The Perils of Friendship: Op-Ed on Sino-North Korean Relations

Hillary Clinton arrived in Beijing last weekend not just to talk about opera, but to send an urgent message to China: put pressure on North Korea.  Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are peaking, provoked by the North Korean sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan and the consequent death of 46 soldiers allied to the United States.  Secretary Clinton, like most American pundits, thinks that public admonishments of the PRC on the North Korea front may yield results.

China, however, appears maxed out on what it can do with North Korea.  Last June, in the aftermath of the North Korean nuclear test, China went along with a U.N. resolution to put sanctions on North Korea.  Chinese leaders then had to spend months repairing ties with Kim Jong Il while trying to keep the North Korean population sufficiently fed to avoid a state collapse.  Beijing, also mindful of the need to stimulate the economically lugubrious Chinese provinces along the border, chose to exploit ambiguity in the sanctions, taking barbs from the West and complaints from North Korean comrades.  Aware that every course of action carries peril and criticism, the Chinese leaders appear determined to simply muddle through.

China has certainly not forgotten its own rather particular set of grievances against North Korea, the country otherwise known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  In the last year alone, the Chinese press has aired complaints of earthquakes in China stemming from DPRK nuclear tests, and disclosed reports of sarin gas floating into China from near the North Korean city of Sinuiju.  North Korea’s failure to discard the hereditary succession model and move toward a PRC-style of collective leadership has disappointed and embarrassed Beijing.  Pyongyang’s sudden and arbitrary “currency reforms” last December virtually decapitated North Korea’s growing entrepreneurial class, while the illegal smuggling of women, drugs, and counterfeit currency into the PRC is not looked kindly upon in Beijing.

Finally, North Korea’s awful timing, and its propensity to put China in increasingly uncomfortable positions in its relations with the U.S., upsets Chinese leaders and leads China to regard South Korea – a far, far more lucrative partner than the DPRK – as a safer strategic bet.

North Korea is alienating its friends in Beijing and losing what little traction it had among the Chinese public.

Yet the Chinese Communist party continues on a pragmatic course of encouragement toward the North, seeking opportunity amid crisis.  Hu Jintao used Kim Jong Il’s visit to Beijing last month to call for heightened cultural exchanges and to promote a range of economic projects which include new infrastructure along the Yalu River and Chinese investment in the lucrative North Korean minerals sector.  Chinese media have been bullish in pushing tourism to North Korea, seeking to capitalize on a promising market in both countries.  A North Korean opera troupe is making a high-profile China tour.  Chinese youth voyage to Pyongyang, and Confucius Institutes at Beijing University host North Korean language teachers.  In publicizing academic and cultural exchanges, China gives North Korea much-needed face by promoting the austere but patriotic North as a good example for a Chinese youth culture that appears to have forgotten the meaning of socialist solidarity and become drugged by fast food and high-speed internet.

Yet “friendship” North Korea is often reciprocated with a black eye.  Not two months after Wen Jiabao embraced Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, the DPRK announced that Chinese tourists had to leave the country, and that the Chinese yuan would be supplanted as North Korea’s unofficial currency.  On May 13 – literally two days after Kim Jong Il returned to Pyongyang — the North Korean news agency crowed that North Korean scientists had achieved nuclear fission. China responded with a blistering editorial that called North Korea excessively proud, a country “acting like a great power without reason.”  North Korea responded by issuing press releases about how Kim Jong Il was behaving as “a great man who left sacred footprints on the vast Chinese land true to the noble intention of Kim Il Sung” and amp up the personality cult with signature moves.

Such propaganda and military provocations, from the standpoint of Pyongyang, are most important as implements in the ceaseless yet opaque struggle for internal advantage in North Korean politics.  Kim Jong Il is pulling out all the stops, recovering his influence after a 2008 stroke and clearly seeking a successor to his emaciated revolution.  The Chinese leaders are doing what they can: China, after all, will be forever stuck with whatever North Korea emerges in a post-Kim Jong Il scenario.  Because war is simply not an option for the U.S., and because China remains the foremost conduit to the DPRK, close coordination with Beijing remains vital.  While we have every right to view the Chinese side as recalcitrant, it is worth recalling that China’s “friendship” with North Korea is anything but a cause for joy in Beijing.

North Koreans do winter anti-aircraft drills (Huanqiu file photo, published today with the linked article) 韩称朝在非武装地区部署对空炮 由4挺重机枪捆绑而成


  1. Nice op-ed, Adam. Some of my Chinese contacts in Shanghai said that, above all, DPRK counterfeiting of RMB notes frustrates the Chinese government the most. You hear a lot about counterfeiting of U.S. dollars but not so much about RMB. I wonder if that came up at all in Beijing? Or, I wonder if any branch of the South Korean or U.S. governments has tried to feed the Chinese government information on counterfeiting the RMB in an attempt to sway Chinese opinions on the DPRK…

    1. Thanks, Chuck — I haven’t talked with any think-tank folks in China about the currency issue, but I was surprised by the extent to which every bill over 20 yuan was heavily scrutinzed in the Northeast this last time I was there…NK leaves its mark yet again…

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