In July 2021, commemorating the 60th anniversary of mutual defense treaty, Chinese President Xi Jinping said bilateral relations between China and North Korea should “unceasingly rise to new levels” in the world “undergoing profound changes unseen in a century.” How can one explain, in Xi Jinping’s own words, China’s “unswerving support” of North Korea in 2021? What events are likely to impact China-North Korea relations in 2022? Answering these questions should start with reviewing what China has done for North Korea in 2021.
First of all, Beijing reaffirmed the value of “the Sino-DPRK Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance” signed in 1961. It means that the two countries also confirmed their commitments to providing military support to each other in the event of an attack. China also continued to provide economic support for North Korea: according to the Chinese General Administration of Customs, China imported $14.3 million worth of goods from North Korea in September, which is a twofold increase from the $6.2 million in August. The September import figures are the highest since December 2019 before the outbreak of COVID-19. In addition to said official trade, China has allowed North Korea to export coals and sands to China in violation of international sanctions authorized by the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR). Consequently, Washington accused Beijing of failing to act against illicit ship-to-ship petroleum transfers in China’s territorial waters.
On the diplomatic front, Beijing took the initiative to ease the international sanctions against North Korea. China and Russia tried to redraft the UNSCR, where they claim the sanctions be lifted “with the intent of enhancing livelihood of the civilian population” in North Korea in times of global crisis given by the COVID-19 pandemic. During the top diplomats’ meeting between China and South Korea, Beijing also expressed its diplomatic support for the Moon Jae-in government’s push for the declaration of the end of the Korean War . Beijing’s official position is to support the peaceful resolution of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. However, Chinese analysts themselves acknowledge China and North Korea have shared interests in diminishing US military influence in East Asia, and that the end of war declaration may lead to Beijing and Pyongyang demanding the withdrawal of US forces from South Korea.
The increasingly close ties between China and North Korea in 2021 can be explained by the two factors of (1) intensification of the US-China strategic competition and (2) Moon Jae-in government’s foreign policy orientation. First, as the US-China strategic rivalry deepens, Beijing is incentivized to strengthen its ties with Pyongyang. Beijing perceives that the Biden administration’s China policy is not so different from the Trump administration’s hawkish approach. Even worse, as in the case of AUKUS - a trilateral security pact among Australia, the UK, and the US - shows, Washington has been trying to form a coalition of willingness against China with its allies and partners. To counter the US’ efforts, Beijing also seeks to strengthen its ties with countries like Russia, Iran, Myanmar, and Cambodia, among others. In this context, China has interests in enhancing its relations with North Korea, its only treaty ally.
Second, whether it intends to or not, Moon Jae-in government’s foreign policy has been aligned with China’s diplomatic strategy in practice. Though the Moon administration seems to perceive itself as pursuing a balanced diplomacy between China and the US, some American analysts view South Korea’s “balanced approach” as relatively “pro-China” when compared with other treaty allies such as Japan and Australia. Knowing this well, security experts in China tend to perceive South Korea as “a weak link” of the US alliance system. They praised Seoul’s restraints from commenting on sensitive issues like Hong Kong and Xinjiang as signs of “Seoul’s rationality in dealing with Washington.” China’s state media insisted that “South Korea is much wiser than Japan in keeping a diplomatic balance,” while emphasizing South Korea’s economic dependence on Chinese market and trade. In short, China attempts to expand its influence on the Korean Peninsula by strengthening its ties with North Korea and weaking South Korea’s ties with the United States.
In 2022, the possibility of two events is likely to further strengthen the bilateral ties between China and North Korea. First, South Korea’s China policy may dramatically change depending on the outcome of the presidential election on 9 March, 2022. The ruling Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung announced that, if elected, he would continue the Moon administration’s policy of engaging with North Korea, including the end of war declaration. On the contrary, the opposition People Power Party’s candidate, Yoon Suk-yeol, publicly opposed the end of war declaration before any tangible progress is made on North Korea’s denuclearization. More importantly, he emphasized the expanded deterrence from the strong alliance with the US and the revival of security cooperation with Japan, while proposing to open trilateral communication hotlines among Seoul, Pyongyang, and Washington, notably excluding Beijing.
Therefore, if Yoon is elected, South Korea’s relationship with China will likely turn more confrontational. Directly commenting on China, Yoon suggested that he would invalidate the Moon administration’s so-called “3-No” position: in the 2017 agreement, South Korea committed to no additional deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery, no South Korean integration into a US-led missile defense system, and no trilateral alliance with the US and Japan. Reversing the commitment may invite China’s retaliation with coercive economic measures, but Yoon’s new anti-China initiative is likely to gather public support. According to an April 2021 survey, 60% of South Korean respondents view China as an economic threat, while 37% see it as an economic partner. 83% view China as a security threat, with only 12 % perceiving China as a security partner. The negative view around China among the South Korean populace is even worse than Japan’s.
Second, the security situation in the Taiwan Strait may have an impact on the Korean Peninsula. As the possibility of war looms large across Taiwan Strait, American scholars have called for closer cooperation with allies like Japan and South Korea to deter China’s invasion of Taiwan. As I wrote elsewhere, if the tension somehow escalates to the verge of military conflict, China would undoubtedly want to prevent the deployment of US armed forces from Japan and South Korea to the Taiwan Strait. Given that North Korea also poses a security threat to Japan, Beijing would not oppose Pyongyang’s concurrent provocations to pin down US, Japanese, and South Korean military forces. From Pyongyang’s perspective as well, a contingency in the Taiwan Strait means a distraction of the US’ strategic focus, which creates an opportunity for major provocation such as nuclear or long-range missile tests. That way, Pyongyang could press Washington to concede on the denuclearization negotiation. Pyongyang already signaled it links the situation in Taiwan to Korean affairs. In October 2021, North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Pak Myong-ho said that “the huge forces of the US and its satellite states, which are being concentrated near Taiwan,” can be “committed to a military operation targeting the DPRK at any time.”
In sum, depending on the result of South Korea’ presidential election and the situation in Taiwan Strait, North Korea may return to the cycle of major provocations, and Beijing is most likely to support Pyongyang’s position. Beijing always prioritizes North Korea’s regime stability over the country’s denuclearization. If the tension between the US and China further escalates and China-South Korea relationship deteriorates, Beijing will most likely double down on strengthening China-North Korea relations. The comradeship appears to be heading to its highest point in decades in 2022.
Dr. Sungmin Cho is Professor at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS), an academic institute of the US Department of Defense. The views expressed in this article are the authors’ alone and do not reflect the official position of APCSS or the US Department of Defense.