Are China and North Korea still friends?

Matthew Davenport, a Spring 2016 intern at the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, is currently a Master’s student at University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. In his post below, he looks at the complicated relationship between North Korea and its most important ally, China.

nkoreaOn January 6, 2016, North Korea claimed to have successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb, a weapon that could potentially yield over a hundred times the destructive capacity of conventional nuclear devices. According to the United States Geological Survey, a seismic event measured at 5.1 magnitude was confirmed to back up the claim that some kind of nuclear detonation did occur. Even though experts now doubt that North Korea actually detonated a real hydrogen bomb, many nations joined the U.S. to condemn the action.

A week later, when a proposal for stronger economic sanctions on North Korea was pushed through the United Nations, the resolution had surprising support from North Korea’s most important ally, China. So this begs the question: are China and North Korea still friends?

China has historically supported North Korea both financially and militarily since the Korean War of the early 1950s. A quick breakdown of that conflict, which institutionalized the China-North Korea relationship, can be found here.

However in recent decades, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has become a political liability for China, who would oftentimes pull back its support for N. Korea in exchange for economic support from the international community. This support has included membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and full integration into the world economy. In 2014, leaked Chinese documents showed that China has contingency plans in the event of a total collapse of the North Korean government. The most striking aspect of this plan is that North Korean leaders would be held by the Chinese military and prevented from commanding their armies.

China is unlikely to give up its military support for North Korea, which would likely drive North Korea to compensate for a precarious security situation with more nuclear tests. However, China will probably utilize “soft power” like sanctions to nudge North Korea’s policies to be more in line with that of China’s. As the world watches North Korea continue its pattern of nuclear threats, China holds the key to defuse any upcoming crisis in North Korea.

For an in-depth analysis of the Chinese-North Korea relationship, click here.

For those interested in what life is like inside of North Korea, the most recent of many documentaries made about the Hermit Kingdom can be viewed here.

Photo source: Reuters