:

1) To stable the regime and political system of North Korea

2) Development of their economy

A book called “China and North Korea” by Andrew Scobell has discussed what terror PRC and DPRK faced after 9/11. In China’s point of view after Iraq it was North Korea’s turn to be attacked by US so in that case it was imperative for both states to come together on one table and maintain their National Security, the article China’s North Korean Pivot published in 2013 by Yoon Young-Kwan added that China’s perception was that Pyongyang’s would agree on the issue of denuclearization when Prime Minister Wen Jibao visited North Korea in October 2009 and made sure the continuity of economic services.

Theory: Defensive Realism-Kenneth Waltz

In this study, I have applied the defensive realism school of thought. Defensive realist basically believes that power is the most important element in the international relations. Also, defensive realists argue that states are genuinely obsessed with security because they feel insecure and thus always seek to maximize its security capabilities. This is how China is developing and maintaining its relations with other states including North Korea in the region. China is insecure and doesn’t trust US and its allies, and with the growing US presence in the Asia Pacific region in return has increased China’s concerns, thus China is seeking to find a way to balance the power by supporting US rival North Korea.

Sino-Korean alliance

As it is observed that China is of the strongest allied state of North-Korea, few things are being come under consideration in last few years. Some tensions have been occurred between China and North Korea relationship due to continuous nuclear development by North Korea, China and US are on the same platform to stop North Korea to become a Nuclear power. It is thought that US partnership towards North East Asia is a gateway to bring stability in Korea peninsula. Since Obama’s pivot to Asia the previous policy (regional partnership) has been confronted, and the changing policy of US is creating suspicion among Chinese Government.

North Korea’s approach is aggressive towards China and US, now North Korea is applying realistic approach as according to North Korea US is the only actor with maximum nuclear power and Pyongyang is trying to balance the power by developing their own Nuclear weapons.

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U.S-China policies are divergent in key areas such as anti-terror and anti WMD institutes, democracy and human rights. The U.S alliance system and the U.N system contribute on stable patterns of power balancing in Asia-Pacific. I conclude that Sino-U.S policies on the regional order result in patterns of power balancing not undermined by co-existence and order that may be called “Stable Instability”, because it is likely to remain in place as the regional order of the Asia-Pacific for the foreseeable future.

Western perception of Sino-Korean alliance
Since China is the biggest trade partner of North Korea but its policy towards denuclearization of North Korea is very clear and supports US on this particular issue. Though US consider China as a threat but also realize that China is only providing soft power to North Korea and has a very firm stance on the issue of denuclearization of North Korea.

At the start of the Obama’s administration first term in 2009, there were many expectations that the United States must pursue direct talks with North Korea in order to break a two decade long standoff over its nuclear program. President Obama promised in his inaugural address that he would offer an outstretched hand to those who will unclench their fists. Making a public offer to dictatorial states of willingness to abandon adversarial relations.[3]

However North Korea responded to this offer with a multi-stage rocket launch and a nuclear test in April and May 2009.These actions meant that president Obama’s first North Korea related policy decisions would be defined by the need to uphold the international non-proliferation regime against North Korea’s challenge and would involve winning international support for sanctions against North Korea at United Nations security council. The resulting UNSC resolution 1874 condemned North Korea’s nuclear and multi stage rocket tests and subjected suspected North Korea related shipments to international inspections. [4]

By the time Obama’s administration had the political space to pursue direct dialogue with North Korea; it had decided on an approach that secretory of United State Clinton described as strategic pastime in close consultants with our six party allies. The emphasis alliances coordination has been the first principle of any Obama administration discussion policy towards North Korea and it was greatly aided by the fact that Obama and Lee Myung-bak (former ruler of South Asia) administrations largely saw eye to eye on the priority and importance of North Korea’s denuclearization.[5] The policy of “strategic patience”, a policy that suggested that the U.S could offend to wait for North Korea to make its decision to denuclearize, aligned well with political reality in light of North Korea’s alleged sinky of a Korean warship and shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeons Island in March and November 2010. The Obama administration held three rounds of direct talks with North Korean counterparts from July 2011 to February 2012.

The U.S intended these statements to bind North Korea from provocative actions such as nuclear and missile tests and to secure Pyongyang’s commitment to return to the path of denuclearization, but they were upended less than three weeks after they were announced by North Korea’s March 16, 2012 announcement of its failed 12 April 2012 satellite launch. Thus, the Obama’s first term policy toward North Korea involved a mix of elements, including a strong commitment to coordination among some South Korean and Japanese allies, continued adherence to the objective of North Korea’s denuclearization.
The Obama administration also involved a “rebalancing” policy towards Asia, popularly known as pivot to Asia. This policy strengthens U.S political, economic and military participation in and commitment to Asia, both through a host of bilateral dialogues with China that cover a wide range of economic and strategic issues and through a variety of hedging measures designed to shape China’s rise, limit the affects of assertive Chinese policies and assure that China’s rise will not result in regional instability. This debate provides a backdrop to consider prospects for Sino-U.S cooperation on policy toward North Korea and highlights Chinese wariness and strategic mistrust of U.S policy intentions.[6]

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Mutual Gain

North Korea is economically dependent on China. China is its major food source and the North Korea’s dependency on china is increasing day by day as its export is less than its import. It is not only North Korea that is benefitting from China but it’s a game of mutual gain North Korea is providing buffer zone between China and South Korea. More and more Chinese companies are investing in North Korea and gaining favorable interests.

Importance of North Korea in Asia Pacific (China):


China doesn’t believe in making alliances or allies. China only seeks mutual interests and cooperation amongst states. Also, China perceives a threat from US and its Allies and so in order to balance out, China has been supporting North Korea since the Korean War in early 1950s. Moreover, there has been a mutual gain relation between North Korea and China. North Korea’s economy is entirely dependent on China as China provided it with aid and energy supplies. Also, China is protecting and calming down its border against the Korean immigrants in China.

However, China is surrounded by many challengers and so China sees North Korea as a buffer state against South Korea where 1000’s of US military troops are settled. Also, there has been a great number of investments and infra-structure building in North Korea by Chinese firms and companies. And in return China is extracting mineral resources from North Korea’s region. This way China is protecting and serving its own national interests while also helping out the North Korean interests and raising many of its people out of poverty.


A.Snyder, Scott. “U.S. Policy Toward North Korea.” Council on Foreign Affairs, January 2013.

Armenian, Red. Soviet-Empire.com. 26 January, 2011. http://www.soviet-empire.com/ussr/viewtopic.php?t=49753&start=100 (accessed April 15, 2914).

Dingli, Shen. “Scribd.” 2006. http://www.scribd.com/doc/85548815/Coping-With-a-Nuclear-North-Korea-and-North-Koreas-Strategic-Significance-to-China (accessed April 8, 2014).

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shree Bajoria, Beina Xu. Council on Foreign Relations. Febuary 18, 2014. http://www.cfr.org/china/china-north-korea-relationship/p11097 (accessed April 10, 2014).

Xu, Jayshree Bajoria and Beina. India’s Strategic Studies. Febuary 21, 2013. http://strategicstudyindia.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-china-north-korea-relationship_26.html (accessed April 16, 2014).

[1] Dingli, Shen. “Scribd.” 2006. http://www.scribd.com/doc/85548815/Coping-With-a-Nuclear-North-Korea-and-North-Koreas-Strategic-Significance-to-China (accessed April 8, 2014).

[2] Armenian, Red. Soviet-Empire.com. 26 January, 2011. http://www.soviet-empire.com/ussr/viewtopic.php?t=49753&start=100 (accessed April 15, 2914).

[3] A.Snyder, Scott. “U.S. Policy Toward North Korea.” Council on Foreign Affairs, January 2013.

[4] Henderson, Barney. Sreaves32. March 29, 2013. https://sreaves32.wordpress.com/category/asiapacific/south-korea/page/6/ (accessed April 6, 2014).

[5] Newsreview.com. March 15, 2014. http://www.newsreview.com/reno/newsview/blogs?date=2013-09-01?utm_source=luvcelebs.com (accessed April 10, 2014).

[6] A.Snyder, Scott. “U.S. Policy Toward North Korea.” Council on Foreign Affairs, January 2013.

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