China and North Korea: Where Next?

When you drink the water, remembering the spring - Chinese proverb

“When you drink the water, remembering the spring”

In 2016 China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK – North Korea) will celebrate 55 years since the commencement of their alliance. It is a pairing which has its origins in the 1950-53 Korean War and has stood the test of time despite commentators’ claims it was doomed to fail.

Important as it was in the 1950s, China truly became pivotal to North Korea’s continued existence in 1991: the year of the fall of the Soviet Union. At the end of the Cold War North Korea found itself with only one ally in the outside world – China. Over the next ten years the DPRK experienced perhaps the most trying period in its history. Between 1995 and the turn of the millennium several hundred thousand people died in one of the most unknown and devastating famines in history.

The alliance is one based on energy and food. Although nothing is concrete, estimates place the DPRK as importing up to 90% of its fuel from China; its dependency stretches to trade, around 80% of North Korea’s trading is with China. The benefit of the alliance for the DPRK is clear, in essence the survival of its current state is fundamentally tied to China’s generosity.

Why is it that China continues to act so seemingly benevolently towards North Korea? It is certainly nothing to do with the altruistic nature of the Chinese state or communist ideology – Deng Xiaoping’s opening up signalled the beginning of the end of China’s days as a great communist power (faux-capitalism?). For China, the reason for its continued support is that North Korea acts as a useful shield against the sphere of western (or rather American) influence in East Asia which the Republic of Korea (ROK – South Korea) represents. The collapse of the DPRK would signal the beginning of an extended period of instability for East Asia; China would be forced to confront an influx of Korean refugees – something it does not particularly want, nor is capable to deal with. Not only this but the collapse of the DPRK and its submersion into a “greater” ROK would signal an American victory in this “century of Asia.”

The alliance is pivotal; both China and the DPRK stand to win with its continuation, however there is today a massive question over the extent of its perpetuity. China has been more vocal than expected in showing concern over North Korea’s nuclear weapons. This along with recent escapades such as the kidnapping of Chinese fishing crews and boats before ransoming them back to the Chinese authorities evidences the willingness of the DPRK elite to continue to push the Chinese leadership to the brink of their patience.

Sino-North Korean relations - Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinging

Sino-North Korean relations – Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinging

That Kim Jung-un has not been invited officially to Beijing (he was instated as the premier of the DPRK in 2012) is no small slight; does this indicate the beginning of a new period for Sino-DPRK relations?

If left up to China this would seem unlikely. Although relations may take a sour turn now and again, as they seem to have right now, the tenets behind the alliance remain the same – if North Korea is existentially challenged by a foreign power, China will intervene. China simply has too much to lose if it does not. In saying this, although it may be inconvenient, the collapse of Kim’s government in North Korea would be no skin off of the Chinese’s back. The People’s Republic would adapt to the new strategic environment – as they always have – and move on.

So, where next? Should the current strategic climate continue, China will be content; they can continue to rise and use North Korea for strategic purposes. From the Chinese perspective, this could only really be improved with the DPRK employing quietist tendencies.

China prefers the status quo, but they won’t jump in front of a bullet for the North Korean regime unless there was no alterative. Things may very well change for the alliance; the DPRK could collapse and China could let them, and no one should be surprised if they do.

By Jacob Cain, Junior Wrier for Daily Political View.

Twitter: (@jacc0bb)

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