Home China’s DPRK Conundrum

China’s DPRK Conundrum


For China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is fast becoming a cause of concern. The foreign policy of Beijing towards DPRK requires serious deliberations for a long term effects favourably inclined towards Beijing. A number of actors in Northern Asia have assumed significance over the last couple of months depending on their positive and negative outcomes of relations with North Korea. Among them figure prominently is Russia. The visit of the special envoy, Choe Ryong Hae of DPRK to Russia and the probability of the supreme leader of DPRK, Kim Jong Un to choose Russia as his first foreign trip after assuming power in 2011. The Russian trip comes in the wake of 70th year of victory celebrations of World War II.

China needs DPRK

It is well analysed that China needs DPRK more than the latter needs China. The reasons are not altogether difficult to judge. Congressional Research Service (CRS), a non partisan legislative branch agency with the library of Congress states in a new report that China is using the North Korean regime as a puppet. The report further states that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aims to keep the North as a buffer. The reason behind this approach is the excessive bonhomie between Seoul and Washington. The PLA wants to keep the combined forces below the 38th parallel. Any kind of probability of collapse of the DPRK regime could be dangerous for China. The possible reunification in the event of a collapse could mean the reins of control passing over to Seoul under the aegis of Washington. Even the slightest prospect of a direct military ally of USA, Seoul, so close to Beijing is sufficient to ruffle feathers in the foreign policy analysis of China towards DPRK. Another probable reason is the influx of large number of refugees into China in case of political turmoil in North Korea. The border stretches for 1420 kilometres. West to east the Yalu River, Paektu Mountain and Tumen River divide the two countries. The issue of migration would be an added concern in the already fragile relation between the two countries.               

The present status of the bilateral relation

The bilateral relation turned towards the worse when DPRK conducted its third nuclear test in February 2013. China was already under international pressure for failing to rein the outrageous activities of its ally. The conduction of the nuclear test froze the relation for a long time to come. The nail in the coffin came in the garb of the execution of Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un’s uncle by marriage in December, 2013. He happens to be the primary conduit between Pyongyang and Beijing. With his death the final curtains on any possibility of the warming of the relation were drawn. Consequently, Beijing was not invited marking the end of three year official mourning period of Kim Jong Il. This event is significant in terms of the freedom of the new leader to pursue independent policies both economic and political. China, too, has reacted with strengthening diplomacy with Seoul. Xi Jinping became the first Chinese leader to visit Seoul before Pyongyang in July 2014, thereby sending a strong signal of its future approach towards the country. Analysts further added that Beijing is trying to win Seoul over to its side away from US. However, this isn’t going to be very easy keeping in mind China’s inclination and approach towards Pyongyang. Pyongyang, in turn, taking a cue from an old adage “enemy’s enemy is a friend” stretched out its hand towards Japan. Despite the fact that Japanese abductees would be the last issue that Pyongyang would like to discuss it went ahead to discuss about the Japanese nationals abducted by Kim regime in July, 2014.

North Korea-Russia bonhomie

Mutual convenience is the phrase to describe the timely renewal of relation between Russia and North Korea. To assure the Kim regime of its continued support Russia has written off almost 90% (valued at $10 billion) of the Soviet era debt. Russia for its part finds itself at the receiving end of the International ire following its stance on Crimea. Moreover it is in need of takers of its oil and the market of South Korea seems to be a lucrative choice for Moscow. This market is reachable only with a gas pipeline through North Korea.

For Pyongyang it visibly wants to come out of the growing Chinese influence. It is wise to think of another partner equally strong to counter US threats when the protective hand of China appears to be gradually receding to the background. North Korea needs more aid to continue its byungjin line (simultaneous development of nuclear and economy). It does not appear that North is going to abandon its nuclear programme any time soon. The recently held Track II diplomacy between Pyongyang and Washington (not officially endorsed) at Singapore does not seem to have broken any ice between the two. US has categorically rejected Pyongyang’s offer of the resumption of talk by pointing out the latter’s failure to abide by the international obligations. The US state department spokesman Jennifer Psaki pointed out to the joint statement of 2005 where Pyongyang committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programme and returning at an early date to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, while Washington affirmed that it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and has no intention to attack or invade the DPRK with nuclear or conventional weapons.  


China’s options are limited while deciding on its foreign policy towards DPRK. It has many things to lose in terms of commitment and accountability to the international fraternity for any step towards DPRK that could prove to be counter-productive in terms of threatening the security of the region. However, it is also true that DPRK appears to be slowly moving out of the grip of China for its own reasons. On the other DPRK’s geo strategic relevance can be overlooked by Beijing only at its own peril. It will be interesting to watch what long term policy approach does Beijing looks for its advantage. For the moment it appears that it is cautious in its approach and measuring every step before taking it. China’s DPRK conundrum could be well phrased as “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t”.  

The author is Junior Research Fellow at International Strategic and Security Studies Programme, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. Views expressed are personal.

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Suparna Banerjee

Contact at: [email protected]
Zentrum fĂĽr Entwicklungsforschung (Centre for Development Research), University of Bonn
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