North Korea: Loyal Chinese Vassal State or Political Headache?

By Gabe Wacks

On January 6th, 2016, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test, claiming to have detonated a thermonuclear weapon underground. In response, the United States, South Korea, and Japan have all pushed for an increase in sanctions on North Korea. However, for the first time in this nuclear conflict, and indeed in North Korea’s 68 years of existence as a sovereign state, China has expressed its willingness to agree on increasing sanctions [1]. This is not a sudden development in Sino-North Korea relations, but rather, the culmination of years of tension on political, economic, and ideological issues.

While many view China and North Korea’s alliance as a Cold War-era artifact, in reality this is a fairly ancient alliance that stretches back centuries, perhaps even millennia. Korea occupies a strategic location between Japan and northern China, and in the modern day, China views South Korea as the U.S’s foothold in Asia. In the Korean War, China managed to prevent the United States and South Korea from occupying North Korea, which would have pushed U.S. influence all the way to China’s borders. China has consistently supported North Korea to ensure that a buffer remains between U.S. influence and Chinese territory [2].

However, since 1950 China and the United States have significantly better relations than they did during the early part of the Cold War. On the other hand, North Korea has economically declined for a variety of reasons, making it more of a liability for China. Furthermore, North Korea has not functioned as the quiet buffer zone that China envisioned. Beginning in 2006 with its first nuclear test, North Korea has pursued a nuclear weapons program to deter U.S. or South Korean intervention. This has worried China, which fears that a nuclear weapons program may make North Korea more aggressive, independent, and uncontrollable [3].

This is the crux of the issue; North Korea’s nuclear weapons program shifts the balance of power in East Asia. North Korea, like any true vassal state, is reliant on China for protection and economic support, and in exchange, China gains buffer states. North Korea is not functioning like a true vassal; it is an economic drain on China, requiring extensive economic assistance to prop up. It is also acting against China’s political wishes. The nuclear program means that North Korea will become more militarily bold, which increases the risk of China being drawn into a conflict with the United States. Chinese focus has shifted from “maintaining its vassal” to “re-asserting control over it”. With that having been said, China has stated that it is only willing to go so far; China will not allow American sanctions to destabilize North Korea [4]. Any co-sponsored sanctions between the U.S. will be mild enough to punish North Korea without actually collapsing its economy.

Furthermore, despite speculation, there are several reasons why China will probably continue to support North Korea. While China functions as North Korea’s lifeline, providing military and economic support to prevent a collapse of North Korea’s economy, major economic pressure is probably not an option that will be seriously considered. China has no interest absorbing millions of starving North Korean refugees. The province that borders China, Yanbian Korean Autonomous Province, already has a large Korean population, and many North Koreans have already fled there. Should North Korea collapse, China would almost certainly lose its buffer zone [5]. Despite China’s worries of a unified Korea on its border slightly decreasing, China is still unwilling to allow for North Korea to descend into political chaos. Finally, China’s actions are being scrutinized by the international community. For China to abrogate its responsibility to North Korea would be seen as weakness on China’s part; an inability to control its subordinate state. China will not lose North Korea, and perhaps believes that it can reign in North Korea with carefully applied sanctions.

While Sino-Korean relations have shifted, the relationship between the two nations is still advantageous for China, at least for the time being. China is unlikely to risk pressuring North Korea to the point where collapse is a possibility, even over North Korea’s nuclear program. China may apply sanctions in cooperation with the U.S, but it will only go so far; after hundreds of years, China still sees the utility of a Korean vassal state, and this is unlikely to seriously change any time soon.

[1] D. Brunnstrom and M. Rajagopalan (2016, January 27th), U.S. And China Agree On Need For New UN Resolution Against North Korea, Huffington Post, Web.
[2] K. Asmolov (2016, January 31st), The Testing of a DPRK Hydrogen Bomb and Sino-North Korean Relations, New Eastern Outlook Journal, Web.
[3] R. Baker, (2013, April 16th), China and North Korea: A Tangled Partnership, Startfor Enterprises, Web.
[4] S. Tiezzi, (2016, January 27th), Ahead of Kerry Visit, China Doubles Down on North Korea Position, The Diplomat, Web.
[5] W. Diamana, (2015, July 2nd), Strategic Alliance: China-North Korea, International Policy Digest, Web.