Aid, ideology and atomic bombs: China’s complicated relationship with North Korea

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This is the sixth in a series of articles that looks at China’s borders. As China has grown in the last 30 years, so have the often complicated relationships it has with its many varied neighbors. In this article, we take a look at North Korea.

By Joyce Roque

April 5 – Like father, like son. When history is written it will remember Kim Jong-Il as remaining true to his father’s memory. Fourteen years after the death of patriarch and founder, Kim Il-sung, North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, still maintains the distinction of being one of the most secretive and rigid states in the world.

Located in the northern half of the Korean Peninsula, North Korea shares boundaries with China, Russia and South Korea. To its north, it shares a 1,416 kilometer border with China and a 19 kilometer one with Russia; to its south there is the 238 kilometer Korean Demilitarized Zone separating it from South Korea.

North Korea is still largely isolated and cut-off from foreign influences. Kim Jong-Il has continued to rule by the philosophy of Juche, or self-reliance to run the country’s communist regime with no tolerance for any form of dissention. In its annual World Press Freedom Index, Paris-based international non-governmental organization, Reporters Sans Frontiers, ranks North Korea at the bottom for not allowing privately-owned media and having no freedom of expression.

Like his father before him, the state’s elaborate propaganda machine feeds the cult of personality that surrounds Kim Jong-Il, portraying him as an incomparable leader continuing the country’s revolutionary cause. Foreign media paints another picture of the leader, a bespectacled playboy with pompadour hair, a penchant for platform shoes and a liking for cognac whose real scope of power is shrouded in mystery much like his rare public appearances.

This style of governance has led the country to be economically crippled to handle modernization, famine and natural disasters. In 2007, North Korea was a recipient of US$ 372 million worth of foreign aid. The World Food Program alone has sent food aid amounting to 65,000 metric tons.

Kindred spirit
It is no surprise then that North Korea finds its strongest ties with those that share its ideology: China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Russia. Of them all, China remains its strongest economic and political ally. China seems to understand North Korea’s plight under communist rule and what it feels like to be shaped by the forces of a magnetic leader like Kim Il-sung.

According to Asia Times Online, North Korea and China trade amounted to US$1.7 billion in 2006 and reached US$1.25 billion for the first eight months of 2007. Figures for 2006 showed that Chinese interests in North Korea amounted to US$38 million.

In addition, helping North Korea is necessary if China wants to maintain stability at its border, foster more trade and, even more telling, insure itself from possible threat coming from democratic South Korea, Japan and the United States. The United States still maintains heavy military presence at its bases located in the South Korea city of Pyeongtaek. China has picked up the role of diplomatic buffer to North Korea over the years. When the UN Security Council threatened to implement sanctions to penalize North Korea it was China who intervened for them.

It was also China who took the initiative to play host to the six-party talks that saw them, along with South Korea, the United States, Russia and Japan trying to find ways to resolve the security risk posed by North Korea’s active nuclear weapons program. Should a war erupt in North Korea, then China and South Korea would be the most affected. There would certainly be a deluge of North Korean refugees flooding the Chinese border to safety.

Another vital tie for the country is South Korea with its provision of external food aid given through grants and long-term concessional loans. In addition, the South is North Korea’s top export market accounting for 32 percent. In 2007, South Korea promised to invest in North Korea’s infrastructure, natural resources and light industry.

Going nuclear
For all its economic woes, North Korea fancies itself as a nuclear and military power boasting of having the fifth largest army in the world. In 1995, Kim Jong-Il implemented a “Military-First” policy which gave its armed forces first-priority in funds allocation.

The unraveling of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions gained momentum in 2002 when the country admitted to having an active nuclear weapons program that led to the reactivation of its Yongbyon reactor and the booting out of international inspectors. The following year, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – established to stop the manufacture of atomic weapons. In 2003, the six-nation talks started to address the nuclear crisis but over the years fail to reach a conclusion.

Fast forward to 2006, North Korea was at the receiving end of international protest when it test-fired a long-range and medium-range missiles. By October 2006, North Korea professed testing a nuclear weapon. In 2007, the Six-Party Talks finally broke ground with North Korea agreeing to a deal that will give them aid and diplomatic concessions in exchange for completing a denuclearization process. While Pyongyang managed to fulfill the first phase of the agreement with its shutdown of the Yongbyon reactor, it failed to comply with the second phase that would require it to report and end all its nuclear activities.

A question of stability
According to Xinhua, on the topic of the delay in the second phase of the nuclear disarmament deal, Kim Jong-il assured visiting Chinese official Wang Jiarui that, “The DPRK (North Korea) side’s stance of advancing the six-party talks and implementing the various agreements jointly reached has not changed.” He went on to say that, “The difficulties that have currently arisen are temporary and can be surmounted.”

Until the North Korea nuclear issue is resolved the possibility will remain a threat that casts a shadow on the stability of East Asia. The two Koreas are still technically at war as no peace treaty has ever been signed. North Korea’s reluctance to give up on its nuclear capability may force South Korea, Taiwan and Japan to also develop their own nuclear facilities.

While China casts a significant influence on North Korea because of its political and economic ties, North Korea is still considered unstable. Experts agree that China’s hold may not be as far-reaching as previously thought. North Korea remains the wild card in East Asian relations. While the coming presidential elections in the United States will likely ease the current tensions between the Bush administration and North Korea, only time will tell if a shift in U.S. leadership could bring something new to the negotiating table.

This is the sixth in a continuing series that focuses on China’s borders. The complete series to date can be found here.