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‘Like lips and teeth’ is the slightly strained analogy used to describe the China-North Korea relationship since it was coined by Chinese diplomats in the 1950s. The full saying comes from a proverb, ‘If the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold’ and as with most comparative analogies, its brevity hides more complexity and nuance. The strength of this relationship and its characterisation over the last 70 years has been up for much debate as the public relations between the two states wax and wane.
What began as friendship has, on occasion, soured in recent years. Steady Chinese economic growth and global ambition have grated against the failing statehood of North Korea, exacerbated by regime nuclear proliferation pressures and destabilisation. This article shall continue to strain this analogy: lips may protect teeth, but teeth can bite back, and who is protecting whom from the cold when it comes to the China-North Korea relationship?
A cost-benefit analysis for China
It is true that North Korea offers China a buffer zone between it and the West and a useful proxy on the Korean peninsula to leverage strategic dilemmas upon them. It remains to be seen how much the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) actually values these effects against the increasing costs of relationship maintenance with Pyongyang. The former has a concerted interest in preserving stability on the Korean Peninsula – indeed, this is likely paramount for President Xi and the CCP. This interest materialises in several ways: a warming of the relationship with ROK, a persistent stance on Western (read US) influence in the region, ongoing humanitarian, trade and regime support for North Korea, and international engagement on North Korean security issues and sanctions through the United Nations Security Council.
The sole CCP foreign policy goal here is not necessarily to contest the West and the United States by fixing them on North Korean issues; it is to remain in control of foreign policy issues and diplomacy within its immediate borders and the Pacific, in which their relations with North Korea play a small but significant part.
China – long borders and lengthy disputes
Chinese strategic thinking will not always remain dovish towards Pyongyang. A growing dissatisfaction with the regime’s belligerence will certainly alter their value calculus for the extent and nature of support. This cost-benefit analysis is not new for China – they have the longest land border in the world and share the most borders of any country in the world (14, joint with Russia) – unsurprisingly not all peacefully maintained. Border disputes and strategic competition with India have been constant since the 1950s with Chinese and Indian border troops clashing frequently along the Himalayas. Japan and China have a still unresolved dispute over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands. Not to mention other ongoing land disputes with Hong Kong, Tibet, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Kazakhstan. China can, and likely would, tolerate much more grief from the regime if push came to shove.
China, North Korea and the UN Security Council
Pyongyang has continued to strain its relationship with Beijing with accelerated nuclear and hypersonic missile testing, sabre-rattling and aggravating rhetoric towards regional allies and the age-old nemesis the United States. However, Beijing is not shy about stamping its authority in return. Cooperation reached a nadir in 2017 in response to multiple weapons tests, a sixth nuclear test, and an ICBM test in December of that year. All three UNSC resolutions (Resolutions 2371, 2375, 2397) were passed unanimously and implemented a number of full sector bans on import and export trade to stifle weapons programs and proliferation. A first for China in rebuking the regime using the UNSC mechanism and a test for the China-North Korea relationship.
Trade, famine and COVID
China also, quite literally, protects North Korea from the cold. Reports of serious food shortages at the start of 2023, compounded by pandemic lockdowns and sanctions, suggest more domestic struggle than previously endured since the famine in the 1990s.1 Unsurprisingly China also accounts for the overwhelming share of trade with the DPRK – close to 85%. However, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was one of the first countries to lockdown its border with China during the COVID-19 pandemic which remained closed for nearly two years.
Paranoia and distrust remain – at this point, a staple of the regime. A 2022 US report highlights the difficulty that China has in controlling the North Korean regime noting that Beijing ‘has not prevented its smaller neighbour from defying Beijing and manoeuvring at its [Beijing’s] expense’.2 However fragile the partnership becomes, this axis between the two countries provides legitimacy to the regime in Pyongyang and continued Chinese patronage – even strenuously given – enables the regime to stumble forward.
China and the world stage
Several commentators argue that if China wishes to be seen as a bona-fide superpower, and legitimately challenge the United States, it must expand into humanitarian soft power-style resolutions, state-repairing and state-building activity and not merely continue to fulfil its massive military and belt-and-road economic ambitions. The beginning, slow machinations of this have already been seen. In 2023 alone China has brokered an Iran-Saudi peace deal.3 It has also posed as the neutral (definitions vary) party engaging in resolving the Russian invasion of Ukraine with a proposed 12-point peace plan.4 Although the initial positivity from both these negotiations has not yet materialised into significant commitments in either case, China has become demonstrably interested in playing peacemaker outside of its borders and local neighbourhood.
The bottom line is that these tensions will rise and fall as Pyongyang continues to proliferate nuclear and conventional military capabilities and as China continues to assert its regional dominance and hegemony. There is little room for these two ambitions to continue to coexist without a larger fracturing of the relationship occurring. There is uncomfortably little room left for manoeuvre. Tensions escalate through Japanese re-militarisation and rhetoric from ROK on deterrence measures and American nuclear guarantees.
Less and less room for manoeuvre
It is still highly unlikely that China will sever relations with North Korea no matter how hostile it becomes; their patience – although tested – has much further to go before it runs out. Beijing could apply much more acute pressure to North Korean leadership if it wanted to – over and above those currently in place through international and UN sanctions such as restricting oil exports (a vital lifeline for a fuel-starved regime) and limiting electricity, mineral and ferroalloy imports (65% of total trade in 2020, and 75% of total trade in 2021).5
The unfortunate reality of the China-North Korea relationship is that Beijing is probably happy with the status quo – frozen, a degree of manipulation held over the Regime, its belligerence contained just enough to contest the West and the United States but not enough to compel either to escalate on the peninsula, leaving China free to manoeuvre elsewhere where it sees more value strategic and geopolitical gains to be made.