Lips and teeth: Repairing China-North Korea relations

Flags of China and North Korea are seen outside the closed Ryugyong Korean Restaurant in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, China, in this April 12, 2016 file photo. REUTERS/Joseph Campbell/Files      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - GF10000381375

Executive summary

Learn more about Global ChinaChina has reset its ties with North Korea and repaired a relationship that had suffered its most severe downturn ever. The Beijing-Pyongyang relationship, long called as “close as lips and teeth,” took a decidedly negative turn in 2017 as Pyongyang’s confrontation with the United States appeared to be pushing the Korean Peninsula to the brink of war. Through its actions, North Korea seemed to willfully ignore China’s interests. Beijing responded with stark warnings and support for tougher U.N. Security Council sanctions.

The year 2018 brought a remarkable turnabout on the peninsula, including historic new U.S. and South Korean dialogues with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But as diplomacy accelerated, concern was mounting in Beijing that China was being left out of the game and North Korea was drifting out of its orbit. China moved decisively to reassert itself and repair relations with North Korea through an unprecedented series of summits between President Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un, the first visit by a Chinese leader to North Korea in 14 years, and renewed contacts between party and military officials.

Beijing’s initiative has laid the foundation for more stable and predictable bilateral ties. But North Korea shows no sign of abandoning the nuclear and missile programs that constitute the main source of instability so close to China’s border.

In fact, North Korea is probably now a permanent nuclear-armed state, giving Pyongyang useful leverage in its relations with all its neighbors, including China, and constraining Beijing’s ability to influence North Korea.

With U.S. influence in Northeast Asia waning, signs of trouble in the U.S.-South Korea alliance, eroding U.S.-South Korea-Japan trilateral security cooperation, and a more passive U.S. approach to its regional alliances, Beijing may see an opportunity to use its stabilized relationship with North Korea to accelerate these trends. All may not be harmonious in China-North Korea relations, but on these points, Beijing and Pyongyang share similar goals. For China, even a problematic partnership with North Korea has strategic value, although the partnership would be at risk again if Pyongyang resumes nuclear or long-range missile testing.

China’s revitalized relationship with North Korea means the United States can no longer rely on Beijing to support increased sanctions and pressure on Pyongyang. China will also demand a seat at the table at discussions of a peninsular peace regime or a treaty to end the Korean War, where, like North Korea, it hopes to weaken the rationale for the U.S. military presence in Korea.

The “normalization” of Beijing-Pyongyang ties poses a new challenge as U.S. policymakers deal with North Korea’s nuclear threat. To contend with this new reality, policymakers will need to refocus the current U.S. policy approach, including by doing a more effective job convincing Beijing that Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction programs are a threat to Chinese interests. Washington should also prioritize the establishment of stable, predictable relations with Beijing, dissuade China from offering uncoordinated incentives to North Korea, and revitalize and be prepared to lead the international coalition to maintain tough-minded sanctions and other pressures on North Korea.

With Beijing’s reset of ties with Pyongyang, China’s posture on North Korea is shifting, including signs that it is prepared to live with a nuclear North Korea. The common goal of denuclearization that once inspired U.S.-China cooperation on North Korea is disappearing. Uncertain times lie ahead.