What is the DPRK-China realtionship

An interesting strategic analysis fo the DPRK/PRC realtionship in a regional competition context.  From the Council on Foreign Relations:

China and North Korea have been allies for more than half a century. Beijing is a key provider of food and fuel to Kim Jung-Il’s regime, and it is heavily invested in preventing a destabilizing regime collapse that would send North Korean refugees flooding across its northeastern border. But as Kim tests ballistic missiles and develops his nation’s nuclear weapons capacity, China may be rethinking its support.

How strong is the current relationship between North Korea and China?
China has supported North Korea since Chinese fighters flooded onto the Korean peninsula to fight for the Communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1950. Since the Korean War divided the peninsula between the North and South, China has given both political and economic backing to North Korea’s leaders: Kim Il Sung, and his son and successor, Kim Jung-Il. In recent years, China has been seen as one of the authoritarian regime’s few allies.

On July 4, North Korea test-fired a series of ballistic missiles despite explicit warnings from Beijing, Tokyo, and Washington. This led to an unusually public rebuke from Chinese officials, a sign of strain in the relationship. Despite their long alliance, experts say Beijing cannot control Pyongyang. “In general, Americans tend to overestimate the influence China has over North Korea,” says Daniel Pinkston, a Korea specialist and director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California. At the same time, China has too much invested in North Korea to halt or withdraw its support entirely. “The idea that the Chinese would turn their backs on the North Koreans is clearly wrong,” says Adam Segal, the Maurice R. Greenberg senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

How does North Korea benefit from the relationship?
Pyongyang is economically dependent on China, which provides most of its food and energy supplies. North Korea gets about 70 percent of its food and 70 to 80 percent of its fuel from China. Beijing is Pyongyang’s largest trading partner, and an estimated 300,000 North Koreans live in China, many of them migrant workers who send much-needed remittances back home.

China is also a strong political ally. “As an authoritarian regime that reformed, they understand what Kim Jung-Il is most concerned with—survival,” Segal says. China has repeatedly blocked UN Security Council resolutions against North Korea, including some threatening sanctions. China has also hosted the Six-Party Talks, a series of meetings in which North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and the United States have tried to resolve the security concerns associated with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. There and in other international forums, China is seen as a buffer between North Korea and the United States and Japan, which favor punitive sanctions and other measures to prevent Pyongyang from gaining nuclear weapons.

How does China benefit?
China’s support for Pyongyang ensures a stable nation on its northeastern border, as well as providing a buffer zone between China and democratic South Korea. North Korea’s allegiance is also important for China as a bulwark against U.S. military dominance of the region and the rise of Japan’s military. And China gains economically from its association with North Korea; growing numbers of Chinese firms are investing in North Korea and gaining concessions like preferable trading terms and port operations. Chinese trade and investment in North Korea now totals $2 billion per year. “They’re becoming a stakeholder in the North Korean economy,” Pinkston says.

What are the drawbacks to the relationship?
Pyongyang is not an ally Beijing can count on. Kim Jung-Il’s foreign policy is, like its leader, highly unpredictable. “North Korea is extremely difficult to deal with, even as an ally,” says Daniel Sneider, the associate director for research at Stanford’s Asia-Pacific Research Center and a former longtime foreign correspondent specializing in Asia. “This is not a warm and fuzzy relationship,” he says. “North Korean officials look for reasons to defy Beijing.” Some experts say the missile tests were just one example of North Korea pushing back against China’s influence. “”It was certainly a sign of independence [and] a willingness to send a message to China as well as everyone else,” Segal says. The Chinese, who favor “quiet diplomacy” with North Korea instead of public statements, took the unusual step of making public the fact that Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, warned North Korea not to launch their missiles. The fact that Pyongyang did anyway has hurt China’s image, other experts say.

What kind of leverage does Beijing have over Pyongyang?
Not as much as outsiders think, experts say. Beijing has bullied or bribed Pyongyang officials to get them to the negotiating table at the Six-Party Talks many times. “It’s clear that the Chinese have enormous leverage on North Korea in many respects,” Sneider says. “But can China actually try to exercise that influence without destabilizing the regime? Probably not.” Pinkston says that for all his country’s growing economic ties with China, Kim still makes up his own mind: “At the end of the day, China has little influence over the military decisions.”

What are China’s goals for its engagement with North Korea?
“For the Chinese, stability and the avoidance of war are the top priorities,” Sneider says. “From that point of view, the North Koreans are a huge problem for them, because Pyongyang could trigger a war on its own.” Stability is a huge worry for Beijing because of the specter of hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees flooding into China. “The Chinese are most concerned about the collapse of North Korea leading to chaos on the border,” Segal says.

If North Korea does provoke a war with the United States, China and South Korea would bear the brunt of any military confrontation on the Korean peninsula. Yet both those countries have been hesitant about pushing Pyongyang too hard, for fear of making Kim’s regime collapse. “They’re willing to live with a degree of ambiguity over North Korea’s military capability,” Sneider says, as long as Pyongyang doesn’t cross the “red line” of nuclear testing. Even then, “the Chinese can live with a nuclear North Korea, because they see the weapon as a deterrent against the United States, not them,” agrees Segal. But North Korea’s military moves could start an arms race in Northeast Asia and are already strengthening militarism in Japan, which could push for its own nuclear weapons if North Korea officially goes nuclear.

How does Washington factor into the relationship?
The United States has pushed North Korea to verifiably and irreversibly give up its uranium enrichment activities before Washington will agree to bilateral talks. Experts say Washington and Beijing have very different views on the issue. “Washington believes in using pressure to influence North Korea to change its behavior, while Chinese diplomats and scholars have a much more negative view of sanctions and pressure tactics,” Pinkston says. “They tend to see public measures as humiliating and counterproductive.” Since U.S. officials have repeatedly refused North Korean invitations to establish bilateral talks, “the Chinese have some sympathy for the North Korean view that the United States is not interested in negotiating,” Segal says.

Pinkston says the adversarial Pyongyang-Washington ties will likely not improve. “I don’t think the relationship with the Bush administration is reparable,” he says. “It’s a complete disaster, and someone else has to pick up the pieces. We can only hope it doesn’t degenerate more, but that the status quo will be maintained” until a new U.S. administration takes over, he says. In the meantime, U.S. pundits and lawmakers who push China to take what it sees as destabilizing actions in its region—i.e. support punitive actions or sanctions against North Korea—”are living in a different world,” Pinkston says.

“There’s always been a difference between how the Chinese felt we should approach these negotiations and how the Bush administration felt about it,” Sneider says. “That tension has always been there, and both governments have gone out of their way to obscure that gap because they’re well aware that the North Koreans are good at exploiting those differences.”

What is likely to happen to the China-North Korea relationship?
Despite the tensions caused by the recent missile tests, the relationship will likely continue to be close. Each side has too much invested in the other to drastically change the situation, experts say. If North Korea continues to test missiles, it’s possible that China will react more strongly than it has in the past. Most of the nations involved in the crisis will try to bring North Korea back to the Six-Party Talks. But after that, it is unclear what happens next. “Everyone who deals with North Korea recognizes them as a very unstable actor,” Sneider says.

However, some experts say North Korea is acting assertively both in its relationship with China and on the larger world stage. “The North Koreans are developing a much more realist approach to their foreign policy,” Pinkston says. “They’re saying imbalances of power are dangerous and the United States has too much power—so by increasing their own power they’re helping to balance out world stability. It’s neo-realism straight out of an International Relations textbook.”

The China-North Korea Relationship
Esther Pan, Staff Writer


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