China and North Korea: Old Friends, New Challenges: Jian Yang Comments on China's Approach to the Problematical Situation on the Korean Peninsula

By Yang, Jian | New Zealand International Review, May-June 2003 | Go to article overview

China and North Korea: Old Friends, New Challenges: Jian Yang Comments on China's Approach to the Problematical Situation on the Korean Peninsula


Yang, Jian, New Zealand International Review


The past two decades or so have witnessed dramatic changes in China's policy toward its old friend North Korea. Chinese leadership is now much less concerned about any obligations to the North Korean regime based on history or ideology. China, however, has no intention of deserting its old friend. Its strategic interests in North Korea are clear. China now faces a number of challenges. The most threatening is Pyongyang's nuclear programme. Although truly concerned, China's leverage and determination on the issue are questionable. China does not want a chaotic North Korea and thus has been supportive of South Korea's engaging sunshine policy.

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With North Korea's decision to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in early 2003, the Korean peninsula again aroused serious concern among the international community. North Korea's close ally China has come under increasing pressure from the United States to take stronger measures to curb Pyong-yang's nuclear programme. Beijing has promised to work together with Washington on the issue. Chinese leaders have taken the rare step of publicly reprimanding Pyongyang for its attempts to develop nuclear arms. But how much can China do?

While Pyongyang's nuclear programme is now the key issue of the North Korea problem, North Korea--or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea--poses many other challenges for China. It is necessary, therefore, to have a look at the broad picture of China-North Korea relations before we come down to the nuclear issue.

Mutual interests

It is well known that China and North Korea are not only neighbours sharing a long border but also long-time communist comrades-in-arms. When Chinese leader Mao Zedong decided to send Chinese troops to North Korea's rescue in the early 1950s, he said that China and North Korea shared a common lot like 'lips and teeth'--if the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold. China lost almost one million men battling American troops to a standstill in the Korean War.

China and North Korea are still close allies today and share some common interests. For China, North Korea still provides a security buffer between China and the United States. It is an indispensable chip in China's dealings with the United States, South Korea and Japan. China could also use North Korea as a base for its influence in a future reunified Korea. Furthermore, North Korea is a stage for China to demonstrate to the world that it is a responsible great power, though it risks showing the opposite.

For North Korea, China is important in its dealing with other hostile countries, especially the United States. China is the only power that has diplomatic relations with all the parties in the conflict, namely North Korea, South Korea, the United States and Japan. Beijing has consistently opposed economic sanctions against North Korea. Economically, China is one of North Korea's largest trading partners and, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has emerged as the largest provider of economic, food and fuel aid to Pyongyang. By some estimates, half of China's foreign aid budget goes to North Korea.

New challenges

It is widely understood, however, that the close relationship has been substantially weakened. Indeed, despite important mutual interests, the two old friends are now facing a number of challenges.

Politically, China's reform and opening-up do not fit well with North Korea's Juche, which enshrines independence and self-reliance. Privately, North Korea has criticised China for betraying the communist movement and surrendering to capitalism. (1) Although North Korea is now flirting with capitalism, there is no sign of rapid political changes. As China's economy further integrates with the world economy, political differences between Pyongyang and Beijing are likely to increase.

When Kim Jong Il first came to power, many Chinese analysts were optimistic about economic reforms in North Korea. …

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