As ties between North and South Korea continue to improve, there are growing concerns within Beijing that China is losing its influence in the Korean peninsula.
Reports have suggested that officials in China are concerned of greater proximity between the US and North Korea.
From the time of its formation at the end of the Korean War in the early 1950s, China has been North Korea’s most important ally, as well as its principal trading partner, with the majority of North Korean exports, mainly in the form of coal and seafood, finding markets across the border in China. During the Korean war, more than 130,000 Chinese troops, including the son of Mao Zedong, died defending the North.
However, as China has grown and sought to increase its influence in the world, becoming a major economic and political force on the world stage, its warm relationship with its eastern neighbour has become increasingly strained over the years. Where China once occupied a position of significant power and influence over North Korea, its newest leader, Kim Jong Un has made several moves to assert his own independence. This has signaled a shift in the traditional balance of power in China – North Korea ties. Experts have noted that on more than one occasion the current North Korean leader even snubbed the Chinese leadership. This has led to a marked cooling of diplomatic ties between the countries and put considerable strain on their relations.
Historically, North Korea has not trusted in the leadership of China. North Korea’s first leader, Kim Il Sung denied Chinese officers’ requests to study the battlefield in the event that Chinese military support was needed during the Korean war. The perception of China further deteriorated in North Korea during the Vietnam war. Even though China was a key ally for Vietnam, during the end of the war, ties between the two countries significantly soured.
They are both communist nations and share cultural similarities. China's economic assistance to North Korea accounts for about half of all Chinese foreign aid. Beijing provides the aid directly to Pyongyang, thereby enabling it to bypass the United Nations. During the period of severe food shortage between 1996 and 1998, Beijing provided unconditional food aid to North Korea.
North Korea-South Korea ties
In 1950, North Korea supported by Chinese and Russian forces invaded South Korea. US forces along with the United Nations intervened on behalf of South Korea and the invading army was driven out. Though an armistice was signed in 1953, there has been no peace treaty signed to this day. Currently 28,500 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines form part of United States Forces Korea (USFK) in South Korea. Ties between South and North Korea have since been antagonistic.
In 2018, the tide turned in the ties between US and North Korea. It began with the North Korean leader announcing that he was willing to enter into diplomatic discussions with South Korea. Since then, the relationship between South Korea and North Korea exponentially improved. It has now been announced that Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump would meet sometime in May 2018.
In the midst of improved relations, ties between South Korea and North Korea have also turned friendly. During the Olympics, the two nations projected a unified front. In addition, Kim Jong Un is slated to meet with the South Korean President Moon Jae In. This would be the first time in over a decade when the heads of two states would meet. The meeting is slated to take place in the demilitarized zone where North and South Korea share borders.
Amidst these improved ties in the Korean peninsula, there are concerns in Beijing that it is losing its influence in North Korea. "There is even an extreme concern within the strategic Chinese community that maybe the US will accept a nuclear capable North Korea as its ally, or at least a friendly country. Some of the concern is so extreme that it almost sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it reflects this deep, embedded Chinese suspicion about both the US and North Korea," said Tong Zhao, a nuclear policy expert at Tsinghua Carnegie Center for Global Policy in Beijing.
Kim Jong Un has tried to appease his powerful ally in 2018. In March of this year it was reported that he made an unofficial visit to China to reaffirm old ties. He is said to have discussed the upcoming meeting with Donald Trump in Beijing. Some have pointed out that it was in fact China’s support for many of the UN sanctions that ultimately brought North Korea to the negotiating table.
"China doesn't like the current picture of the two Koreas and the US center stage without China. Beijing's main concern is any chance that it can't exercise its influence and serve its interests in the region," said Duyeon Kim, senior fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul. Now, there are concerns that China would be “left out” in important discussions regarding the future of the Korean peninsula.
Media reports have suggested that China and South Korea are already split on how the denuclearization of North Korea will take place. Sources told the South China Morning Post that Beijing wanted a structure that would continue to give it an active role in reining in Pyongyang’s nuclear programme while protecting China’s regional interests.
There are also additional concerns regarding North Korea’s motives – especially its vow to shut down its nuclear programme. Latest reports suggest that North Korea’s mountain nuclear test site has collapsed, putting China and other nearby nations at unprecedented risk of radioactive exposure, two separate groups of Chinese scientists studying the issue have confirmed. It is possible that the only reason North Korea agreed to shut down its nuclear programme is because its test site itself has been damaged.
Our assessment is that China is most concerned about the fact that North Korea has not drawn up any pre-conditions for the meeting with the US President Donald Trump. North Korea has admitted that it would not ask for the complete withdrawal of US troops from the Korean peninsula – a term that China is possibly concerned about. As North Korea inches closer to having better ties with the US, China could lose its own grip on its ally. Will Beijing exploit any opportunity at its disposal to undermine US credibility and influence the results of the upcoming summits as a result?
Read more: The end of Korean war