With China pressuring Taiwan, Russia eyeing Ukraine, and Iran pushing forward with Nuclear goals, and the Biden Administration signaling an isolationist worldview abroad, the World of international politics is heating at a rate that would outpace climate change at this point. In this rapidly heating climate of relations between nations is North Korea and China and their somewhat complicated relationship.


What Happened to North Korea?

China-North Korea border map
North Korea – China border. US DOS / Wikimedia Commons

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea and China have an evolving relationship that spans thousands of year. The two countries share a common border and have been allies since 1961. They have been at odds about North Korea’s nuclear program. How did they get so close? And what’s the importance of trade between the two nations?

China and North Korea began as allies during the Korean conflict which saw hundreds of thousands of Chinese communist troops fighting on the side of North Korea.  Given the prior annihilation of the North Korean Army by UN forces led by the United States, communist Chinese troops comprised most of the forces the North Koreans were fighting with. Then the late 1950s saw relations between the two grow frosty as the Soviet Union angled for influence in North Korea with men, arms and economic assistance trying to sideline the Chinese communists in the bargain. At the time, China and the USSR were somewhat at odds themselves.  The Soviets wanted China to see Moscow as the Supreme Soviet and leader of the worldwide worker’s revolution the Kremlin was fomenting while China saw itself and Maoism as the truest expression of Communism. They saw China as its own sphere of influence in Asia and did not want to submit to control from Moscow.  This in turn led China to seek closer relationships with South Korea to counter growing Russian influence in the North. Then in 1961, North Korea and China signed a treaty that would serve as a “springboard for friendship.” So how does this current conflict affect their trade relationship?


The North Korea – China Trade

China represents 95% of North Korea’s foreign trade every year. What does this trade relationship mean for China?

China has long supported the DPRK as a like-minded communist regime and as backing for the North Korean ambition to unite the two Koreas under communism led from Pyongyang.

China also sees North Korea as an important buffer zone between itself and South Korea with its tens of thousands of American troops stationed there.

So why has China been so reluctant to place any sanctions against North Korea given some of its outrageous conduct towards its neighbor and the U.S.? It’s complicated. China uses North Korea as a kind of alter-ego.  Imagine China going club-hopping and bringing along a slightly crazy friend who has a few drinks and then wants to fight everyone in the bar and you get the idea of the true nature of the symbiotic relationship between these two countries.  Communist China is about as bloody and authoritarian a dictatorship as a Communist government can be, but North Korea willingly plays the part of being even worse, which serves to make China appear less awful than they actually are.

You see?

North Korea’s economy is in shambles almost by design. It has been on the brink of collapse for years, and its people live in extreme poverty and teeter on the edge of starvation as a means of government control. If your day is consumed with just getting enough to eat, you really don’t have the time or energy to overthrow the communist regime in Pyongyang. North Korea in turn imports a great deal of food from China to barely feed its population which gives China de facto control over Pyongyang.

North Korea, with China’s assistance, could certainly feed everyone in the country if they really wanted to.  After all, the promise of communism is a worker’s paradise, where everyone has plenty to eat and a decent place to live.  This is a promise that has never been kept by a single communist regime anywhere, but North Korea is probably the one place on Earth where the failures of communism are the most glaringly obvious.  Nutrition is so bad that the North Korean population is actually getting shorter in stature. They are between one and three inches shorter than South Koreans, with a life expectancy about tens years less as well.

Monthly Reported China-North Korea Merchandise Trade. Photo; 38 North

The future of relations between China and North Korea will continue upon these lines for the foreseeable future, with China using North Korea to display the hostility and belligerence that Beijing would have a hard time getting away with without sparking a war with the U.S. or Japan.  The United Nations continues to impose sanctions on North Korea to deter nuclear proliferation, but it appears that this has not worked very well at all. Import and export sanctions work on developed countries that have things to see to other nations with consumers who have money to buy imported goods. North Korea is a country of subsistence farmers(93% of the roads are unpaved) with a huge army keeping everybody in line. Most of what is produced in North Korea is consumed by its own population, so sanctioning exports that are a tiny fraction of its economy is futile. It’s also the reason North Korean behavior doesn’t change in the face of these sanctions.  China assures the dictator in Pyongyang that it will provide food to barely ward off famine in exchange for North Korea putting on the crazy-face when Beijing wants them to rattle the West a little.

This is TARS signing off with, “See you on the other side, Coop.”