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China and North Korea: An ‘Alliance’ That Could Get Much Tighter?

China's Xi Jinping at BRICS Summit
China's Xi Jinping at BRICS Summit

China has taken steps to reaffirm its “traditional friendship” with North Korea, with Chinese state media reporting that foreign minister Wang Yi recently met with North Korea’s Ambassador to China Ri Ryong Nam. The two officials reportedly discussed the current situation on the Korean Peninsula as well as the need for the two countries to ensure coordination and cooperation.

Earlier this year, China appointed former Ambassador to North Korea Liu Xiaoming as its new representative on Korean Peninsula affairs. Ambassador Liu’s appointment was seen by analysts as indicative of China’s desire to place an experienced diplomat in charge of managing its relationship with North Korea as well as other sensitive issues on the Korean Peninsula. Others have pointed to Ambassador Liu’s reputation as somebody willing to openly criticize the U.S. as an indication that China views the Korean Peninsula as an important element in China-U.S. strategic competition.

China’s move to reaffirm its relationship with North Korea comes a week after U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a summit meeting in Washington, which some have seen as representative of a Biden push to more fully integrate South Korea into its broader Indo-Pacific strategy. The joint statement that resulted from the meeting includes indirect references to China, including a statement regarding the need to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait as well as an emphasis on maintaining and bolstering shared values and the rules-based order, which some have suggested serves as a challenge to China’s own values and its assertive regional behavior. Analysts have suggested that the U.S. should push South Korea to adopt a position that is more openly critical of China.

Chinese diplomats have criticized the joint statement, suggesting that it was aimed at China.

The summit meeting also saw range and payload restrictions on South Korean missiles lifted, allowing it to develop missiles capable of striking targets off of the Korean Peninsula. The summit also saw South Korean companies pledge to build new semiconductor chip and electric car battery production facilities in the United States, which would result in a decrease in supply chain dependency on China and may also represent a South Korean attempt at economic decoupling from China. China has attempted to use economic leverage over South Korea as a coercive tool in the past following the deployment of a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile defense system to South Korea.

China remains North Korea’s most important strategic partner, even as the relationship between the two has ebbed and flowed over the years. China has frequently provided a lifeline to North Korea by helping it evade international sanctions, and is North Korea’s largest trading partner. Trade between China and North Korea has dropped sharply due to North Korea’s COVID-19 related border closure, though there are signs that trade between the two countries may pick back up again in the near future.

China and North Korea are treaty allies, with this year marking the 60th anniversary of the singing of the Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance.

Written By

Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focusedd on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.

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