Chinese and North Korean forces once fought side by side on the battlefield, but ties appear to have since frayed, possibly beyond repair.
China has a complicated relationship with North Korea, which simultaneously serves as both a strategic asset and a liability. However, it has become more the latter than the former in recent years. North Korea’s frequent provocations frustrate Beijing, and China’s decisions to pressure North Korea in concert with the U.S. greatly angers Pyongyang. China and North Korea’s top leaders absolutely despise one another, according to individuals close to the respective governments.
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When Chinese President Xi Jinping took power five years ago, he presented a grand vision for China known as the “Chinese Dream,” an ambitious plan to restore China’s great power status and make the country a responsible and respected global leader. Since North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un took control following the death of his father, the young ruler has advanced the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs at an accelerated rate, creating instability on China’s doorstep with frequent tests, drills, and intentionally aggressive and hostile provocations.
The only time former U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus has ever heard the professional Chinese president use “undiplomatic language” was when he was talking about Kim, Baucus revealed to the British Broadcasting Network.
“I’ve only heard President Xi speak derogatorily about a person once, and when he did so, it was in fairly strong terms. That was when he was quite critical, a couple of years ago, of Kim Jong-un,” Baucus explained, adding: “He does not like Kim Jong-un. That is very clear.”
Xi and Kim have never met, which is unusual for the two countries.
Xi was said to be “boiling with fury” after North Korea decided to ruin an important international summit hosted in China last year by firing off multiple missiles. Shortly after the event’s close, the rogue regime conducted its fifth nuclear test.
North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, which occurred just before an important event, also ruffled some feathers in China.
Beijing’s decision to restrict trade with North Korea, as well as restrict banking services and shut down North Korean businesses, is apparently not just an effort to adhere to the demands of the most recent U.N. sanctions resolutions, according to a source close to China’s government.
Some of China’s actions can be seen as a response to pressure from the Trump administration, but other influencing factors may drive China’s efforts to rein in its nuclear neighbor.
“That was a direct response to North Korea’s nuclear provocations on the eve of the BRIC Summit China hosted. I believe China’s government got mad. China’s top leader got mad. That’s a direct countermeasure China’s government adopted to punish North Korea,” Cheng Xiaohe, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing with ties to the Chinese government and defense, told the BBC.
The friendship that once existed between the two communist countries has ended, the academic asserted.
“China once had a special relationship with the Soviet Union, but China had war with that country. China had a very special relationship with Vietnam, but the two countries fought in a war. I think the relationship between China and North Korea is worse,” he said. “There are no permanent friends, no permanent friends.”
National interests, not ideologies, determine international partnerships, and China’s national interests presently demand a “stable, non-nuclear Korean Peninsula,” Cheng explained. He suggested another provocation, such as a ballistic missile or nuclear test, could potentially push the relationship over the edge.
Kim is also reportedly not overwhelmingly fond of his Chinese counterpart in Beijing.
The young dictator called Xi a “son of a bitch” during a meeting with senior North Korean officials, Ri Jong Ho, a former North Korean official in charge of securing funds for the regime who defected three years ago, revealed at a recent conference.
North Korea has also published numerous articles condemning China for turning on its old ally.
It is unclear whether the reported animosity between Beijing and Pyongyang could drive the two countries into conflict, but an article written for China’s nationalist tabloid — The Global Times — and republished on the country’s official military website suggests China might strike North Korea if it crossed Beijing’s “bottom line.”
“China has a bottom line that it will protect at all costs, that is, the security and stability of northeast China,” the report, published in April, stated. “If the bottom line is touched, China will employ all means available including the military means to strike back … By that time, it is not an issue of discussion whether China acquiesces in the US’ blows, but the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will launch attacks [on] DPRK nuclear facilities on its own.”
Chinese state media reports have also warned North Korea against conducting additional missile and nuclear tests.
China has, to a certain extent, lost control of North Korea, but it does retain the ability to exert tremendous pressure on the rogue regime as the North’s primary trading partner and a military and economic powerhouse in Asia. But, just as the Trump administration is trying to find a solution, so is China still trying to develop a working North Korea policy.
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