The China-North Korea Relationship

The China-North Korea Relationship

US Council on Foreign Relations

China is North Korea’s most important ally, biggest trading partner, and main source of food, arms, and energy.


China is North Korea’s most important ally, biggest trading partner, and main source of food, arms, and energy. It has helped sustain Kim Jong-un’s regime, and has historically opposed harsh international sanctions on North Korea in the hope of avoiding regime collapse and a refugee influx across their 870-mile border. Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test as well as a ballistic missile launch in early 2016 have complicated its relationship with Beijing, which has continued to advocate for the resumption of the Six Party Talks, the multilateral framework aimed at denuclearizing North Korea. A purge of top North Korean officials since its young leader came to power also spurred renewed concern from China about the stability and direction of North Korean leadership. Furthermore, some experts say that an anticipated thawing of relations between China and South Korea could shift the geopolitical dynamic in East Asia and undermine China-North Korea ties. Yet despite North Korea’s successive nuclear tests, China’s policies toward its neighbor have hardly shifted.

Alliance Under Stress

China’s support for North Korea dates back to the Korean War (1950-1953), when its troops flooded the Korean Peninsula to aid its northern ally. Since the war, China has lent political and economic backing to North Korea’s leaders: Kim Il-sung (estimated 1948-1994), Kim Jong-il (roughly 1994-2011), and Kim Jong-un (2011-). But strains in the relationship began to surface when Pyongyang tested a nuclear weapon in October 2006 and Beijing supported UN Security Council Resolution 1718, which imposed sanctions on Pyongyang. With this resolution and others (UNSC Resolution 1874 (PDF)and 2094 (PDF)), Beijing signaled a shift in tone from diplomacy to punishment. Following North Korea’s third nuclear test in February 2013, China summoned the North Korean ambassador, implemented new trade sanctions, reduced energy supplies to North Korea, and called for denuclearization talks. However, Beijing has continued to have wide-ranging ties with Pyongyang, including economic exchanges and high-level state trips such as senior Chinese Communisty Party member Li Yunshan’s visit toattend the seventieth anniversary of North Korea’s ruling party in October 2015.

Separately, China has stymied international punitive action against North Korea over human rights violations. China criticized a February 2014 UN report that detailed human rights abuses in North Korea, including torture, forced starvation, and crimes against humanity, and attempted to block UN Security Council sessions held in December 2014 and 2015 on the country’s human rights status. In March 2010, China refused to take a stance against North Korea, despite conclusive evidence that showed Pyongyang’s involvement in sinking a South Korean naval vessel.

Editorial Staff

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