China and North Korea: Pragmatism vs. Alliance?


Scenarios abound when it comes to the politico-economic relationship between China and North Korea. Right from the beginning, it’s worth noting that a relationship of SOME nature is inevitable in light of the fact that the two nations share border that exceeds 1,400 kilometers. Even between neighbors with less than peaceful coexistence track records (not necessarily the case with China and North Korea), there are instances when interests simply align and perhaps it would be wise to see China’s various relationships with North Korea through this lens.

Yes, China is North Korea’s #1 trading partner by far, with roughly 50% of North Korea’s imports coming from China and about a quarter of its exports going in China’s direction. And yes, geopolitically speaking, China has frequently proven to be among the (very) few friends that North Korea claims it has but are these realities related to some kind of a geopolitical love affair between the two countries?


Let’s put ourselves in the position of China and assume we have a neighbor such as North Korea, a neighbor bad at establishing friendships and “good” at making enemies. Furthermore, let’s take things one step further and also assume our neighbor has ambitious nuclear program-related plans we are less than thrilled about. Not exactly facts conducive to a rock-solid geopolitical relationship, as one can easily notice.

However, we (and, again, we are putting ourselves in the position of China) also have to try to see the bigger geopolitical picture and look around. Who is our number one politico-economic adversary? Of course, the United States. And, even more so, in the spirit of looking around: who are most of our neighbors close to? Once again, the United States.

Under such circumstances, a case could be made that the reasons behind China’s closer relationship with North Korea are primarily pragmatic rather than ideological or even in the sphere of economics. In other words, you as China might not be particular fond of your neighbor North Korea but on the other hand, there is geopolitical value in having a neighbor that is anything but a US ally. As such, as long as the pros associated with being reasonably tolerant toward North Korea’s (many) excesses outweigh the cons, the equation becomes one of Realpolitik/pragmatism.

And speaking of pros outweighing cons (or not), it is worth noting that there has been actual volatility when it comes to China’s relationship with North Korea as well. While many analysts are quick to dismiss such arguments as nothing more than rhetoric unbacked by actual punitive action on behalf of China and while these analysts are frequently correct, there are most definitely instances in which the numbers paint a different picture.

For example, China’s trade volume with China reached a fairly high value of $5.6 billion for 2011 and for 2013, that number climbed to $6.6 billion. However, subsequent measures such as China restricting coal imports from North Korea in 2017 and in the same year, ordering all North Korean business entities to cease their operations in China within 120 days took their toll on the trade volume between the two countries.

Why did China do this? On the one hand, there was indeed tremendous international pressure (for example, the previously mentioned 120-day deadline came as a result of 2017 sanctions by the UN Security Council) but on the other hand, China has reasons of its own to exert pressure on North Korea every now and then.

While it is true that the economic realities are sometimes tamer than the official headlines indicate (with, for example, North Korea being able to find loopholes which enabled it to continue selling coal to China despite the 2017 sanctions), the 2017 measures did result in a record low bilateral trading volume, as early 2018 data indicated. At this point, the first half of 2019 did see a trade-related improvement of 15.4% but even so, $1.25 billion for the initial half of 2019 is still quite a bit lower than the status quo of a few years earlier.

All in all, let’s just say that while there are valid reasons to raise a proverbial eyebrow when analyzing various aspects of the relationship between China and North Korea, one does have to accept that misconceptions also abound. As such, painting the picture of (as previously mentioned) a geopolitical love affair between two entities would be naïve at best. Instead, it makes sense to see the situation for what it is: a relationship most likely driven by pragmatism (to the detriment of ideology, economics or anything else) to a larger degree than most analysts believe.

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