by John Harrison.
On January 10, 2016 North Korean announced it had successfully detonated its first hydrogen or “H” bomb. Although experts were more than sceptical about the veracity of the claim, international condemnation came thick and fast. With this announcement just two days after his birthday, the country’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un taunted the world, thumbing his nose at the UN Security Council ban on North Korea conducting future nuclear tests, and the threat of international sanctions. A traditional ally of North Korea, China also joined in the condemnation, although paying little more than lip service. This is because for political and above all strategic reasons, Beijing can’t afford to fall out with its North Korean neighbour. We went to meet Antoine Bondaz, a Political Science Paris Ph.D. and former scholar at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center in Beijing, to cast light on this fuzzy yet clear relationship.
Warm. Cold. Warm. Cold. The links connecting China and North Korea aren’t a peacefully flowing river. « The bilateral relationship is far from ideal. We’re a long way from the image portrayed in Chinese and North Korean media of them as staunch, mutually supportive allies, » says Bondaz. Diplomatically, the Democratic Republic of North Korea’s main ally is certainly China, which has supported it militarily since the Korean War.
The Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance signed in 1961 links the two countries in certain fields. So much for the warmth. The cold comes from North Korean provocations: direct ones, like its seizure of Chinese fishing boats; and indirect ones which could destabilize the region, like its missile launches and nuclear program, which deeply irritate Beijing.
Since Xi Jinping took the helm in March 2013, relations between the two countries have been more tense and decidedly frosty. But the link won’t collapse and relations aren’t about to freeze, because Beijing can’t do a lot about Kim Jong-un and anyway dismisses its neighbour’s pretensions as not caring two hoots about them. Although China backs its North Korean neighbour, at arm’s length sometimes, it’s because it has no interest in its troublesome neighbour disappearing.
« The priority of priorities for China is regional stability, » says Bondaz. The United States is South Korea’s main military ally, having installed military bases and some 30,000 US soldiers in the country. According to recent surveys, « 70% of South Koreans want to keep this alliance, even if North Korea collapses. » The disappearance of North Korea and the birth of a unified Korea would make it possible for Washington to position its troops along China’s border. The prospect of which makes Xi Jinping viscerally uneasy, preferring a noisy and undisciplined neighbour to one who’s too curious.
According to Bondaz, « China suffers from an insecurity complex when it comes to the United States, especially militarily. On the maritime front, the core of China’s power, the Chinese feel that the Americans have them encircled, and that’s true. Washington has alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand. The US is also forging closer ties with Singapore, Indonesia and just recently Viet Nam. » The only buffer that China has is North Korea. « A unified Korea would become the first-ever US ally to have a land border with China, and so close to its capital. For Beijing this would constitute a new strategic reality with, for the time being, too many uncertainties. » Whenever Pyongyang gets a bit too agitated, Beijing moans and gives it a slap on the wrist, but not too hard. « China may get mad at its neighbour. It’s already done so and does it regularly, » says the Political Science Ph.D., « but it clearly can’t allow itself to abandon North Korea. That would ultimately lead to the Pyongyang regime collapsing and China has no interest in that. »
After the H bomb test in early January, China, a permanent member of the Security Council, protected its alliance and continued to advocate dialogue as more effective than sanctions. Especially economic sanctions, which for the time being are having little effect. Isolated in the region, « especially after conservatives returned to power in South Korea in 2008, which caused interKorean trade to stagnate, » North Korea now trades only with China, or nearly so: 70% of its foreign trade is with its massive northern neighbour.
For the time being, Pyongyang’s attempts to approach other major powers such as Russia to diversify its trade outlets and attract investment have met with little success. But they underscore North Korea’s dependency on its Chinese sibling and Kim Jong-un’s need to find other economic partners. Although China is North Korea’s best economic ally, it’s no longer a goose laying golden eggs. “The transformation is palpable: China wants to keep North Korea alive, » but isn’t managing to influence it, « a fact that irritates many Chinese. »
Can North Korea use its nuclear program as a bargaining tool – as in « help us and we’ll stop testing » – to find new economic opportunities and outlets? « This interpretation, very widely shared in the West for 20 years, to me seems mistaken, » says Bondaz. Worse, « It is partially responsible for permitting the nuclearization of the country. If we look at it objectively, North Korea has never obtained anything after its tests, » apart from tighter sanctions. Prioritizing the denuclearization of the country lies at the heart of the major disagreement between China and the United States. A disagreement « that limits any strategic cooperation between the two countries. For China, the stability of the North Korean regime takes priority over denuclearization. For the United States, denuclearizing the country takes priority over regime collapse. The two powers can’t come to an agreement. »
This is why China’s support for North Korea is strongest when Pyongyang is weakest. Since the regime stabilized in early 2012, Beijing has been keeping its distance from Pyongyang, criticizing it officially and vocally so. But abandoning it is out of the question. Bondaz sums up: « As I’ve often tried to explain, the two countries are in hostage to each other. North Korea needs China if it is to survive and not collapse. And, strategically, China needs North Korea’s survival, which means regime stability. »