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China and North Korea: an Evolving Relationship

Historically allies, China and North Korea's ties have recently worsened due to North Korea escalating the development of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs under Kim Jong Un. It has been reported that Kim has purposefully planned his nuclear and ballistic missile tests over the past year to coincide with important Chinese occasions like the Xiamen BRICS summit, the Belt and Road meeting in Beijing, and the Mar-a-Lago summit between Xi and Trump in an attempt to overshadow them demonstrate to the world his power.


In the past the two countries have been close. Chinese troops poured onto the Korean Peninsula to aid its northern ally during the Korean War (1950–1953), which is when China first began to support North Korea. Kim Il-sung (about 1948–1994), Kim Jong-il (roughly 1994–2011), and Kim Jong-un have all received political and financial support from China since the war. However, tensions arose after Pyongyang conducted a nuclear test in October 2006 and Beijing supported UN Security Council Resolution 1718, which put sanctions on Pyongyang. Beijing signalled a change in approach from diplomatic assistance to punitive measures with this resolution and others that followed. China urged North Korea to stop taking measures that raised tensions on the Korean Peninsula after the country conducted a missile launch test in November 2017. Tensions have continued to increase as North Korea, under Kim Jong Un, has expedited the development of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.


Significantly, China, which currently accounts for more than 90% of North Korea’s overall trade volume as well as the majority of its imports of food and energy, is North Korea's main economic partner. China continues to be North Korea's economic lifeline and has refrained from applying pressure that could harm the government, despite Beijing's tightening of sanctions against the country. It is clear that China is North Korea’s backbone and that North Korea relies on China for numerous resources from food and agriculture to military aid and armoury. If North Korea continues to act in the same way in regard to its missile programme, there is a very real danger that China may start to cut their bonds with the country. It is clear Kim Jong-un must pursue a friendly diplomatic relationship if North Korea wants to continue to benefit from the aid offered to them. Perhaps soon North Korea may pivot towards another country as an ally to help them to continue to survive?


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