The Frustrating Life of a North Korean Ally

A political cartoon depicts the rocky relationship between China and North Korea. The image shows China’s current leader, Hu Jintao, admonishing North Korea’s previous leader, Kim Jong-il, who is depicted as a misbehaving puppet.

Although tensions between North Korea and its enemies (the U.S., Japan, and South Korea) have been on the rise lately, apparently life as an ally of the DPRK isn’t so smooth either. According to a New York Times article published over the weekend, China is beginning to lose patience with its rambunctious ally on the Korean peninsula. The article provided an insightful glimpse into the difficult life of political negotiations between China and North Korea. One major area of concern for the Chinese government that the article highlights is North Korea’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons. This reckless pursuit has continued despite the opposition of not only the U.S., but of the majority of the international community, including China. However, so far the North has refused to listen, even to its closest ally:

“We have made this absolutely clear to them; we are against any provocation,” Cui Tiankai, another Chinese vice minister of foreign affairs, said in a recent interview when asked about a possible third nuclear test by North Korea. “We have told them in a very direct way, time and again, we are against it.”

This is not the only issue the Chinese have had during their long relationship with the DPRK. With a floundering North Korean economy, which is state-controlled and primarily used as an instrument to sustain those in power, the issue of economic reform is also a cause of friction between the two nations. Victor Cha, the former director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, recalls the frustration of Chinese officials over the North’s inability to consider economic reform:

I would ask Chinese counterparts about the need to push the North to reform economically. The Chinese would look at me like I was some sort of idiot, responding, ‘Do you think we have not told them this before? We have told them many, many times!’ I asked if they referred the North to China’s own experiences as a template to be emulated. Again, I was looked at like some sort of Martian, with the response that the Chinese have always lectured the North about the comparison. The North Korean response was (1) ‘Don’t lecture us’; and (2) ‘North Korea is not China.’ (From The Impossible State, 153)

North Korea’s obstinate nature and unwillingness to heed the advice of other nations is nothing new (just ask South Korea and the U.S.). But what’s surprising is that the DPRK remains so stubbornly opposed to China, an ally that has basically kept the North afloat through massive contributions of aid during recent rough economic times. Korean experts and research fellows Stephan Haggard and Marcus Nolan estimate that since the mid-1980s (when North Korea’s economy began its sharp decline) China has provided an excess of $7 billion in handouts to the North. And China still continues to provide massive assistance to North Korea. According to a report by Drew Thompson, the director of China Studies and Starr Senior Fellow at The Nixon Center, China provides 80 percent of the North’s imported consumer goods and at least 45 percent of its food.

Yet, despite the incredible economic leverage China possesses, the North continues to ignore and even provoke its ally. Just last month, a group of Chinese fishermen were held captive in North Korea, and the lack of a firm Chinese response has ignited criticisms from a growing number of Chinese citizens.

Nevertheless, China has remained reluctant to punish North Korea, and has continued to sustain the DPRK. Even given the difficulties in the relationship, China still views a North Korean collapse as the greater of the two evils:

[S]enior Chinese officials “dare not use China’s economic leverage” against North Korea, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. That is because a collapse of the North Korean government could result in a united Korea allied with the United States, which would be a nightmare scenario for China, Mr. Shi said.

The New York Times article notes that China is even more “concerned” due to recent U.S. naval developments in the Asia-Pacific region. China’s worried that the U.S. is attempting to exert more influence in the region, and the collapse of North Korea could open-up the possibility of a U.S.-friendly, and anti-China, Korean peninsula.

In China’s eyes, a united Korea strongly allied with the U.S. would be much worse than dealing with Kim Jong-un’s occasional antics and aid requests.

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2 Responses to The Frustrating Life of a North Korean Ally

  1. Pingback: Why Does China Support the DPRK? | The Dear Reader

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