China and North Korea: Is Asia's Dynamic Duo Headed for a Breakup?

Get ready, Asia. An old alliance could be on the rocks.

From the autumn of 1950, when Chairman Mao made the costly decision—he lost a son in Korea—to send the “People’s Volunteer Army” across the Yalu River to rescue the retreating Kim Il Sung from General MacArthur’s post-Inchon offensive, Beijing has been the chief guarantor of North Korea’s security. North Korea remains the only nation with which China maintains a defense treaty which requires assistance if Pyongyang comes under “armed attack from any state.” Thus, one would think there would be a measure of gratitude. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, however, displays disdain for his country’s old ally.

Even with continued Chinese support, North Korea’s remarkable staying power despite famine, the Soviet collapse, and the economic miracle of rival South Korea has been nothing short of amazing. A key element in Pyongyang’s ability to successfully play from what appears to be a weak hand was explained by North Korea expert Chuck Downs in his insightful book, Over the Line: North Korea’s Negotiating Strategy. As Downs points out, the first two generations of the Kim family mastered the art of brinkmanship. This involved creating a crisis through provocative military action, thus drawing the attention of major stakeholders, and then entering into bogus negotiations to defuse “the crisis.” This is followed finally by the payoff in the form of food aid, fuel and other financial assistance. And, under this brinkmanship strategy, having a nuclear stockpile of undetermined quantity and quality is a major plus. Pleas to give up this irreplaceable bargaining chip, even from close ally Beijing, naturally fall on deaf ears—especially when considering the fates of those who surrendered WMD arsenals, like Libya’s Gaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam.

North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung was masterful in seeking advantage out of the Sino-Soviet split during the Cold War, by playing off Moscow against Beijing. His son, Kim Jong Il, who came to power after the Soviet Union’s collapse, never neglected relations with Beijing, which helped to keep Pyongyang afloat in the post-Soviet era. Never one to indulge in extensive overseas travel, Kim Jong Il nonetheless visited China seven times during his seventeen-year rule. And Beijing came through for Kim during his regime’s greatest foreign-policy crisis. Beijing successfully blocked any UN action directed against Pyongyang when it was accused of sinking the South Korean military vessel Cheonan in March 2010, with a loss of forty-six lives. Kim Jong Il was also keenly aware that China underwrote Pyongyang’s food and fuel needs. In 2003, during Congressional testimony, then-Heritage Foundation official Dr. Larry Wortzel estimated that Beijing provided Kim Jong Il’s regime with between 70 and 88 percent of its fuel requirements and 30 to 40 percent of its food needs. While Kim Jong Il cultivated Beijing, Kim Jong Un bites the hand that feeds him.

Kim Jong Un has been thumbing his nose at his one and only ally—Beijing—ever since his rise to power. The New York Times reported that Beijing dispatched a vice minister of foreign affairs, Fu Ying, to Pyongyang to “sternly warn” Kim Jong Un not to proceed with a missile test soon after his father’s sudden death in December 2011. Beijing was acting to encourage a return to the negotiating table via efforts by U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies to put forward the ill-fated “Leap-Day Deal” on North Korea’s denuclearization. That deal went up in smoke when Kim launched a long-range missile in April 2012 in commemoration of the centennial of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung’s birthday. Kim Jong Un compounded Beijing’s embarrassment by displaying a missile launcher, imported from China in violation of UN sanctions, in a subsequent Pyongyang parade.

Kim did not hesitate to blow off the advice of even China’s leader himself. In November 2012, the New York Times reported that a small delegation from Beijing, led by Politburo member Li Jianguo, arrived with a letter from the new Chinese president, Xi Jinping. The contents of the letter reportedly read: “Do not launch a ballistic missile.” Twelve days later, Kim did exactly that.