25 October 2016
Another famine in North Korea might change the political calculus for China. Photo: Internet
Another famine in North Korea might change the political calculus for China. Photo: Internet

The incredible friendship between China and North Korea

The language in an editorial published in North Korea’s state media mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun last week was characteristically nationalistic and placed an incredible burden on the Hermit Kingdom’s citizenry.

Utilizing fiery “revolutionary” language, the piece said North Koreans must prepare for another “arduous march” and that “the road to revolution is long and arduous”. 

It also told readers, “We will have to chew the roots of plants once again”, evoking memories from the 1990s, when hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, starved to death.

The piece went on to call for a “70-day campaign of loyalty” to demonstrate allegiance to Kim Jong-un, the country’s supreme leader. It also instructed all residents of Pyongyang to deliver a kilogram of rice to state warehouses each month.

These words came about a month after the United Nations Security Council voted in favor of harsher sanctions on North Korea, which were triggered by claims by Kim that his military had miniaturized a nuclear warhead (though experts have expressed doubt with regard to that claim), followed by fresh weapons testing.

At the time, the country’s official Korean Central News Agency said: “Dear Comrade Kim Jong-un said work … must be strengthened to improve nuclear attack capability and issued combat tasks to continue nuclear explosion tests to assess the power of newly developed nuclear warheads and tests to improve nuclear attack capability.”

Even the ugliest regimes have friends, and the most significant friend of the Kim dynasty is the Chinese Communist Party. For years, Beijing has provided all manner of aid to Pyongyang, including food, fuel, and cooperative economic projects. But with no real return for its investment in time, money and resources, China may have little reason to continue the unbalanced relationship.

North Korean meth floods the Chinese northeast. Continued tension between the two Koreas, the cavalier launching of missiles and apparent development of nuclear weapons by North Korea all add to the security concerns of Beijing.

China is North Korea’s largest trading partner, and Beijing’s diplomats have, for years, defended their relationship with Pyongyang. That may be changing now. Chinese state media is now quicker to criticize the actions of North Korean political and military leaders.

However, China still opposes unilateral sanctions on North Korea, claiming that sanctions would cause even more tension in an already testy situation, possibly destabilizing the regime. If that happens and the Kim regime collapses, China loses its strategic and geographical buffer with South Korea, which the CCP recognizes is a close ally of the United States.

The power vacuum in Pyongyang might also provide the opportunity for a pro-West entity to seize power and the possibility of nuclear materials ending up on the black market.

A famine might change the calculus. Beijing has neither interest nor motivation, whether humanitarian or political, to manage a wave of starving North Korean refugees who brave the Yalu River to reach China.

Nonetheless, China worked closely with the United States to develop the new UN sanctions on North Korea. Beijing’s enforcement of the deal is critical to the success of these sanctions, because 90 percent of North Korean trade either enters or transits through China.

It should be noted that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “Blind faith in sanctions and pressure are not a responsible approach for the future of the Korean peninsula.”

Meanwhile, North Korea has requested half a million tonnes of food aid from other countries. Less than 18,000 tonnes had arrived by February.

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