Historically speaking, relations between China and North Korea have been more stable than that with its fellow North East Asian counterparts. Nevertheless, particularly within the past 10-15 years the old alliance has been strained as China’s economy has flourished it now craves stability, whereas Pyongyang is seen to be developing in the opposite direction.
With the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in fact predating the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) relations were build upon during the years of the Chinese civil war when Korean and Chinese communists fought side by side against the Japanese. As a result an alliance of gratetude was formed and when the DPRK troops in June 1950 launched an invasion of the Republic of Korea, Chinese troops came to the rescue fighting against the Americans.
Supporting the development of the DPRK brought Beijing and Pyongyang closer together, however looking into the 21st Century is Pyongyang seen to be a liability? Will this fractured alliance eventually crumble?
It would be safe to say that relations between China and the DPRK are cooling and expressions of gratitude have ceased to take place between the once close allies. North Korea depends on China for the majority of its business, food and weaponry, as a result this economic leverage has been used by China to punish the DPRK with regards to its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
However, the pressure by which China have the potential to exert is one laced in trepidation. For example, restricting the DPRKs economic activities could result in the collapse of the country which would most likely be absorbed by South Korea, a U.S. ally. On the other hand, as the DPRKs missile programmes continue to develop, U.S. weapons systems such as THAAD have been recently deployed in South Korea sparking outrage by the PRC as it has the ability to also take down Chinese fired missiles.
The 1961 Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty signed by China has been renewed twice and won't expire until 2021, this in effect guarantees Chinese protection from a military perspective. However, attitudes towards North Korea have begun change in China, most notably the search term “third-generation pig” a term referring to the North Korea Leader Kim Jong Un has been unblocked. In addition China made the following comment when dismissing the complaints made by the DPRK:
“We don't have responsibility, and anyone who has a legal passport can go anywhere they want.”
in relation the 13 defectors who escaped to South Korea from a North Korean restaurant in Ningbo, China.
The relationship is in limbo, no bilateral flashpoint exists between China and the DPRK but a multilateral dispute over its weapons programme does. China may welcome, from a realpolitik level, an increase in military development in North Korean as to distract Washington from maintaining policy focus on the South China Sea conundrum.
However, likened to the US/UK relations with Saudi Arabia, common strategic interests are currently overriding the multitude of dilemmas that China is facing from this once close ally.
Author: Matt - British - Market Analyst