How Great is China’s Influence Over Pyongyang?

China urged North Korea to cease its nuclear and missile tests during a meeting with a military envoy in Beijing last month, a source tells Reuters, who described the meeting as “terse:”

Beijing tried to convince Pyongyang to stop its nuclear and missile tests, which “put China in a difficult position and are not conducive to (North) Korea”, the source said. China advised North Korea to focus on rebuilding its ruined economy instead, something it has said before.

[…] Asked if Pyongyang had agreed to halt nuclear tests, the source said that for the North: “It hinges on necessity.”

North Korea has repeatedly said it will never abandon its nuclear weapons, calling them its “treasured sword”.

The source did not say if Beijing spelt out any consequences should the North conduct further tests. [Source]

Ohio State University’s Mitchell Lerner says it is “fundamentally flawed” to assume that China can control the North Korean leadership, as many American policymakers have done in recent years. From The Diplomat:

[…] To begin with, it abdicates American leadership, deferring to a rival in an area of great strategic and economic interest. It also embraces facile solutions at a time when difficult decisions are needed. The U.S. may not have many good options on the Korean peninsula, but the nation’s long-term interests require its leaders to make some hard choices, rather than fall back on rhetorical nostrums that distract and delay without offering any substantive vision. Most significantly, however, the current approach suffers from a fundamentally flawed understanding of the true nature of the Sino-North Korean relationship.

Over the past decade, the world has finally begun to gain insights into DPRK policymaking, largely through materials obtained from former communist bloc states, most of which have been collected by the North Korea International Documentation Project. On a most basic level, these materials do confirm that China has been both North Korea’s most consistent ally and a vital provider of assistance in many forms. At the same time, these archival documents also suggest that the Sino-North Korean relationship has always been much more complex than Mao’s famous claim that the nations were “as close as lips and teeth” suggests.

These new materials point to four additional aspects of the relationship that policymakers must also consider. They suggest, first, that the alliance is rooted in strategic self-interest rather than strong fraternal or ideological bonds; second, that the closeness of the relationship has waxed and waned dramatically based on changing internal conditions and the evolving international environment; third, that DPRK leaders have often seen China as too expansionist, too assertive, and too unreliable to be fully trusted; and finally, that throughout the past half-century, the DPRK leadership has firmly and consistently resisted Chinese efforts to influence their policymaking. [Source]


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