China: China Needs South Korea More Than North Korea


March 26, 2024: Twenty-first century China follows the money when it comes to which of the two Korea’s it has the closest relationship with. That means wealthy South Korea rather than poverty stricken North Korea. During the 1950-53 Korean War China obeyed the request of its then patron Russia to send troops into Korea, to save the Russian-backed North Korean forces from defeat by American-led forces. Half a million Chinese troops forced the American led forces back .The Chinese offensive was halted halfway to the southern tip of Korea. The stalemated fighting halted in 1953 when both sides agreed an armistice along what became known as DMZ or Demilitarized Zone. Now there were two Koreas, the Western supported South Korea, and the Chinese and Russian supported North Korea.

Western nations, led by the United States supported a democratic and free-market South Korea. It took several decades to get that working but, once democracy and a free market were established, South Korea became incredibly wealthy, especially compared to the socialist state of North Korea.

Russia, until the 1990s, supported North Korea with resources and military aid. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Russian aid stopped and North Korea experienced a decade of poverty and starvation that killed about ten percent of the population. Then a newly prosperous market-economy China offered aid to North Korea. China was still a communist dictatorship but wanted to prevent an economic and political collapse in North Korea, where China had supported three generations of the ruling Kim dynasty. First there was Kim Il Sung from 1948 to 1994, then his son Kim Jong Il from 1994 to 2011, and currently Kim Jong Un. In 2021, the two countries renewed the 1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance for another twenty years.

Despite its historical ties to the North, China’s economic reforms and subsequent prosperity led to growing trade with South Korea. North Korea viewed China’s resuming diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992 as a betrayal. China regarded Kim Jong Il’s 1994 succession of Kim Il Sung with caution. Strains in the relationship further deepened when North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in 2006 and China supported international economic UN Security Council Resolution 1718, which imposed sanctions on Pyongyang. With this resolution and subsequent ones, Beijing signaled a shift in tone, from diplomatic support to punishment.

In 2017, China denounced a North Korean missile test launch earlier that year and called for a cessation of actions that increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula. But the announcement of a U.S.-North Korea summit between U.S President Donald Trump and Kim catalyzed Beijing to restore ties with Pyongyang to maintain its regional influence. This produced five summits between Xi and Kim in less than one year.

As relations have improved, China’s punitive steps against the North have eased. While Beijing has backed UN resolutions against Pyongyang, in some cases, it has withheld support until they were watered down. Additionally, Western officials and experts have doubted China’s commitment to implementing even limited trade restrictions, and they periodically accused the country of circumventing sanctions prior to 2020, when the UN Security Council consensus upholding sanctions against North Korea broke down. Encouraged by the restoration of a strategic China-North Korea relationship, Pyongyang vocally supports a “One China policy” in Taiwan and Hong Kong and defends Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang as a “remarkable achievement” of human rights.

What’s the status of their economic relationship?

China accounts for more than 90 percent of North Korea’s total imports and exports, despite sanctions and a setback from the COVID-19 pandemic. Bilateral trade increased tenfold between 2000 and 2015, peaking in 2014 at $6.86 billion, according to figures from the Seoul-based Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA). But UN Security Council sanctions in 2016, which Beijing voted for, reversed the growth of North Korea’s trade.

Chinese trade data showed that Beijing upheld some of the UN sanctions against Pyongyang through 2018, including the suspension of fuel sales and restrictions on financial activities. Yet the flow of non-sanctioned goods remained steady and informal trade (smuggling) continued for items such as diesel fuel, seafood, silkworms, and cell phones.

In January 2020, as COVID-19 spread through China, North Korea shut its borders and halted practically all trade, resulting in a 4.5 percent decline in North Korea’s economy that year. Trade with China resumed in 2022 and, by the end of 2023, bilateral trade had recovered to 82 percent of 2019 pre-pandemic levels, totaling $2.3 billion. North Korea is not a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Beijing provides aid directly to Pyongyang, primarily in food and energy assistance. North Korea, has repeatedly faced extensive droughts and severe flooding which seriously damage harvests, threatening the food supply. Famine in the 1990s killed about ten percent of North Korea’s people. Today, UN agencies estimate that more than 40 percent of the population, or almost eleven million people, is undernourished and food insecure. Food insecurity and related health concerns were further exacerbated by severe flooding caused by typhoons in 2020 and North Korea’s self-imposed isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2022, during the height of the pandemic and when cases were surging in North Korea, Kim refused vaccine offers from the UN-backed COVAX initiative and from China. But North Korea rolled out vaccines later that year, and analysts speculated that China was likely the supplier.

China has also expanded physical links to North Korea. In 2015, it opened a bulk-cargo and container shipping route to boost North Korea’s export of coal to China, and it established a high-speed rail route connecting the Chinese border city of Dandong to Shenyang, the provincial capital of China’s northeastern Liaoning Province. The same year, the Guomenwan border trade zone opened in Dandong. Intended to bolster bilateral economic exchanges, the zone is modeled after the Rason economic zone and the Sinujiu special administrative zone established in North Korea in the early 1990s and 2002, respectively.

What are China’s priorities?

China regards stability on the Korean Peninsula as its primary interest in the bilateral relationship. Its support for North Korea ensures a buffer between China and the democratic South, which is home to around 28,500 U.S. troops and marines. “While the Chinese certainly would prefer that North Korea not have nuclear weapons, their greatest fear is regime collapse,” Dartmouth College Associate Professor Jennifer Lind wrote in 2017.

The specter of hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees flooding into China has long been a worry for Beijing. China’s repatriation of North Koreans escaping across the border has consistently triggered condemnation from human rights groups and, in 2006, Beijing constructed a barbed-wire border fence to prevent migrants from crossing. The majority of North Korean refugees first make their way to China before moving to other parts of Asia, including South Korea. However, tightened border controls under Kim Jong Un have drastically decreased the outflow of refugees.

Though Beijing favors a stable relationship with Pyongyang, it has attempted to balance ties with Seoul. China was South Korea’s top trading partner in 2022 and the destination for over 20 percent of the South’s exports. Meanwhile, South Korea ranked fourth among China’s trade partners.

Do the two countries have a defense alliance?

Experts say China has been ambivalent about its commitment to defend North Korea in case of military conflict. The 1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty says China is obliged to intervene against unprovoked aggression, but this defense agreement has never been invoked. The Chinese government tried to persuade North Korean leaders to revoke the clause that would force Beijing to come to Pyongyang’s defense, said Bonnie Glaser, the managing director of the Indo-Pacific program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, at a 2014 CFR event. It has also intimated that if Pyongyang initiates conflict, it will not abide by its treaty obligation and instead stay neutral.

Kim and Xi had not met for years but appeared to strike a more amicable chord in March 2018, when the two held a secretive meeting in Beijing that marked the North Korean leader’s first trip abroad since coming to power in 2011. Xi heralded the tradition of friendship between China and North Korea, and Kim reiterated a commitment to denuclearization and a willingness to hold a dialogue with the United States. The two leaders have met four more times over the course of the year, and during a 2019 meeting, Xi was welcomed to Pyongyang, marking the first time a Chinese leader visited North Korea since 2005. (Xi previously traveled there in 2008, as vice president.) However, no major agreements to improve bilateral relations emerged.

In November 2023, North and South Korea abandoned their 2018 Comprehensive Military Agreement, which laid out measures to diffuse military tensions along the countries’ shared border. Since then, North Korea has been escalating its military testing and defenses, and China’s reaction has been cautious. While Pyongyang’s low-level aggression is nothing new, Kim’s policy shift to disregard efforts toward unification with the South as “remnants of the past” could be provocation for war, writes Sue Mi Terry, former director of the Asia Program and the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Wilson Center, in Foreign Affairs. Beijing has expressed concern about U.S. sanctions imposed on North Korea and urged “all sides” to exercise restraint following Pyongyang’s various ballistic missile launches. At the same time, China and Russia have consistently vetoed UN sanctions responding to the missile test that would have imposed additional restrictions on gas imports.




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