Over the past five decades, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has gone from a fledgling economic power to a famine-wracked state best known for its labor camps, nuclear weapons program, and inclusion in George W. Bush’s infamous “axis of evil”. The country’s repeated military provocations, missile launches, and egregious human rights abuses have driven the United States and many European countries to sharply curtail any form of aid (including humanitarian) to Pyongyang. Yet despite its well-earned pariah status, the DPRK continues to receive significant material and political support from its historical (and perhaps only) ally — China. Why does Beijing still support North Korea?
Through Thick and Thin
The Chinese government has supported North Korea from its founding in 1948, providing an estimated 1.5 million ground troops to help the fledgling government secure statehood and defend itself from South Korean and American forces during the Korean War. But Beijing’s support did not stop when the war was over. As North Korea began to rebuild its destroyed cities in the 1950s, China is reported to have provided the government with over $500 million in aid and loans. Thirty years later, as North Korea watched the collapse of its other principal ally, the Soviet Union, China once again stepped into the void—boosting aid and energy flows across its northern borders. By 1993, independent analysts concluded that Beijing was the driving force keeping the North Korean regime afloat, providing an estimated 77 percent of North Korea’s fuel imports and 68 percent of its food supplies.
China continued its support even as most other countries and international NGOs halted their humanitarian aid to North Korea due to widespread corruption, a complete lack of transparency, and Kim Jong-il’s nuclear threats. In 2005, the only countries providing aid to the DPRK were South Korea (during the “Sunshine Policy” initiated by President Kim Dae-jung) and China. Since South Korea’s subsequently more conservative leadership pulled the Sunshine plug in 2008, China is once again Pyongyang’s primary benefactor. Today, experts estimate that China still provides some 80 percent of North Korea’s imported consumer goods and 45 percent of its food.
The bilateral relationship, however, has not been an easy one for China. Mao Zedong was reported to have harbored reservations (and rightly so) over the DPRK founder Kim Il-Sung’s rash, often violent actions. And while the Korean War was celebrated by both countries as a major military victory, China’s participation cost it over 900,000 soldiers dead and a $1.3 billion bill. Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, famous for the revolutionary reforms that spurred China’s remarkable economic growth, also had his run-ins with North Korean recklessness. Deng was reportedly furious after North Korea’s October 1983 assassination attempt on South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan, which killed half of Chun’s cabinet. Not only did Deng view the incident as poorly conceived, its timing further aroused his ire. Just days before the attempted murder, Chinese diplomats had met with American representatives on behalf of the DPRK to propose three-party talks between the United States and the two Koreas. The flagrant violence only a few days later left China embarrassed on the international stage and its diplomatic efforts in shambles.
But North Korea’s blatant nuclear defiance may be the largest source of frustration for China. Brushing off international censure and even Beijing’s condemnations, the DPRK conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and in 2009. According to Victor Cha, a former director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council, the 2006 test “amounted to the ultimate sign of disrespect and irresponsible behavior that Kim Jong-il could have levied against China, short of starting a second Korean War.” And although China has largely refused to back sanctions or international resolutions criticizing the renegade country, North Korean provocations are a serious concern for many Chinese officials.
In 2010, the DPRK continued its deadly antics with the sinking of the South Korean naval ship Cheonan, killing 46 soldiers on board. Further imperiling inter-Korean relations, North Korea followed that attack by shelling the South Korean island Yeonpyeong in broad daylight—killing four civilians and injuring nineteen. Throughout these unprovoked military attacks and escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula, China refused to either officially acknowledge the North’s culpability or to publicly criticize Pyongyang’s violent actions.
Stability or Money (or Both)
So what does China get out of this lopsided relationship? Analysts including Adam Segal, a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, underscore the importance of regional stability for Beijing. He writes: “The Chinese are most concerned about the collapse of North Korea leading to chaos on the border.” The rationale underlying this argument is that if China ended its economic support, the North Korean regime’s imminent collapse would trigger an enormous humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of thousands of malnourished, uneducated North Korean refugees flowing across China’s border. As illegal North Korean refugees already constitute a serious problem in China, this fear is well-founded.
North Korea’s location is also strategically important to Beijing, providing a buffer between China and South Korea (home to an estimated 29,000 U.S. troops). With North Korea in the middle, China is able to focus its military presence and expansion elsewhere in East Asia and abroad. With the Obama administration’s new “pivot to Asia” strategy, China aims to preserve maximum influence and regional allies against what it perceives to be a United States containment policy.
Lastly, China also has economic incentives for continuing to support North Korea. The desperately poor state is actually well endowed with natural resources including coal, iron ore, and limestone. A 2009 Goldman Sachs report estimated that the North’s mineral deposits were worth over 140 times the country’s GDP. In addition, the North’s cheap labor and lack of regulatory oversight might be tempting for Chinese companies. As Cha observes, “The Chinese could mine [these] resources in their own country, but they can do it cheaper, setting their own price, and without cumbersome health regulations, in North Korea.” The final benefit for China is that North Korean mining projects may bring in money and employment for China’s underdeveloped northeastern regions.
Whatever the myriad motivations, one thing is clear: if any country has the ability to influence North Korea’s behavior, it is China. But the risks associated with adopting a more critical line toward Pyongyang may run contrary to China’s emphasis on regional stability and economic growth. Daniel Sneider, an associate director of research at Stanford’s Asia-Pacific Research Center, sums up this dilemma: “It’s clear that the Chinese have enormous leverage over North Korea in many respects. But can China actually try to exercise that influence without destabilizing the regime? Probably not.” Unlike most other countries, China has the leverage to potentially curb Pyongyang’s reckless behavior—but don’t expect a change in policy to come anytime soon.
 Xiaobing, Li. A History of the Modern Chinese Army (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2007), p.105.
 Eui-Gak Hwang. The Korean Economies: A Comparison of North and South (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1993), p.200-204.
 Jaewoo Choo. “Mirroring North Korea’s Growing Economic Dependence on China: Political Ratification,” Asian Survey, vol. 48, no. 2 (March/April 2008), p.359.
 Victor Cha. The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future (New York: Harper Collins, 2012), p.342.
 Bruce Cumings. The Korea War: A History (New York: Random House, 2010), p.35.
 Cha, The Impossible State, p.330.
 Jayshree Bajoria and Beina Xu. “The China-North Korea Relationship” (Council on Foreign Relations, February 21, 2013) [www.cfr.org/china/china-north-korea-relationship/p11097]
 Goohoon Kwon. “Goldman Sachs Global Economics Paper No. 188” (September 21, 2009).
 Cha, The Impossible State, p.337.