At the Munich Security Conference in early November, Chinese officials delivered a crystal-clear message that China would avoid hurting its relationship with North Korea at all costs. No international or American initiative with any potential to destabilize the North Korean regime has a chance of Chinese support—and that includes efforts to halt Kim Jong-un’s nuclear program. This was yet another signal disproving the common notion that the China-North Korea relationship has soured in recent years. And it is another complication in the delicate task of dealing with the dangerous nation north of the DMZ.
Historically, China and North Korea have enjoyed an enduring and flexible alliance based on parallel communist ideologies. Until the 1970s, the Chinese Communist Party and the Workers’ Party of Korea ruled their nations according to similar Marxist-Leninist principles. Although ideological affinity does not play the same crucial role today as it did during the Mao era, the two nations still have a close relationship. Their military alliance dates back to the Korean War of 1950-53, when Chinese and North Korean soldiers fought side by side. And naturally, China enjoys having a communist buffer between its own territory and the US-allied South Korea. The events of recent years prove that China wants to defend and maintain this alliance. Even though China clearly has leverage over North Korea, especially in terms of economic aid, it has refused to use this leverage to stop North Korea’s nuclear development.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, China remains North Korea’s “most important ally, biggest trading partner, and main source of food, arms, and energy.” Official figures back this up. According to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, North Korea’s trade with China has risen over the years. It rose to $6.86 billion in 2014 from only $500 million in 2000; the 2014 figure accounts for over 70 percent of North Korea’s total trade. China also provides 80 percent of North Korea’s consumer products and 90 percent of its oil. On the investment side, there are more than 200 Chinese mining and production companies currently operating in North Korea, employing North Koreans. This level of integration means that North Korea’s survival depends almost entirely on China’s economic decisions.
One powerful reason why China wants to avoid North Korea’s collapse is that it fears that millions of refugees would flow into China. This fear is based on the fact that the country already has more than 50,000 North Korean refugees. Despite international pressure, China maintains that these defectors are illegal “economic migrants” and regularly deports them back to North Korea, where they face nightmarish punishments. In 2008, Chinese authorities further intensified their efforts to capture defectors, deporting hundreds a week. This repatriation policy clearly shows the government-to-government cooperation that exists between China and North Korea. China fears that accepting defectors would further weaken the North Korean regime, which might then cause even more refugees to flow across the border.
China’s friendship with North Korea is all the more serious because it hinders an effective response to North Korea’s nuclear threats. Historically, the bond between China and North Korea has continued unaffected by North Korea’s nuclear tests. China was one of the only nations that did not dramatically reduce food aid to North Korea following its 2009 nuclear test. Even after the January 2016 nuclear test, China agreed only very reluctantly to comply with UN sanctions on North Korea. Worse still, recent investigations found that Chinese conglomerates were providing materials to North Korea that can be used for nuclear weapons production—when cutting off this supply is one of the most important ways China could help suppress the North Korean nuclear program.
Far from cooperating with the international community, China is reacting with rage to the US and South Korea’s installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea. After the decision to deploy THAAD went through, China unilaterally cancelled at least nine bilateral military talks with South Korea, ignored numerous communications from South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, punished South Korean companies, and even started blocking K-Pop entertainers from appearing in Chinese programs, a move it openly admitted was related to THAAD. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who visited South Korea on February 2, reiterated US support for the missile defense system and insisted it is intended only to protect against North Korea—which launched another missile on February 12, 2017.
Communist nations have a tradition of backing similar authoritarian regimes to defend their vulnerable ideology. As this appears to be China’s attitude towards North Korea, Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions will remain among the top foreign policy challenges for the Trump administration—and will be another entry on its long list of points of tension with the Chinese regime. China’s uncooperative stance is clear: as Professor Shi Yinhong of Beijing’s Renmin University bluntly put it, “The United States cannot rely on China for North Korea… China sees living with a Communist-ruled nuclear-armed state on its border as preferable to the chaos of its collapse.” That sums up the tricky strategic reality for the US.