A Fading Alliance Between China and North Korea

Once a Cold War buffer state, North Korea is now a strategic liability to China's Xi Jinping, who is trying to root out the influence of former leader Jiang Zemin
July 12, 2017 Updated: July 16, 2017

Prospects for an amicable resolution to the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile crisis faded on July 4, when Pyongyang launched its latest Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile. Dictator Kim Jong Un called it an Independence Day “gift.”

North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test last September, exploding a 20-to-30-kiloton bomb and sparking the saber-rattling that has characterized the last few months of Pyongyang’s interactions with the United States and countries throughout Northeast Asia.

Bridges connecting the Chinese city of Dandong and the North Korean city of Sinuiju on July 5.  (NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)
Bridges connecting the Chinese city of Dandong and the North Korean city of Sinuiju on July 5, 2017.

President Donald Trump has expressed disappointment with Beijing’s role in the crisis, saying via social media that Xi and China had “tried” but failed to help with North Korea. Since the July 4 missile test, Washington has begun to move unilaterally on sanctioning Chinese banks and firms that it says have been helping funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to Pyongyang.

Trump has repeatedly requested that China and its leader Xi Jinping assist with the effort to make North Korea give up its nuclear weapons program. However, China’s relationship with Pyongyang has been made ambiguous and fractured by different interests within the Chinese regime, a result of behind-the-scenes Communist Party factional intrigue.

Nevertheless, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs pose an immediate national security risk for China, which shares a border with the aggressive state. Meanwhile, the Kim regime’s continued existence—which hinges on Cold War-style brinksmanship and isolationist communist tyranny—does a disservice to both the Xi Jinping leadership, which is struggling to consolidate power internally, and a China attempting to present an image of peaceful rise.

Jiang Zemin made use of the nuclear threat from North Korea to distract American attention.
— Don Tse, China analyst

Politics in the Party

In China, the ascent to power of Xi Jinping means that the Kim family’s links to the Chinese regime are growing distant. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has purged hundreds of powerful cadres, among them key associates of an informal Communist Party clique centered around former Party leader Jiang Zemin.

Jiang headed the Chinese Communist Party from 1989 to 2002, and wielded power behind the scenes through 2012. Under Jiang, relations with North Korea were warm, even if the Chinese regime outwardly disapproved of Pyongyang’s nuclear program, which produced its first working weapon in 2006.

One of the legacies of the Jiang leadership is widespread human rights abuses and mass murder, particularly the persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual practice ordered by the former leader in July 1999. Falun Gong adherents and those belonging to other repressed groups have been harvested for their organs and murdered on a nationwide scale.

For Jiang and his lieutenants involved in this gruesome business, holding onto power as long as possible is necessary to keep their atrocities under wraps and to avoid being held accountable for these crimes.

Today, Jiang associates are doing whatever they can to put the brakes on Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, including stirring up trouble for him on the North Korean issue. While many of Jiang’s allies have been purged, the faction’s influence still extends deep into Chinese state and business institutions.

Between 2003 and 2015, Jiang’s protégé Wang Jiarui was head of the Communist Party’s International Liaison Department, which conducts diplomacy with other revolutionary parties and North Korea in particular. Wang often accompanied Chinese leaders to North Korea.

Some of Jiang’s most powerful backers, including Politburo Standing Committee members Liu Yunshan, Zhang Dejiang, and Zhang Gaoli, all have a history of close ties with Pyongyang.

Pyongyang’s links to the Chinese regime are growing distant as Xi Jinping consolidates power.

Last September, the purge of Jiang’s cohorts in the provincial leadership of Liaoning Province was quickly followed by the arrest and investigation of Ma Xiaohong, a businesswoman whose trading firm was singled out by U.S. authorities for supplying Pyongyang with materials blocked by U.N. sanctions for their use in nuclear weapons production. Ma’s firm was based in the city of Dandong, which borders North Korea.

Referring to the Ma Xiaohong scandal, U.S.-based political commentator Wen Zhao said the illicit trade had “gone far beyond the realm of normal commerce.”

“This is not something that the local authorities, or Ma Xiaohong herself, would dare to do,” Wen said.

According to China analyst Don Tse, “Jiang Zemin made use of the nuclear threat from North Korea to distract American attention from Chinese human rights violations, as well as resist political attack from factions within the Communist Party that don’t have the blood of innocents on their hands.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (L) inspects a Hwasong-12 strategic ballistic rocket at an undisclosed location in this picture released by North Korean state media on May 15.  (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (L) inspects a Hwasong-12 strategic ballistic rocket at an undisclosed location in
this picture released by North Korean state media on May 15, 2017.
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

A Faded Alliance

China under Xi has placed a variety of restrictions on Sino–North Korean trade, including banning coal imports, curtailing petroleum sales, and supporting U.N. sanctions.

This has evoked ire from Pyongyang. In early May, North Korean state media issued seldom-seen direct criticism, warning Beijing that it “should no longer try to test the limits of the DPRK’s [North Korea’s] patience.”

At a time when China no longer seeks Marxist revolution, North Korea only undermines its larger neighbor’s goals in the region.

Referring to China’s censuring of its nuclear program, the Pyongyang-controlled Korean Central News Agency condemned the “reckless act of chopping down the pillar of the DPRK-China relations.”

In response, China’s Communist Party-controlled Global Times declared that China was able to strike back “at any side that crosses the red line.”

Xi himself has expressed support for tougher action against North Korea, in line with official Chinese policy statements that support U.N. sanctions. Chinese regime-run media have also lauded his conversations and meetings with Trump as “fruitful” and as having made progress.  

At the recent G-20 summit in Hamburg, Xi reiterated the demand for Korean denuclearization and said that he would order Chinese forces to take part in U.S.-led military exercises in the Pacific.

Xi Jinping, Chinese leader since 2012. (Mark Ralston - Pool/Getty Images)
Xi Jinping, Chinese leader since 2012. (Mark Ralston – Pool/Getty Images)

“Let me just say that it’s an honor to have gotten to know you. We are developing and have developed a wonderful relationship,” Trump said to Xi after their second meeting on July 8 at the summit. “I appreciate the things that you have done in regard to the very substantial problem that we all face in North Korea.”

As the U.S. Navy positions aircraft carrier groups near the Korean Peninsula, there have been hints that China is making its own military preparations. In April, unconfirmed reports suggested that over 100,000 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army had been deployed to the Sino–North Korean border.

In June, an elite Chinese airborne division was reorganized for combined arms operations and part of it redeployed to Northeast China, hinting at Beijing’s planning for a scenario in which it must quickly secure the North Korean nuclear arsenal.

North Korea’s ‘Survival Diplomacy’

The Kim leadership, now in its third generation under 33-year-old Kim Jong Un, runs an inefficient, oppressive regime reminiscent of Maoist China or Stalinist Russia.

According to Andrei Lankov, a Russian scholar of North Korea’s society and regime, Pyongyang is forced to run what he calls “survival diplomacy” because it is in the “peculiar and unenviable position” of being “stuck with an outdated economic system that cannot generate growth.”

Unable to support itself on central planning, or to enact Chinese-style economic reform without risking total collapse and absorption by South Korea, Kim’s regime instead subsists on nuclear blackmail in hopes of scooping up international aid and other concessions, Lankov says.

Translated into recent events, this has meant ever more radical provocations from North Korea. In his six years of power, Kim Jong Un has test-launched dozens of ballistic missiles, compared to just 16 during the entire 17 years when his late father Kim Jong Il ruled the country.

Provocation is just one of the ways that North Korea disturbs the peace. Aside from normal cross-border trade with China, North Korea also has various means of illicit fundraising and resource procurement. Regime authorities have set up and encouraged a drug production and export industry. North Korean hackers carry out bank robbery. Pyongyang sends tens of thousands of laborers to work abroad in countries like China and Russia in slave-like conditions, receiving in return hundreds of millions, or possibly billions, of dollars. These activities sustain the regime’s ambitions.

Strategic Liability

Conventional analysis holds that China sees North Korea as a useful buffer state between itself and South Korea, a strong U.S. military ally.

But in a time when China no longer seeks Marxist revolution, North Korea only undermines its larger neighbor’s goals in the region.

According to Zang Shan, a veteran journalist of China affairs based in Hong Kong, “North Korea’s aggressive nuclear tests have brought great harm to China’s interests, far worse than the THAAD system deployment in South Korea. North Korea not only acquired nuclear weapons, but forced Japan to work with South Korea, enforcing their cooperation with the United States.”


Zang believes that a significant goal of Chinese foreign policy in Northeast Asia is to prevent an alliance between South Korea and Japan, something that a belligerent North Korea makes more rather than less likely.

Meanwhile, Zang wrote in an article published by the Chinese edition of The Epoch Times: “North Korea is just a chess piece that justifies the United States to have a military presence in the area. The threat from the nuclear weapons and missile program come second in its calculus.”

Russia, for its part, can use North Korea in its overarching strategy to confound and redirect U.S. and allied efforts—and lessen North Korea’s dependence on China in the process. New Russian technology may be behind the latest North Korean missile designs, wrote Tetsuro Kosaka of Japan’s Nikkei Asian Review in June.

Ri Jong Ho, a high-ranking North Korean official and defector, revealed in an interview with Voice of America last month that much of the Kim regime’s fuel needs are covered by Russian rather than Chinese oil, but that the ships traveling to North Korea are transported with forged documents showing destinations in China.

In an interview later adapted to an article and published on Duowei, top Chinese scholar of Korean affairs Jin Qingyi argued that an isolated North Korea was not only a political nuisance but was also in direct contradiction with China’s market economy.

“The only way to change it is to induce North Korea to reform and open up; there is no other way. If North Korea reforms and opens up, the entire region will thrive,” Jin said.

The northeastern Chinese provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang, which are widely known as the economically depressed rustbelt of state-run heavy industry and resource extraction, would benefit from a reformed North Korea. Liaoning and Jilin border the country, and Heilongjiang is north of these two provinces.

“I think what the three northeastern provinces lack most is an open economy. The best way to have an open economy is to have a unified Korean Peninsula,” Jin said.