Cracks in China-North Korea Friendship as Nuclear Tension Rises
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By Wei Luo

Cracks in China-North Korea Friendship as Nuclear Tension Rises

Mar. 27, 2017  |     |  0 comments

On February 13, 2017, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) successfully tested a solid fuel Pukguksong-2 medium-range ballistic missile from a mobile tracked transporter-erector-launcher (TEL). Then on March 19, North Korea tested a new missile engine as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Beijing to discuss the ongoing tensions on the Korean Peninsula with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Both of these tests were in violation of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions, and they symbolized the gradual maturation of the DPRK’s missile systems.


From the country’s first nuclear test in 2006 to the most recent one, the international community — including the People’s Republic of China (PRC), arguably North Korea’s only ally and main source of trade — has failed to stop the DPRK from developing nuclear and missile programs, which developed outside the jurisdiction of international regimes like the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In addition to nuclear arms, the assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s stepbrother Kim Jong Nam involved the usage of VX, which is a deadly nerve agent developed during the 1950s and which is banned under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.


Since Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) are clearly threatened by Pyongyang’s nuclear weapon advancements, these two US allies are incentivized to at least develop their own missiles defense systems in cooperation with the US — such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) — along with other potential offensive capabilities, including nuclear ones. Such moves in turn could threaten Beijing’s geopolitical interests and exacerbate the latter’s already tense — but economically interdependent — relations with Seoul and Tokyo, putting Chinese leaders in a dilemma with regards to regional security.


With its own nuclear deterrence and a mature chemical weapons program, however, the DPRK could become less reliant on China politically, so it may formulate an independent foreign policy at the expense of both the US and China. For example, as long as Beijing continues to perceive the DPRK as a buffer zone against the US and ROK, the North Korean leadership will continue to be able to extort economic and political concessions from Beijing by threats of regime collapse, a scenario which Beijing perceives as a geopolitical disaster.


As a result, this paper offers the observation that since the ruling Kim dynasty in North Korea has increasingly refused to consider the PRC’s regional security interests — but utilizes such friendship-in-name to extort political and economic gains from Beijing — Sino-DPRK historical ties are diminishing due to the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program. As long as the North Korean regime is armed with weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), it is also a threat to the PRC.


North Korea’s Advances in WMDs


Until recently, the DPRK’s strategic arsenal was composed of relatively unreliable liquid fuel ballistic missiles. Most liquid fuel missiles require at least half-an-hour or more to refuel before launch. Such inconvenience means that most of the DPRK’s missiles — like the Nodong, Taepodong, Musudan (KN-10), etc. — could be easily detected on the launch pad by US or South Korean satellites and subsequently neutralized by precision strikes before launch.


However, such obsolescence is starting to change after the February 13 launch. The new solid fuel missile — the Pukguksong-2 — is believed to have a range of at least 1,200 kilometers, meaning that such a missile could easily hit Tokyo, Okinawa, and Beijing when launched from the DPRK. The Pukguksong-2 missile is also capable of being launched from a tracked TEL, allowing better cross-country mobility. Also, since solid fuel rockets do not need to be refueled prior to launch, such a missile could simply roll out of its hidden facilities and launch on five minutes’ notice compared to thirty to sixty minutes for liquid fuel rockets. If Pukguksong-2 were to be tipped with an atomic warhead and launched toward densely populated cities in the ROK, Japan, or China, the resulting civilian casualties would be unthinkable.


Therefore, once the Pukguksong-2 becomes operationally deployed, the ROK and Japan would have legitimate reasons to enhance their own security by deploying advanced missile defense system like the THAAD and Aegis air defense destroyers, and possibly certain long-range offensive hardware to better defend against the DPRK’s solid-fuel nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. In fact, since the DPRK has violated the NPT and become an existential threat against South Korea and Japan, in the long run, the latter countries could be incentivized to develop their own nuclear deterrence against the former’s unpredictability.        


However, such a move by Japan and South Korea would in turn put pressure on Beijing to enhance its own offensive capabilities, leading to an endless and destabilizing cycle of arms race and mutual provocation. In addition, since there are no permanent friends —o nly permanent interests — in international politics, Chinese leaders in Beijing could theoretically never be sure that the Puguksong-2 would someday be pointed toward Beijing, which is less than a thousand kilometers from the North Korean border. In fact, a leaked internal document of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea in March 2016 called China a “detest enemy” on rank with Japan, the ROK, and the US, and threatened to unleash a “nuclear storm” against China for taking part in UN sanctions against Pyongyang. Although such allegations have not been made public, it is clear is that China is now one of the targets of the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal.


In addition to nuclear weapons, the assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s stepbrother — Kim Jong Nam — with the nerve agent VX confirms that the DPRK possesses deadly nerve agents. VX in its odorless vapor form is arguably one of the quickest and deadliest killer gases. In its liquid form, VX would still be deadly when released into a water supply or wiped onto someone’s skin, which was what happened to Kim Jong Nam. Under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, major powers — including Russia, the US, and China — are forbidden from producing and using such weapons. However, the DPRK is not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Nevertheless, all current evidence points to the possibility that the DPRK has used a banned nerve agent in the public space of another sovereign country, not to mention the collateral damage such an attack could have inflicted at a busy international airport.


The assassination of Kim Jong Nam could also be Kim Jong Un’s direct affront against the Chinese Communist Party. In the words of Fudan University Professor Wang Weimin, Kim Jong Un believes that China cannot be trusted and can only be used, because while Japan and the US have been enemies of the DPRK for the past several decades, China has been an enemy for centuries. Therefore, Wang argues, Chinese leaders are currently very nervous about how Kim Jong Un could sell out China — including possibly establishing closer ties with China’s rivals — for his regime’s own benefit at any second. Base on such arguments, there is currently very little trust between Beijing and Pyongyang.


In the words of Neorealist scholar John Mearsheimer, as China rises, all of its neighbors naturally become fearful of Beijing’s growing material power, and increasingly align themselves with other powers like the US, Russia, and Japan to balance against Beijing. Under this logic, since the primary goal of a state is to survive and try to achieve regional hegemony in a zero-sum international political structure, if Beijing no longer serves to enhance the DPRK’s regime survival, it would be reasonable for Pyongyang to try to join other countries in containing China’s rise, despite the fact that more than 800,000 Chinese soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice for Pyongyang’s regime security during the Korean War. The only difference between reality and Mearsheimer’s argument is that North Korea currently has no one but its own nuclear arms to rely upon for survival at the moment, and neither Washington nor Moscow have plans to utilize the DPRK to counterbalance China’s growing influence.


Also, according to scholars Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell, Pyongyang continues to extort food and oil from China by threats of regime collapse, while creating tensions between the US and China, ROK and China, and Japan and China through its WMD program. The DPRK’s missile tests have also catalyzed Japan’s remilitarization, which threatens China. Therefore, Chinese leaders are “not adamantly opposed” to an “eventual” unified Korea under Seoul, but the fear that regime change in Pyongyang could usher waves of refugees and possibly allow US troops to be stationed near the Chinese border means that Beijing will try to postpone such unification for as long as possible. Should unification of the two Koreas become unavoidable, Beijing would at least demand the removal of all US troops from the Korean Peninsula and hope that the unified Korea would anchor its security in cooperation with China.1


Ultimately, Pyongyang’s advancement in WMDs has already happened at the expense of the PRC’s, ROK’s, Japan’s, and the US’ national interests. With a credible nuclear deterrent, Pyongyang would likely have a more independent foreign policy and become less likely to respect China’s regional interests. Also, as Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program incentivizes Japan and South Korea to bolster their own defenses, its WMDs are also indirectly threatening China’s regional security.2 In response, China has little choice but to speed up the development and deployment of new offensive capabilities like new generations of ballistic and cruise missiles, hypersonic gliders, etc.


In this sense, the DPRK is pushing all of its neighbors and the US into an endless and costly arms race, while maximizing its own interests at the expense of the PRC and the US-led alliance system. As a result, since Chinese leaders are now facing an increasingly unpredictable Pyongyang that is undermining regional security — including those of Beijing — the DPRK’s value as the PRC’s strategic partner is diminishing.


Blackmailing and Extorting, but Still No Denuclearization


Regarding North Korea’s recent behavior and nuclear weapons program, despite George H. W. Bush’s administration’s withdrawal of all American nuclear weapons from South Korea in the early 1990s, the DPRK continued its nuclear weapons program. After intense negotiations, the Clinton Administration and North Korea negotiated the “Agreed Framework between the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” in October 1994, which required Pyongyang to end its weapons-grade plutonium program in exchange for the US, South Korea, and Japan to help the DPRK construct two civilian-use light water reactors.3


However, in the early 2000s the US intelligence community confirmed the existence of a weapons-grade uranium program in North Korea, so the former halted fuel deliveries to the latter’s two civilian reactors. North Korea responded by kicking out IAEA inspectors and withdrawing from the NPT. After the failure of the China-sponsored Six-Party talks — which were unilaterally called off by the DPRK, amounting to a diplomatic humiliation for Beijing — North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and exploded its first nuclear device in 2006.


In 2007, North Korea agreed to shut down the Yongbyon reactor and allowed IAEA inspectors to return. In return, the US resumed oil shipments, removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, unfroze North Korean assets, etc. Despite such concessions from China, the US, and US allies, the DPRK’s second round of nuclear and ICBM tests in 2009 demonstrated the regime intended to use its nuclear weapons program as a tool of provocation and extortion to win economic aid from others.4 In this sense, the DPRK has cheated not only its rivals like the US and ROK, but also its “ally”: China.


Meanwhile, following the DPRK’s first nuclear test in 2006, the UNSC Resolution 1718 prohibited the DPRK from developing ballistic missiles and nuclear arms. The UNSC Resolution 1874 — adopted after the second DPRK nuclear test in 2009 — reaffirmed UNSC 1718 with the addition of a conventional weapons embargo placed on the DPRK. Nevertheless, the two UNSC resolutions failed to prevent the third DPRK nuclear test in 2013. In an implicit expression of frustration over North Korea’s reluctance to give up its nuclear arms, the PRC Ministry of Commerce imposed its own embargo of dual-use items on the DPRK.


Following the DPRK’s two nuclear tests in 2016, on January 25, 2017, the PRC Ministry of Commerce — in coordination with the Ministry of Science and Technology, the State Administration of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense, the China Atomic Energy Authority, and the Customs Bureau — released a comprehensive list of items banned for export to North Korea to better comply with UNSC decisions. These items included materials for missiles, software, high-speed video cameras, submarines, sensors, lasers, etc. Then, following the Pukguksong-2 launch and possibly Kim Jong Nam’s murder, the PRC suspended all imports of coal from the DPRK — which accounts for half of the country’s exports to China and a fifth of the country’s total foreign trade. In response, the DPRK’s Korean Central News censured Beijing by describing the latter as “dancing to the tune of the US while defending its mean behavior,” and suggesting that nothing — not even a “friendly neighbor” — could stop the DPRK’s defense modernization. Thus, although Beijing is moving carefully not to antagonize either Pyongyang or the US and its allies, Chinese leaders clearly consider Pyongyang to be a troublemaker, and Pyongyang is no longer interested in respecting Beijing’s regional interests.


In fact, both Kim Jong Un and his father Kim Jong Il ultimately believe that if the DPRK does not possess nuclear arms, the ruling Kim dynasty would surely end like up like Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein’s regimes — both of which gave up WMD development under Western pressure, but still could not avoid the fate of being overthrown by domestic liberal forces supported by the West. The only difference between the father and the son is that while the father cleverly used his country’s nuclear weapons program as a bargaining chip and stopped such bargaining when he extorted enough benefits from China, the US, and US allies, the son is not even willing to bargain, especially since he needs to consolidate his power first.


Also, as the international politics scholar David Campbell argues, in order for a regime to legitimize its own existence, the existence of a constructed “other” — especially a malicious one — is needed to differentiate between “us” and “them.” Such differentiation allows individuals living under such regimes to define their collective security and danger based on the “other.”5


Based on such arguments, since the ruling Kim dynasty has long defined the US as the antithesis of Korean nationhood, if the regime cuts a workable deal with the US and relinquishes its nuclear deterrence — which is perceived within the DPRK’s closed society as being vital to protecting the regime’s self-imposed imagined community — there would no longer be a “malicious other” justifying the Kim dynasty’s repressive rule, and as such the regime could face domestic challenges to its legitimacy if it truly gives up its nuclear deterrence. As a result, although the DPRK’s nuclear weapons and missiles are existential threats to the US-led alliance system and China, getting rid of the DPRK’s WMDs would not be an easy task due to the rogue regime’s survival and identity associated with its WMDs.


Defying the Logic of Neorealism


As mentioned earlier, although the DPRK is nuclear-armed, it cannot change the fact that it is unlikely for the DPRK to become a great power. Since its relations with Beijing are deteriorating, it would be logical under the realists’ assumptions for Pyongyang to seek new strategic partnerships with other great powers and superpowers. Nevertheless, recent international political events have not always happened according the logic of neorealism. Taking the 2015 Iran nuclear deal framework for example, while a neorealist would argue that Iran and China should have worked together to balance against the US and its allies — by means of nuclear proliferation, if necessary — Chinese cooperation actually helped the US and its allies secure Iran’s promise to get rid of its stockpile of highly enriched uranium.


Under such defiance of the realists’ logic, it is also possible for China to take much tougher actions against the DPRK if the latter refuses to consider China’s interests in denuclearization. In the words of Chinese scholar Yan Xuetong, China has currently no choice but to accept either a nuclear North Korea that is friendly towards China, or a nuclear North Korea that is unfriendly. Since the DPRK has been taking advantage of the PRC’s perceived need for a strategic buffer zone, Beijing has so far been hesitant to provoke the DPRK. On the other hand, according to Chinese scholar Zheng Yongnian, the PRC shares an overarching goal with the US and ROK in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, and Beijing as a nuclear-armed great power does not necessarily need the DPRK as a buffer zone to deter the US and its allies in the Asia-Pacific.


As a result, since the DPRK is currently more of a burden than a reliable partner of the PRC, it is possible for the US and China to work together in addressing the DPRK’s nuclear conundrum. Ultimately, with regards to North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons and behavior, the relationship between the DPRK and all of its neighbors — including China — has become much more zero-sum, but not the ones between China and the US, and China and the ROK.




Since the DPRK’s WMD programs are deemed by the country’s ruling class to be vital for its regime survival, and as such programs also legitimize the unique North Korean identities constructed by the country’s political elites, it is unrealistic to expect the DPRK to give up its nuclear weapons program without expensive concessions from the ROK and China. Nevertheless, since the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program is not only an existential threat to the US and its allies but also to China, now could be an opportunity for President Donald Trump to “make a deal” with President Xi Jinping regarding how to possibly coordinate to handle Pyongyang.


With regards to the PRC’s national interests, since the DPRK has long taken advantage of Beijing’s need for a buffer zone, while continuing to destabilize Beijing’s regional environment and refusing to give up nuclear weapons, Pyongyang’s value as a strategic asset for Beijing is diminishing. As Beijing continues to invest in new generations of ICBMs, supersonic gliders, stealth airplanes, missile defense, etc. it does not necessarily need the DPRK to possess credible conventional and nuclear deterrence against the US, Japan, and ROK. As a result, North Korea under the leadership of Kim Jong Un is more of an immediate threat and burden to Beijing than a reliable strategic partner, so business cannot continue as usual with regard to Sino-DPRK relations.




1. Nathan, A. and Scobell, A. (2012). China’s Search for Security. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 132-133, 135-137.


2.Ibid., p. 133.


3. Bader, J. (2012). Obama and China’s Rise. Washington DC, Brookings Institution Press, pp. 26-28.


4. Ibid.


5. Campbell, D. (1998). Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, pp. 195-199.




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