Why is China Still Friends With N. Korea Anyway?

North Korea’s annual saber-rattling has long frustrated the world, and has also made the belligerent nation an international laughingstock. When the country stepped-up its threatening rhetoric last month, western media began to speculate that the Chinese state – one of North Korea’s only allies – might be growing frustrated enough to change its longtime stance. While there is evidence that support for North Korea is dwindling among the Chinese public, there doesn’t appear to be any that the PRC is set to change official policy - China’s plan to uphold the status quo in its relationship with North Korea was further exemplified by a recent state meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Bloomberg reports that, quite contrary to media speculation that China-North Korea relations would soon sour, a new bridge set to open next year is being built by China with hopes of deepening economic ties between the two countries:

Across the Yalu River dividing China and North Korea, towers that will support a sleek suspension bridge rise south of one that U.S. bombers targeted during the Korean War to prevent China from supplying its ally.

The bridge into the northeastern Chinese city of Dandong, set to open next year, is a bet that trade will swell even as the U.S. pressures Communist Party leaders to exert economic leverage on the North to abandon its nuclear program.[...]

[...]The three-kilometer bridge, which the official Xinhua News Agency said will cost 2.2 billion yuan ($356 million), will speed commerce through a city that now handles 70 percent of the two countries’ trade. The span illustrates how the North is binding itself even tighter with China as it limits economic ties with South Korea, including by temporarily suspending work at the jointly run Gaeseong industrial facility.

As new sanctions are placed on North Korea in response to its nuclear threats, the country becomes increasingly reliant on China for trade. China, for its part, wants stability on the Korean peninsula, and worries that cutting off economic ties with the country  would work against that desire. The Washington Post reports:

So why would China still support North Korea, despite all its recent misgivings? China’s policy for the Korean peninsula can be summed up in six little words: “No war, no instability, no nukes.” Those are Beijing’s priorities, and in that order. Chinese leaders don’t want nukes, which is why they’re upset about Pyongyang’s recent nuclear brinksmanship. But even more than that, they don’t want the North Korean state to collapse into chaos or devolve into war, and they know that economic support and cross-border trade are good ways to maintain the status quo. And it’s the status quo that China appears most interested in.

China also has a desire for North Korea to embrace economic reform, and sees an opportunity towards that goal in maintaining strong economic ties with the country. The problem is, business with North Korea is not what China wants it to be – many Chinese businesses are reluctant to invest in the Hermit Kingdom. Reuters reports on the recent history of China’s economic relations with North Korea, and explains that, while China may be frustrated with its geopolitical behavior, North Korea holds quite a few cards in the Sino-North Korean dialogue:

The problem for Beijing is twofold: getting Pyongyang to buy into the idea of economic reform and the reluctance of Chinese businessmen to venture into one of the world’s riskiest investment destinations.

While China is frustrated with Pyongyang over its threats to wage war on South Korea and the United States, its efforts to build economic links with North Korea from places like Jilin help explain why Beijing is unlikely to crack down hard on the reclusive state.

Since then-Premier Wen Jiabao went to North Korea in 2009 – just months after Pyongyang’s second nuclear test – China has sought to stabilize the Korean peninsula by stepping up its effort to steer the North toward economic reform. China is not about to give up that goal even though it’s under U.S. pressure to get tough after North Korea’s third nuclear test, on February 12.

“It’s not even shepherding anymore. It’s more of just inundating North Korea with all of these influences from the Chinese side where the idea is to essentially corrupt them, show them what it tastes like to make money,” said John Park, a North Korea expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Harvard Kennedy School.[...]

For more on China’s relationship with North Korea, see prior CDT coverage.