The relationship between China and North Korea is extremely complicated, and it is one that has drawn much attention as of late due to Pyongyang’s continued missile and nuclear tests. After the latest test last week—where North Korea apparently tested a massive hydrogen bomb equivalent to 120 tons of TNT—it is worth revisiting the issue to understand the exact nature of the complex China-North Korea relationship and how much power Beijing actually has over Pyongyang and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The Complex Relationship Between China and North Korea
As the world’s second largest superpower, China undoubtedly has much clout on the international stage, and nowhere is this truer than when it comes to North Korea. China accounts for more than 90% of North Korea’s trade, and Pyongyang relies heavily on Beijing for what little economic activity the country has. Nonetheless, the total volume of trade between the two countries has diminished over the past few years due to the increasingly strict economic sanctions put on North Korea by the United Nations in response to Pyongyang’s continued missile and nuclear tests.
However, there are those in the West—most notably US President Donald Trump—who continue to chide China over not doing enough to reign in North Korea’s provocative actions. Following some of the recent tests, Beijing again voted in favor of increased sanctions and has mostly followed through with them by restricting at least some trade with its Korean neighbors. However, Beijing has also voted against sanctions in the past and continues to be accused by many of not fully following through with those sanctions it has voted to impose. In this regard, it seems that the issue is whether a peaceful North Korea is actually in China’s interest or if Beijing might not prefer North Korea remain isolated from the international community.
China’s Response to the Recent Nuclear Test
Following North Korea’s sixth nuclear test this past week, China announced that it had it given ‘stern representations’ to the North Koreans and that Pyongyang was well aware of its opposition to the nuclear tests. Nonetheless, China stopped short of taking any real action against its reclusive neighbors, although it did at least release a statement warning North Korea that it would be on its own if they attacked the US. On the other hand, US President Trump used his favorite medium of Twitter to threaten to cut off all trade with any country that continues to do business with North Korea. Speaking several days later, Trump was forced to admit that after speaking with Chinese President Xi Jinping, military action against North Korea was not his first choice, but that all options are still on the table.
Trump and many others in the West see China as the main key to putting a halt to the North Korean nuclear program. As the country’s primary trading partner and the biggest supplier of aid to North Korea, China obviously holds a huge amount of power and could potentially force Pyongyang to stop its nuclear program by discontinuing trade and cutting off its crude oil exports. Of course, this doesn’t make sense for obvious economic reasons, and there are also other geopolitical reasons likely behind Beijing’s continual support for Pyongyang. China has reiterated its commitment to achieving a denuclearized Korean peninsula, but it has also said that it would prefer a Korean peninsula that didn’t include numerous US military bases and tens of thousands of American soldiers. China has long been opposed to the US military bases in South Korea and Japan and sees these bases as a direct threat to stability in the region.
A peaceful North Korea could potentially pave the way to Korean unification, which could be disastrous for China should the unified Korea maintain its close military alliance with the US. Still, the fact that a war could potentially see millions of Korean refugees streaming over its borders should force Beijing to at least try to restrain its neighbor. The question is whether or not China is actually willing to take real action and cut off its trade in order to make this happen. Judging by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s outrage over Trump’s threat to cut off trade with countries that continue to deal with North Korea, as of now it would seem that the answer is no.