The Conundrum of China-North Korea Relations

Steven Mnuchin pictured during this Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be US Treasury secretary. Photo: Reuters

Steven Mnuchin pictured during this Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be US Treasury secretary. Photo: Reuters

In history, Korea used to be very close to China and was often protected by China. China fought Japan to protect Korea in the first Sino-Japanese War and suffered great losses in 1895.

Later, it defeated the US to prevent North Korea from being annexed by South Korea. However, North Korea’s Kim Dynasty has not been grateful. It has kept on developing nuclear weapons that threaten not only South Korea and Japan but also China.

At the beginning of Kim Jong-un’s reign, China tried to make him learn from China’s success of reform and opening up but Kim would not listen. On the contrary, Kim has imposed even more stringent control both politically and economically while keeping on development of nuclear weapons in spite of China’s opposition.

China is upset and has begun to cooperate with the US in imposing sanctions on North Korea, but it cannot go too far as it has to take care of North Korean people that Chinese people regard as their kin.

Lots of North Koreans joined Chinese Communist Party’s troops in resisting Japan and fighting Chinese Civil War. During Mao’s famine lots of Chinese fled to North Korea for survival as at that time North Korea was quite prosperous with substantial Soviet aids.

Now, Kim Dynasty’s famine has forced lots of North Koreans to flee to China for survival. There is arrangement between China and North Korea for repatriating those North Korean refugees, but Chinese people do not want to send their North Korean kin back to be killed or persecuted cruelly by the Kim Dynasty.

As a result, China cannot impose UN sanctions stringently. It has to provide North Korea with food and daily necessities. In order to get paid for Chinese goods, China has to buy coal and other minerals from North Korea in spite of the sanctions.

Now, US new president Trump has said that he has made a long satisfactory friendly phone call to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Obviously, Trump has got what he wants from Beijing.

First, Trump complains that China manipulates its currency yuan to keep its exchange rate low, but now China is in fact manipulating yuan to prevent it from falling; therefore, as a matter of fact, that is not a problem.

Second, Xi must have promised to reduce the high import tariffs and the restriction of US investment in banking, insurance and other sectors. China promised to open those sectors when it joined WTO, but its state-owned enterprises in those sectors needed government protection with high tariffs and restriction of entry. Now, Xi Jinping has been carrying out a reform to open those state-monopolized sectors in order to introduce competition to improve the efficiency in those sectors. In addition, Chinese state-owned enterprises in those sectors have grown strong enough so that there is no need for state protection with high tariffs and entry restriction.

Third, as for Trump’s demand for better protection of intellectual property, China has grown past the stage of stealing foreign intellectual property and is now making great efforts to develop its own intellectual property. As a result, it has switched to stressing protection of China’s own fast-growing intellectual property. It now has to protect foreign intellectual property if it wants other countries to protect its own; therefore, that is not a problem for China either.

Relations between China and the US have indeed wormed up since the Trump-Xi phone call. There were first media reports that on February 17, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the sidelines of G20 foreign minister meeting in Bonn. In its report “Rex Tillerson, Wang Yi in highest-level US-China meet under Donald Trump”, Firstpost quotes Mark Toner, acting US State Department spokesman, as saying, “Secretary Tillerson and Minister Wang noted the recent call between leaders and discussed efforts to advance bilateral cooperation while addressing differences in a constructive manner.” (Firstpost’s report can be viewed at

Then there is SCMP’s report today titled “New US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin makes phone calls to Chinese economic officials” on Mnuchin making separate calls to Liu He, the head of the office of the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs; Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of the People’s Bank of China, and Finance Minister Xiao Jie.

SCMP quotes US Treasury Department’s statement as saying, “In each of these calls, Secretary Mnuchin underscored that he looked forward to fostering strong US-China engagement during his tenure. The secretary emphasised the importance of achieving a more balanced bilateral economic relationship going forward.” (SCMP’s report can be found at

Now, it seems North Korea remains the most tricky problem that Trump asks Xi to deal with.

Firstpost quotes Toner as saying, “Secretary Tillerson also highlighted the increasing threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and urged China to use all available tools to moderate North Korea’s destabilising behaviour.”

Obviously, in his phone call, Trump also asked Xi to help control North Korea. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un must be paying great attention to Trump’s China policies. He guesses that China has promised Trump something regarding North Korea. He knows well that China is not satisfied with his reign, especially his nuclear and missile tests and suspects China has a plan to bring about a regime change in his country that will benefit both the US and China.

For regime change, Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam is a precious asset for China. When China has conducted a coup or military attack to bring down Kim Jong-un, his half-brother will be his best replacement for a new regime in his country. After all, Kim Jong-nam is his father’s eldest son with the best qualification to succeed his father. That might be the reason why soon after the telephone call, Kim Jong-nam was assassinated.

That is a conundrum in China-North Korea relations. If China has indeed a regime-change plan, Kim Jong-nam must be China’s very valuable asset. Why China has not sent agents to protect him in secret or at least employed some bodyguards for him. Moreover, China must not attempt to conduct regime change in another country as it regards non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs as its key diplomatic principle.

I would rather believe Kim Jong-un assassinated his half-brother due to his paranoia, which at least shows that he lives in constant fear of his powerful neighbor China.

Knowing that, China began to pressure him. Reuters says in its report “China to suspend all imports of coal from North Korea” that according to Chinese Ministry of Commerce China will ban imports of coal from North Korea from Feb. 19 to Dec. 31.

Perhaps, China has threatened to impose other sanctions to force Kim Jong-un to yield to its pressure. That is why according to Reuters’ report “China sees chance of six-party talks with North Korea”, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Feb. 17 China has not given up hope for a new round of diplomacy with North Korea to prevent Pyongyang making further advances in its weapons program in violation of U.N. resolutions. (Reuters’ two reports can respectively be viewed at and

Article by Chan Kai Yee.


2 Comments on “The Conundrum of China-North Korea Relations”

  1. Mad Max says:

    Beijing should make Pyongyang suffer a bit and cry “Uncle”. They don’t appreciate the help they are getting from China. Let them suffer a bit and see what happens. And if there is chaos and revolution in North Korea, why, just send in the troops and take over. Let them reap what they sow.


  2. Simon says:

    I don’t believe China is unhappy with North Korea. China gave N Korea nuclear weapons as a deterrent against America. The Yanks are also ahppy with the status quo as it gave reason to station troops and sells arms to S Korea and Japan.