Sino-North Korea Relations: Handle With Care

Sanjeevan Pradhan, Masters in International Relations, Qinghua University.

The Asia-Pacific region has become the hotspot for international politics; IR scholars focus on the rise of China and its implications for the current status-quo. Many view China’s rise with suspicion and fear that it will result in a new form of a Cold War between the US and China.

One of the most pressing issues is China’s relationship with North Korea which has been described as one between the “lips and teeth.”

China is the only influential country with which North Korea has any sort of normal relations. The North Korean nuclear tests have, however, placed China in a political and security quagmire. North Korea has conducted four nuclear tests and China has come to its rescue by using its position in the United Nations Security Council to lessen the sanctions being imposed on Pyongyang.

China has been criticized by the international community for its support of North Korea and its nuclear pursuits, as a nuclear North Korea will have huge implications for stability in the Asia-Pacific region. However, it cannot be said that China has ignored the North Korea nuclear issue as it has hosted the Six Party talks in the past.

China is being pressured to rein in North Korea in order to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear arsenal. However, this is easier said than done. Sino-North Korea relations are not as rosy as one might believe. China does not have much leverage over its recalcitrant neighbor. The estrangement of Sino-North Korea relation began after a series of geopolitical and economical changes like the opening up of the Chinese economy, the fall of the Soviet Union and the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea.

Although China and North Korea have maintained a relationship, it became strained once again following the third North Korean nuclear tests in 2013 at which point China adopted UN Resolution 2094, departing from its previous practice of blocking sanctions that were imposed on North Korea.

China believes that it must deal cautiously with Pyongyang for fear that a collapse of North Korea would lead to serious consequences for China like a mass exodus of Korean refugees into China. Pyongyang is already on the verge of total economic collapse and a total Chinese economic embargo could backfire on Beijing.

Another consequence following a regime collapse or regime change could result in the installment of a US friendly regime or the reunification of the Korean peninsula under South Korea which might result in a stronger US presence in Asia-Pacific leading to greater containment of China.

However, China cannot allow Pyongyang to procure a considerable nuclear arsenal as this too will have consequences. A nuclear North Korea will have a domino effect in the Asia-Pacific region, as other countries like South Korea and Japan will also begin to pursue nuclear capabilities, leading to a nuclear arms race in Asia-Pacific.

Pyongyang’s behavior and provocations clearly poses a dilemma for China. It can neither abandon its neighbor nor can it support it like it has previously done so. The continuous provocations by Pyongyang have heightened security tensions in Northeast Asia and have created an obstacle to China’s rise. However, the Korean nuclear crisis also provides China with an opportunity to portray itself as a responsible player in the international community. China has been taking measures to deescalate tensions in the Korean peninsula like hosting the SPT which brought six countries (including China) to discuss the nuclear crisis. This also provided Pyongyang the platform to negotiate with the US.

By resolving the Korean nuclear crisis, China can gain approval of the international community as a responsible power. With the resolution of the nuclear crisis, China can also reassure its other neighbors about its intentions, including its goal of maintaining a peaceful neighborhood.

China should take very calculated measures when dealing with the Korean nuclear crisis. It must be firm but also not push the regime too far.

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