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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

China-North Korea Relations

Dick K. Nanto
Specialist in Industry and Trade

Mark E. Manyin
Specialist in Asian Affairs

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) plays a key role in U.S. policy toward the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea). The PRC is North Korea’s closest ally, largest provider of food, fuel, and industrial machinery, and arguably the country most able to wield influence in Pyongyang. China also is the host of the Six-Party Talks (involving the United States, China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and Russia) over North Korea’s nuclear program. The close PRC-DPRK relationship is of interest to U.S. policymakers because China plays a pivotal role in the success of U.S. efforts to halt the DPRK’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, to prevent nuclear proliferation, to enforce economic sanctions, and to ensure that North Korean refugees that cross into China receive humane treatment. Since late 2008, China has been not just the largest, but also the dominant, provider of aid and partner in trade with North Korea.

This report provides a brief survey of China-North Korea relations, assesses PRC objectives and actions, and raises policy issues for the United States. While Beijing still maintains its military alliance and continues its substantial economic assistance to Pyongyang, in recent years many PRC and North Korean interests and goals appear to have grown increasingly incompatible. Increasingly, many Chinese officials and scholars appear to regard North Korea as more of a burden than a benefit. However, Beijing’s shared interest with Pyongyang in preserving North Korean stability generally has trumped these other considerations.

The Obama Administration’s public statements have emphasized common interests rather than differences in its policy toward China regarding North Korea. The United States also has been encouraging China to use its influence in Pyongyang to rein in the more provocative actions by North Korea. China’s interests both overlap and coincide with those of the United States, but China’s primary interest of stability on the Korean peninsula is often at odds with U.S. interest in denuclearization and the provision of basic human rights for the North Korean people. Moreover, North Korean leaders appear to have used this interest to neutralize their country’s growing economic dependence on China; the greater North Korea’s dependency, the more fearful Chinese leaders may be that a sharp withdrawal of PRC economic support could destabilize North Korea. Since the late 1990s, as long as North Korea has been able to convince Beijing’s senior leadership that regime stability is synonymous with North Korea’s overall stability, the Kim government has been able to count on a minimum level of China’s economic and diplomatic support, as well as some cooperation along their border region to ensure that the number and activities of North Korean border-crossers do not spiral out of control.

Beijing and Pyongyang are currently going through a period of amicable but strained diplomatic and economic relations following the negative response by Beijing to the DPRK’s nuclear and missile tests in 2009 and China’s support of new United Nations Security Council sanctions directed at North Korea. China also has been concerned that military provocations by the DPRK could trigger a shooting war on the Korean Peninsula. Beijing’s proposed solution to DPRK provocations has been more diplomacy and talks. China’s enforcement of U.N. sanctions against North Korea is unclear. China has implemented some aspects of the sanctions that relate directly to North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs, but Beijing has been less strict on controlling exports of dual use products. Chinese shipments of banned luxury goods to the DPRK continue to increase.

Date of Report: December 28, 2010
Number of Pages: 25
Order Number: R41043
Price: $29.95

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