The alliance between China and North Korea plays an integral role in the Korean Peninsula affairs as well as in the question of denuclearisation. Similar to how the United States (US) came to South Korea’s aid during the Korean War in 1950, China entered the war to support North Korean forces north of the 38th parallel. Since then, both Koreas have maintained tight relations with their respective war-time allies, ties that continue to bind to this day.
Although both Koreas today share a strong bond with a global superpower, economic growth on the peninsula has not been equal. Even though South Korea was able to rebuild after the war, increasing its gross national income (GNI) per capita from less than US$80 in the early 1950s to over US$30,000 in 2018, North Korea did not follow that same trajectory. Contrary to the economic boom the South experienced, the North held on to its centrally-planned economic system and ended up facing dire famine in the 1990s. Since then, its economy has been weak, and poverty in the country is widespread.
The North’s already vulnerable economy was plunged into further disarray last year when the pandemic hit. According to Chinese customs data, trade between both nations plunged by more than 80% in 2020, a big blow to North Korea, given that China accounts for some 90% of its trade volumes. The reason for the sharp drop in cross-border trade was a result of North Korea’s strict border control measures—the two countries share an 870-mile border— to prevent the virus from spreading within the country.
Nevertheless, China cannot afford to squeeze North Korea too tightly lest another major humanitarian—let alone military—disaster breaks out at its doorstep. As such, China’s priority when it comes to North Korea has always been the same: maintaining stability.
However, even though North Korea relies heavily on its economic relationship with China, it has not prevented it from continuing to develop nuclear weapons and expanding its military capabilities. As a result, relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have experienced tense periods throughout the years. Cracks in their close relationship began to show in 2006 after the North conducted its first nuclear weapons test. China proceeded to back the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718, which imposed sanctions on North Korea.
Nevertheless, China cannot afford to squeeze North Korea too tightly lest another major humanitarian—let alone military—disaster breaks out at its doorstep. As such, China’s priority when it comes to North Korea has always been the same: maintaining stability. This is why Beijing cannot completely cut off economic aid or trade with Pyongyang, despite aggressive rhetoric by the West or increased sanctions.
It is not in China’s best interest for the North Korean regime to suddenly collapse, with millions of people ending up as refugees. Worse yet, if such a scenario does play out, China would not want the US—which already has nearly 30,000 troops stationed in the South—to send its army north of the 38th parallel. This would greatly increase regional tensions, and one wrong move could spiral the world’s two superpowers into a global war.
It is, therefore, important for Beijing to keep its ties with Pyongyang close enough to prevent the regime’s collapse. To this end, China’s President Xi Jinping and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un met five times between 2018 and 2019. Xi’s visit to North Korea in June 2019 marked the first time a Chinese leader had set foot in North Korea in 14 years.
Since then, relations between the two countries have remained friendly, with Xi congratulating Kim in January on his election as the General Secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party. Kim also paid special attention to his country’s alliance with China through remarks he made at the January Workers’ Party Congress. “By prioritizing the long-standing and special DPRK-China relations, our Party [. . .] opened a new chapter in the DPRK-China relations of friendship,” Kim said. This in stark contrast to the comments directed at the US: “Whoever takes power in the US, its entity and the real intention of its policy toward the DPRK would never change.”
Despite North Korea’s rhetoric towards the US, the leadership in Pyongyang is well aware that it requires diplomatic progress with Washington to have sanctions lifted and gradually be able to grow its economy and establish diplomatic relations with other countries in the world. The only way to achieve such progress is by making headway on the issue of denuclearisation.
The US must also shift its focus from complete denuclearisation to a gradual arms reduction approach.
Here is where the situation gets complicated. While countries like China, Russia, and South Korea advocate for a more step-by-step, gradual approach to denuclearisation, successive US administrations have refused to follow this plan. Instead, they have repeatedly opted for complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation (CVID). On top of that, they demand CVID upfront before making any concessions first.
This is what ultimately led to the collapse of the 2019 Hanoi Summit between Trump and Kim. North Korea refused to commit to CVID upfront without receiving any security guarantees or partial sanctions removals in return. Hence, a deadlock that continues to this day ensued. The only way to break this deadlock is for Washington to be willing to treat Pyongyang as an equal negotiating partner and be willing to give some to get some.
This does not have to mean lifting all sanctions in exchange for small steps at reducing North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Instead, the first sanctions that should be lifted can be focused on humanitarian aid, especially medical assistance, given the ongoing pandemic. Also, sanctions exemptions to allow for inter-Korean economic projects can be considered. If North Korea complies with its obligations under this kind of agreement, more sanctions can gradually be lifted.
The US must also shift its focus from complete denuclearisation to a gradual arms reduction approach. This is because of the high unlikeliness of a fully-fledged nuclear state giving up all of its nuclear weapons. The complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula will only be possible once a peace treaty replaces the current Korean War Armistice Agreement, the US troops withdraw from the South, and official diplomatic relations are established between Pyongyang and Washington.
As this is unlikely to happen any time soon, a gradual arms reduction approach remains the most realistic way through which the international community can deal with North Korea’s nuclear weapons.