Friendship in a “new situation”

The close friendship between China and North Korea is back in the news as Chinese President Xi Jinping called for greater cooperation with Pyongyang in an unspecified “new situation”. Interestingly, the message comes amidst the Russian invasion of Ukraine and closely follows North Korea’s series of missile tests, conducted last month. It is important to reflect on the friendship between Beijing and Pyongyang and what such a “new situation” might entail.

Strengthening Friendship

Xi Jinping, in a message to North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, called for enhancing “cooperation and friendship” between the two states in a “new situation”, reported North Korea’s state media, Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). Xi’s message follows Kim’s congratulatory message to China on the  conclusion of the recently held Winter Olympics in Beijing, which he claimed was successfully held against “unprecedentedly severe health crisis and the hostile forces’ manoeuvres” , pointing to the challenges presented by the Coronavirus Pandemic as well as the United States led diplomatic  boycott of the Olympics against China’s poor human rights record. Kim also called for cooperation between China and North Korea in “frustrating the undisguised hostile policy and military threat of the U.S. and its satellite forces”.

Beijing and Pyongyang on Ukraine

The renewed bonhomie comes amidst Russia’s invasion of  Ukraine. China has abstained from voting against Moscow in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and mooted the discussion over clearly choosing Putin’s side by diverging from its rhetoric of safeguarding sovereignty and territorial rights of nations. It had blamed the United States and its allies  for creating a conducive situation for the Russian act which the Chinese diplomat at the UNSC referred to as an “invasion” rather than Russia’s official claim of it being a “special military operation” and hence, indicating it to be against the United Nations Charter which China claims to faithfully uphold.

Beijing however, seems to have changed its stance on the issue as the war continues to escalate. In his recent telephonic conversation with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi referred to the situation as “war” and expressed his concern regarding the safety of Ukrainian civilians and Chinese residents of Ukraine who are said to number 6000 on the eve of the invasion. Wang stated that China does not recognise the expansion of military blocs and ensuring security of one state at the cost of another’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

North Korea, on the other hand, has been more vocal. Blaming the United States for “ignoring Russia’s reasonable and legitimate demands” for guaranteeing legally backed security assurances, Pyongyang has thrown the complete onus of the invasion on Washington’s and its allies’ “hegemonic policy”, “high-handedness” and “abuse of power” which it claims includes the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) eastward expansion and deployment of attack weapons systems in Eastern Europe.

Nuclear Dreams

North Korea’s statement comes a day after it fired a missile which follows a record number of launches in January this year.

These developments mark North Korea’s biggest launch since the launch of Hwasong-15 in  2017. The missiles are both highly precise and highly lethal, with the ability to hit low altitude targets at a speed five times that of sound.

Apart from threatening the Northeast Asian region and global security at large, it also poses a direct territorial threat to South Korea and Japan, whom Kim considers Washington’s vassals.

Though Kim Jong-un has not personally attended any of the tests, he visited an unspecified munitions factory earlier last month, which is said to be producing a “major weapon system”.  The KCNA reported that North Korea would restart all of its “temporarily abandoned activities”, indicating nuclear tests which have been under a self-imposed embargo since 2017. Moreover, in a Politburo meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Kim called for “immediate bolstering” of North Korea’s military capabilities.

With its economy, which was already crumbling under the weight of sanctions, being on the verge of collapse due to a strict state imposed lockdown to curb the Coronavirus pandemic, North Korea has found weapons proliferation as a way of provoking the United States and its allies to negotiate with it on Pyongyang’s terms in order to lift the sanctions while maintaining regime legitimacy at home.

Abandoning Ukraine

If there is anything that the Ukraine crisis has brought to the fore, it is the apathy of the United States and its Western allies. Neither the United States, the European countries nor the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation has expressed any intention to send forces to Ukraine.

Though Ukraine is neither a member of NATO nor the European Union, it has a close relationship with both the organisations. While a military response is not desirable, they have also failed to avert the crisis diplomatically.

NATO has done little beyond verbally criticising Russia. The European Union too has extended only “humanitarian, political and financial support” to Ukraine. The European Community apart from other US allies such as Japan, New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom among others have decided to oust Russia from SWIFT, a high security network that connects thousands of international financial institutions. They have also decided to freeze Russia’s foreign assets.

The biggest shock however came from the United States, considering the close relationship that the two have shared since 1991 when Ukraine became an independent nation after the disintegration of the USSR.

In his State of the Union address delivered on March 2,2022, US President Joe Biden applauded the undaunting spirit of the Ukrainian people to fight for their country but stated that he did not intend to send his forces to fight the Russians for Ukraine. He would however, do so if “any inch of NATO territory” comes under threat, shattering all hopes of the Ukrainian people and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy who find themselves standing alone.

Biden did enlist all measures taken by the United States in countering Russia. Apart from launching a widespread diplomatic protest, creating a US Department of Justice task force to “go after the crimes of the Russian oligarchs” and closing off American airspace to all Russian flights, Washington aims to hurt Russia economically by enforcing sanctions, cutting off Russia’s largest banks from the international financial system, attacking and seizing private property of Russian oligarchs as well as by preventing Russia’s Central Bank from “defending the ruble”. Biden also promised military  (other than sending  forces) and financial assistance to Ukraine.

The Sports community has also strongly reacted to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. FIFA, in a joint statement with UEFA has announced its decision to expel the Russian team from the 2022 World Cup and all international competitions.  The World Taekwondo Federation has stripped Putin of his honorary black belt which was awarded in November 2013.

Though these sanctions are much harsher than those Russia has been familiar with, they are unlikely to topple Putin’s regime. Experts believe that the economy was already destabilised the day the “military expedition” was launched and the banks have already devised a system of working independently of the SWIFT. While the oligarchs would still remain very rich, the common people would be badly hit. Moreover, Russia might still find a market for its energy resources and defense exports.

The “new situation” thus points to a world order where the United States and its allies would restrict their role in international events and would not act as assertively as they once did.

An Invincible Friendship?

While China and North Korea have claimed their relationship to be “invincible and immortal“, bilateral relations have not always been a smooth sail.

During his struggle against the Japanese colonial regime, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim il-Sung had served with the Chinese Communist guerrillas. The two nations came together for the first time during the Korean War (1950-1953) when Chinese leader Mao Zedong sent his forces to support Pyongyang. However, the relationship soon turned sour in what came to be known as the August Faction Incident.

In August of 1956, pro-Soviet and China affiliated Yanan factions of the  Workers’ Party of Korea criticised Kim il-Sung for betraying the Leninist idea of collective leadership by building his personality cult and called for his removal from the leadership position. Kim responded by strengthening his own Kapsan faction and purging all dissenting voices. The August Incident made it clear that China did not approve of the coveted position enjoyed by the ‘Great Leader’ and hence, could not be trusted. Later, Pyongyang criticised Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and Beijing responded by dubbing North Korea as “revisionist” and hence, against the true spirit of Marxism-Leninism.

However, the two came back together in 1961 when the May 16 coup d’état of 1961 led by General Park Chung Hee in South Korea, which soon followed a rise in military expenditure, threatened North Korea with the possibility of a Seoul led invasion. Pyongyang went knocking on Beijing’s doors for help and what resulted was the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance between the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,1961 which stands as the only defense treaty either of the states have with any nation.

Article II of the treaty reads:

“The Contracting Parties undertake jointly to adopt all measures to prevent aggression against either of the Contracting Parties by any state. In the event of one of the Contracting Parties being subjected to the armed attack by any state or several states jointly and thus being involved in a state of war, the other Contracting Party shall immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal.”

Both Parties continue to abide by the treaty.

Relations soured again during the late 1980s and early 1990s when North Korea’s nuclear proliferation programme was revealed. The 1990s was a difficult period for Pyongyang as the disintegration of the Soviet Union had not only robbed it of a major developmental trade and aid partner but by then cracks had also begun to appear in its Stalinist economic structure which was badly hit by international sanctions and natural calamities. Moreover, North Korea had learnt the power of possessing nuclear weapons to sustain its regime during the Korean War itself. It realised that the time was ripe to make its own nuclear weapons to secure the survival of the Communist Party regime amidst growing animosity with the West.

Though China has opposed Pyongyang’s nuclear proliferation programme and has recurrently called for denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, it continues to support Pyongyang diplomatically at international forums and stabilise its economy as North Korea’s largest trade and aid partner. North Korea represents China’s core interests in Northeast Asia. Pyongyang is not only one of the few surviving anti-America bastions on the face of the earth but a collapse of the Kim regime might entail a refugee crisis on China’s border and threatens to derail Beijing from the path of  economic development. Moreover, China has refused to support Washington’s demand that Pyongyang denuclearises unconditionally before any talks on lifting the sanctions can be initiated. It calls for lifting of sanctions in a phased manner while a commitment of denuclearisation is made by all sides including the United States.

In 2002, US President George Bush dubbed North Korea among the “Axis of Evil” alongside Iran and Iraq. The subsequent US invasion of Iraq threatened a possible attack on Pyongyang. China came to North Korea’s rescue and called for Washington to abandon its hostile attitude.

Sino-North Korean relations received another blow in 2013 when Kim Jong un discovered a plot, hatched by his uncle and a close ally of China, to replace him with his brother. Relations were restored when Kim visited Beijing in 2018 followed by an official visit by Xi to Pyongyang. Kim has continued to support Beijing on allegations of human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong as well as its official stance on Taiwan and the origins of the Coronavirus.

Whither China-North Korea?

While Pyongyang might utilise Beijing’s shadow to continue its missile launches and nuclear proliferation programme to test the bounds of Washington’s and its allies’ patience in the “new situation”, China’s changing stance on Russia wraps its active support for North Korea’s actions with doubt. Though a weakened Russian economy and military would strengthen China and bring it closer to a great power status,  instability involving highly lethal weapons, let alone nuclear weapons, on its borders is the last thing that Beijing would desire. At best, China would let North Korea frustrate Washington and challenge its waning authority as a superpower only to the extent that it does not create any major instability in the region.

It must also be realised that there isn’t anything ‘invincible’ about Sino-North Korean friendship if it wasn’t for the United States. 72 years back, it was the United States which brought the two together and presently, it is Washington’s refusal to negotiate with North Korea in a nuanced manner which continues to embolden the two. The idea is not to show any clemency towards North Korea but to address its concerns without which no agreement on denuclearisation could ever be reached. Only peaceful dialogue, which addresses the realities of international power dynamics, can build a path to a peaceful world.

Cherry Hitkari
Cherry Hitkari
Non-resident Vasey Fellow at Pacific Forum, Hawaii. Cherry Hitkari is an Advisory Board member of 'Tomorrow's People' at Modern Diplomacy. She holds a Masters in East Asian Studies specialising in Chinese Studies and is currently pursuing an advanced diploma in Chinese language at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, India.