Bad Solutions in a Complex Situation: China’s Relations with North Korea
China’s relations with North Korea are complex with a variety of bad choices and suboptimal solutions. It could be argued that the actor that has lost most in the recent tensions is China. It has often been argued that China should do more, above all by U.S. President Trump. However, what are the options and restraints China faces in its relations with North Korea? This short article does not mean to engage in the debate on whether China or the U.S. bears greater responsibility for not resolving the current situation, but is rather taking stock of the possibilities and limitations China has to contribute to the resolution of the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
Sino-North Korean relations are not what they used to be. The old “lips and teeth” relationship is long gone with almost no senior-level meetings and rampant criticism of North Korea on Chinese social media. But even as the Chinese government, as well as the vast majority of academics and the young generation, has grown increasingly frustrated with North Korea, there remain pro-North Korean elements, not least among the old generation, in the border areas of Northeast China, and within the armed forces. However, this number is likely dwindling with growing concern over North Korea’s perceived recklessness and disregard of its own people. Changes in perception of North Korea aside, this is not what primarily drives Chinese policy towards North Korea or for that matter a concern that North Korea will turn against China militarily. Rather it is the realpolitik in the region and the potential geopolitical, security and economic implications of continued tensions on the Korean Peninsula.