China-North Korea Relations

By Nanto, Dick K.; Manyin, Mark E. | North Korean Review, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

China-North Korea Relations


Nanto, Dick K., Manyin, Mark E., North Korean Review


Introduction

The People's Republic of China (PRC) plays a key role in U.S. policy toward North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). The PRC is North Korea's closest ally, largest provider of food, fuel, and industrial machinery, and arguably the country most able to wield influence in Pyongyang. This close bilateral relationship is of interest to U.S. policymakers because China plays a pivotal role in the success of U.S. efforts to halt the DPRK's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, to prevent nuclear proliferation, to enforce economic sanctions, to keep the peace on the Korean Peninsula, and to ensure that North Korean refugees that cross into China receive humane treatment. As North Korea's main trading partner and benefactor, China can play the role as an intermediary or may even exercise leverage with Pyongyang in times of crisis, particularly following a military provocation by North Korea when the United States or South Korea have little direct communication with DPRK leaders. China's actions also are key in reforming the DPRK's dysfunctional economy and meeting the basic human needs of the North Korean people. China hosts the Six Party Talks on denuclearization, is able to provide credible advice to Pyongyang on issues such as economic reform, and plays an important role on the United Nations Security Council and other international organizations that deal with the DPRK. In general, the Obama Administration-as was true of the Bush Administration-has emphasized common interests rather than differences in its policy toward China regarding North Korea.

Although China is prominent in U.S. policy toward North Korea, North Korea is only one of numerous items on the Sino-U.S. agenda. In deciding whether to criticize China when its actions toward North Korea are at odds with U.S. interests, Obama Administration officials must weigh the possible spillover into these other areas, some of which appear to have a higher priority to the White House than North Korea. China has become a major player on the world stage, and cooperation with China increasingly is becoming essential in tackling a variety of global issues. China is now the second largest economy in the world after the United States and in 2010 surpassed Japan. Together, the United States and China account for more than half of global energy imports and emit over 30 percent of global greenhouse gases. The U.S. trade deficit and reliance on capital inflows are unlikely to be resolved without cooperation from China, since it has an annual surplus of more than $200 billion in merchandise trade with the United States and holds $880 billion in U.S. Treasury securities. This intersection of interests on the world stage influences how the United States and China deal with the DPRK.

In other respects, conflicts of interests between the United States and China also drive relations between the two countries and spill over into each country's relations with North Korea. U.S. relations with China are increasingly becoming strained over issues such as U.S.-South Korean naval exercises near China's exclusive economic zone, the undervaluation of the Chinese currency, Chinese territorial claims, U.S. sales of weapons to Taiwan, China's indigenous innovation policy, Chinese cyber-attacks on American computer systems, tighter regulation of foreign businesses in China, and competition for influence in Asia.

China's primary interest of stability on the Korean peninsula is often at odds with U.S. interest in denuclearization and the provision of basic human rights for the North Korean people. In 2010, Beijing and Pyongyang were going through a period of fairly amicable diplomatic and economic relations following the negative response by Beijing to the DPRK's nuclear and missile tests in 2009 and China's support of new United Nations Security Council sanctions directed at North Korea. China's enforcement of the U.N. sanctions, however, is still unclear. …

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