China and North Korea: Obscure Alliance

The U.S. have made very clear demands of North Korea: Nuclear disarmament in exchange for an end to sanctions. But what exactly are China’s interests in relations with its neighbor – and vice versa? To bring more clarity to this mysterious relationship, the Robert Bosch Stiftung invited international experts to the latest edition of its “Engaging with China” event series at its representative office in Berlin.

David Weyand | July 2019
The Podium
Anita Back

Which interests shape the special relationship between China and North Korea? The North Korea experts Jung H. Pak (The Brookings Institution) and Li Nan (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences) discussed this question in Berlin with Handelsblatt journalist Stephan Scheuer (right) as a moderator.

Military guards of honor at the airport and a ride in an open limousine through cheering crowds: North Korea’s head of state Kim Jong-Un went all out when welcoming Chinese President Xi Jinping to Pyongyang in late June 2019. While Kim has already visited the neighboring country four times since taking office in 2011, Xi was the first Chinese President in 14 years to pay a state visit to North Korea. China’s influence on the young ruler remains unclear though. “Nevertheless, the frequency of the consultations underscores Beijing’s significance in matters on the Korean peninsula,” said Christian Hänel, Senior Vice President, International Relations America and Asia at the Robert Bosch Stiftung, in his opening statement.

Which interests define the special relationship between China and North Korea? And what is China’s role in the dialog between North and South Korea and the negotiations with the USA on nuclear disarmament on the Korean peninsula? These were among the questions discussed at the event attended by some 80 guests and featuring North Korea expert Jung H. Pak, Senior Fellow and SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at The Brookings Institution, and Li Nan, Associate Research Fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).

“What are Kim Jong-Un’s motivations?”

Stephan Scheuer, journalist at Handelsblatt and long-time China correspondent, facilitated the discussion and first wanted to know more about President Xi’s visit to North Korea. Li Nan mentioned several aspects: On the one hand, following visits to Russia and Central Asia, Xi wanted to send a signal to demonstrate the equally close connection to China’s traditional ally. Also, he wanted to “personally find out what Kim Jong-Un is up to right now,” before heading to the G20 summit in Japan and a meeting with US President Trump there, Li said. Last but not least, Beijing has an interest in an economic exchange with its neighbor – despite the ongoing UN sanctions.

On the part of North Korea, Jung Pak primarily sees “tactical reasons” for the state visit. Kim wants to keep China from letting North Korea down politically or economically, dispel fears of any instability in his regime, and find a workaround to UN sanctions. After taking power, Kim initially refused to be patronized by the Chinese leadership and was not willing to address Chinese concerns about further nuclear and missile tests. “But now, the total of five meetings with President Xi – compared to significantly fewer exchanges with other leaders – illustrate what Kim’s focus is: namely the relations with China,” stated the Brookings expert.

Symbolic summit without tangible outcomes

But the images of cheering crowds should not obscure the fact that “the two leaders were skeptical about one another from the outset and still don’t trust each other,” Jung Pak added. Li agreed with this assessment, calling the most recent summit “a symbolic meeting” without any substantial results. For Kim, the bilateral meetings with Xi as well as with Russian President Putin were nevertheless very important, since they raised his profile in the negotiations with the Trump administration on the denuclearization of North Korea. “Kim’s demands for security guarantees and his statements on the military threat posed by the U.S. are therefore not only his own, but also come from the leaders of two regional and global powers,” Jung Pak said.

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions remain a major problem. Prior to the second summit meeting with Trump in Hanoi, Kim had been willing to surrender his nuclear weapons but then no longer trusted the USA, Li explained. Pak disagreed on this point: “He promises a lot of great things, but I don’t think he’s willing to actually give up nuclear weapons.” While China and South Korea are focusing on change through economic rapprochement in their relations with North Korea, the U.S. have laid out a clear condition: “You can have economic prosperity or nuclear weapons, but you can’t have them both,” Jung Pak summed up the position of the U.S. government.

The border with China is North Korea’s economic lifeline

China’s influence on North Korea’s denuclearization, however, is by far not as great as assumed, Li said. “Kim doesn’t trust anyone and he has his own agenda. If the U.S. rely solely on China’s pressure and support regarding this issue, it will not lead to success.” Li, who frequently conducts research in North Korea and talks to the local population, sees Kim under pressure in his own country as well: “The people want a better economy, they are tired of militarization and no longer want any missile tests.” In this respect, there are opportunities for China to exert its influence. “The border with China is North Korea’s economic lifeline,” Christian Hänel quoted Fabian Kretschmer, correspondent of Deutsche Welle in Seoul and Bosch alumnus, in his welcome address.

The two experts on the panel also emphasized China’s own interest in a stronger economic opening of North Korea: China is anticipating a potential for growing trade. At the same time, Beijing is afraid of a collapse of the regime and resulting instabilities, such as refugees fleeing across the border into China. Therefore, the discussion has shown that there are many reasons for China and North Korea to continue talking to each other.

Engaging with China: What are China’s interests in relations with North Korea?