China and North Korea’s seemingly unwavering friendship goes back many years. In the Korean War it is estimated that China lost 110,000 soldiers on the battlefield and another 35,000 died from wounds and disease. The friendship did not stop there. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, China has been the major trade partner of North Korea while also supplying food and fuel aid to the impoverished nation.
China has also refrained from publicly condemning North Korea’s nuclear test in 2009, or complaining when a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean navy vessel killing 46 sailors onboard. Perhaps an even more noticeable instance of friendship from China was when North Korea attacked the South Korean island, Yeonpyeong, with at least 200 artillery shells. Two soldiers were killed, 17 wounded, and three civilians were hurt and China’s response was to defend North Korea’s actions by maintaining the South started it by shooting first.
It would seem that China and North Korea’s relationship is strong and unshakeable; however, there appear to be cracks forming. Considering how private China is and the control it typically holds over its own media and image, it is notable that China has not shied away from condemning North Korea’s more recent actions.
In 2012, North Korea detained 28 Chinese fishermen for allegedly fishing in North Korean waters. They were returned wearing only their long johns and claiming to have been beaten and starved. The Chinese response was profound. Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at Renmin University in Beijing, was quoted as saying, “The context of what is happening now between China and North Korea is this: Since Kim Jong-il died, the Kim Jong-un regime has been unfriendly to China.”
The most recent condemnation has stemmed from the 12 February nuclear test which China’s Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, said China was, “strongly dissatisfied and resolutely opposed.” Suzanne DiMaggio, an analyst at the Asia Society in New York, said, “China’s inability to dissuade North Korea from carrying through with this third nuclear test reveals Beijing’s limited influence over Pyongyang’s actions in unusually stark terms.”
Additionally, on May 13, 2012, China, Japan, and South Korea announced plans of a trilateral free trade agreement with negotiations to begin in early 2013. China is already the largest trading partner of both Japan and South Korea with the trade between the three nations estimated at $690 billion in 2011. It was noted that North Korea was conspicuously left out of the talks with the only mention being Pyongyang’s continued provocations. It would not appear coincidental then that North Korea’s President of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Yong-nam, was simultaneously making a tour of Singapore and Indonesia.
Kim Yong-nam visited with Tony Tan, President of Singapore, and parliamentary leader, Michael Palmer. After leaving Singapore Kim Yong-nam went on to Indonesia where he met with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. In both cases it is believed Kim Yong-nam was trying to attract foreign investment.
Singapore is currently North Korea’s third largest trading partner and could also be a good example for North Korea on building a strong economy. It would appear that during the North Korean visit many things were discussed, including the situation on the Korean Peninsula, but that Singapore was constrained because of UN Security Council Sanctions on North Korea. The visit to Indonesia resulted in much the same, but the two sides did agree to promote visits by officials, ministers, managers, and media professionals.
China and North Korea have had increased tensions since Kim Jung-un became supreme leader. It could simply be the pains of adjusting to new leadership in North Korea and Kim Jong-un seeking to assert himself on the international stage. Or it could be something deeper and an actual fracture in the relationship between the two nations. Over the last year China has been more vocal in its displeasure with North Korea and North Korea appears to be showing little regard for its closest ally. The big question that everyone is now asking is how this strained alliance will affect decisions coming out of the UN Security Council and, ultimately, the Korean Peninsula.
Lisanne Boling, Research Assistant
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