Pyongyang and Beijing No Longer “Close as Lips and Teeth”

Photo: iStock.com/spondylolithesis

Pyongyang has responded to the UN Security Council’s unanimous decision June 2 to expand sanctions for North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs by lashing out, not only at the United States but also at China.

“[The U.S. and China] railroaded ‘sanctions resolution’ at the [UN Security Council] after having drafted it in the backroom at their own pleasure and are enforcing it upon others,” North Korean state-run media reported, adding Pyongyang “will not flinch from the road to build up nuclear forces.”

The significant aspect of Pyongyang’s blast is its bold condemnation of Beijing, its most important political ally and economic lifeline.

The alliance between China and North Korea dates back to the latter’s inception as a nation. Chinese troops fought alongside North Korea against UN forces in the Korean War (1950-1953) and remained in the North until 1958. These strong early ties led Chinese leader Mao Zedong to assert that the two nations were “as close as lips and teeth.”

The relationship has been strained over the years especially since the accession of Kim Jong-un, the only North Korean leader who has not met his Chinese counterpart. Some experts believe relations between Pyongyang and Beijing are at the lowest point ever.

The Trump Administration sees this moment as an opportunity to use China’s economic leverage to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking in Sydney Monday, said that “China and other regional partners should…step up their efforts to help solve this security situation which threatens not just that region, but really presents a threat to the entire world.”

However, every U.S. administration since that of President Bill Clinton has said the same thing. Yet China’s past attempts to influence its wayward neighbor have been measured and short-lived. The task that falls to the Trump Administration in search of a binding nonproliferation agreement is how to make this time different.

China’s leverage over North Korea comes from their lopsided economic relationship. Chinese banks provide most of North Korea’s few links to the international financial network.  As much as 90 percent of North Korea’s trade volume is with China.  Moreover, China sends more food and energy aid to North Korea than any other nation.  In return, North Korea sends China mostly raw materials, low-end manufactured goods, and agricultural products.

While China’s past efforts to enforce sanctions on North Korea have been relatively feeble, it recently reduced its imports of North Korean coal—Pyongyang’s most lucrative export—to zero for the months of March, April, and May. Yun Sun, a senior associate at the Stimson Center’s East Asia Program, says that China stopped buying North Korean coal in response to the Trump Administration’s tough stance on Pyongyang.  “The Chinese have felt that they need to somehow show the Trump Administration that they’re willing to work with them,” Sun said.

Yet there was less to China’s dramatic gesture than met the eye.  China’s overall trade with North Korea increased during the first quarter of this year. The missing coal revenues were largely replaced by North Korea’s exports of iron ore and seafood to China. 

Despite more provocations on North Korea’s part— Kim’s regime has conducted more missile tests this year alone than his father launched during his 17 years in power — China’s reaction has not intensified in kind.

U.S. policymakers face a difficult question:  What will it take to move China to come down hard on North Korea? There is no simple answer, because China has not set a red line past which North Korea must not go. Beijing’s cost-benefit analysis of its relationship with Pyongyang is centered on preserving its options to act – or not.

Short of an unprovoked attack on the U.S. or something equally calamitous, China will likely keep economic ties with the North open, because to do so keeps the Kim regime stable and perhaps illustrates to Pyongyang the benefits of a market-based economy, while selectively enforcing sanctions to maintain the good will of the U.S. and the international community. When tensions rise between Pyongyang and Washington, China will likely continue calling for restraint and the need for dialogue. If China picks a side in these scenarios, it may close diplomatic doors that would be hard to reopen.

North Korea can continue to advance its weapons programs and escalate its rhetoric against Beijing, but is unlikely to provoke the degree of response from China that the U.S. would find adequate. Beijing will not pressure North Korea into negotiations until it decides the time is right for negotiations, a process that is beyond the United States’ control.

Just as North Korea cannot compel China to act, neither can Washington.

View our expert commentary on this topic:

China Can Disarm North Korea in the Blink of an Eye by Gordon Chang, author of “The Coming Collapse of China”

China Edging North Korea Closer to Arms Talks with U.S., South Korea, by Yun Sun, a Senior Associate with Stimson Center’s East Asia Program

Will Edwards is an Asia-Pacific and defense analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @_wedwards.