fulbright Taiwan online journal

fulbright Taiwan online journal

Controlling China’s “Little Brother”: China’s National Security Interests and the North Korea Nuclear Threat


Since the 1980s, North Korea’s nuclear program has been a persistent source of international concern.1 These concerns gained renewed importance during the 2017-2018 North Korea nuclear crisis. Through missile tests, provocative threats, and acts of aggression, it appeared that North Korea’s antagonizing behavior had spiraled out of control. Previous bilateral and multilateral negotiation efforts had failed to achieve any lasting success. In the meantime, North Korea’s nuclear program only continued to grow stronger. North Korea’s most recent nuclear test on September 3, 2017, was the most powerful to date. Estimates claim the device yielded 120 kilotons, potentially ten times larger than the previous test almost a year prior.[2] North Korean officials claimed that the test of a miniaturized hydrogen bomb which could be loaded onto an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was a “perfect success.”[3] While it is impossible to verify North Korea’s claim, the test was enough to arouse the fears of the international community.

In response, the United Nations called an emergency meeting, culminating in an additional wave of international sanctions against North Korea. Though the US-sponsored resolution won the support of all fifteen members of the UN Security Council, it was far weaker than the US had hoped. While the original draft called for an embargo on oil imports and sanctioned Kim Jong-un himself, implementing a travel ban and freezing his assets abroad, representatives from Russia and China both objected to such severe penalties. Russian President Vladimir Putin went so far as to say that such sanctions would be “counterproductive and possibly destabilizing.”[4] As a result, the proposed oil embargo was reduced to a cap on oil exports to North Korea, and conditions targeting Kim Jong-un were removed. Though the US estimates these sanctions would reduce oil imports to North Korea by 30%, there were doubts that this would be enough to force North Korea to denuclearize.

The weakened penalties demonstrate China’s growing power and influence within the international community. China explicitly expressed concerns that cutting off oil to North Korea would inevitably lead to regime collapse. The entire UN resolution was revised accordingly to accommodate these concerns. But this is not the first time China has stepped in to protect North Korea from the wrath of the international community. Since the Korean War, China and North Korea have developed a close political and economic relationship. As North Korea’s largest trade partner, China accounts for 90% of North Korea’s overall trade.[5] As a result, UN sanctions against North Korea ultimately require China’s cooperation in order to be successful.

But experts contend that China lacks the political will to properly enforce sanctions against North Korea. As such, China has been criticized for pursuing lenient policies and circumventing UN sanctions. A report released by the United Nations in February 2017 reveals that China was “serving as the lead facilitator of black market North Korean trade, and that Chinese companies were allowing North Korean banks to remain connected to the global financial system.”[6] Furthermore, in December 2017, the US government published surveillance photographs which it claimed showed Chinese ships transferring crude oil to North Korea at sea, directly violating UN sanctions on oil exports to North Korea. These reports allege that China has participated in up to thirty ship-to-ship transfers of oil since the sanctions came into effect, conducting transfers at sea specifically to avoid detection.[7] In response, China has denied all allegations of sanction-breaking oil sales, and claimed to be fully enforcing all sanctions against North Korea.[8] Regardless of whether these allegations are true, this situation contributes to perceptions that China is willing undermine UN sanctions to avoid placing too much pressure on North Korea.

To combat these perceptions, China has gradually shifted its approach from diplomacy to punishment. The international community, particularly the United States, has pressured China to use its economic influence as leverage over North Korea. China has since made significant efforts to demonstrate its commitment to the international community, including a temporary ban on North Korean coal, the state’s primary export.[9] Voting with the majority on UN resolutions, China has continued to reaffirm its support for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Nevertheless, these efforts may not be enough to reassure the international community of China’s commitment to UN sanctions, undermining its reputation as a responsible member of the international community.

The PRC has demonstrated its willingness to prioritize national interests above international commitments. Nevertheless, its desire to be recognized as a world leader pressures the PRC to show its support for multilateral efforts, such as UN sanctions. Thus, the PRC must balance its national security agenda against its international reputation. Should the PRC be forced to choose, it will always choose to prioritize itself over the international community, ensuring the preservation and stability of Kim Jong-un’s regime at the expense of international sanctions. However, if PRC leadership determines the benefits of supporting international sanctions (namely the respect and recognition of the international community) outweighs the benefits of a stable, but nuclear capable, North Korea, then the PRC may be willing to abandon its alliance with North Korea and fully commit to sanctions.

PRC National Strategy and Security Objectives

PRC leaders have articulated “a vision of national development and revitalization,” currently known as the “Chinese Dream.” This dream ultimately seeks to “restore national prestige and assure China’s rise as a prosperous and powerful nation.”[10] Although the “Chinese Dream” is a relatively new idea, as originally introduced by Xi Jinping, China’s grand strategy since the end of the Cold War has been largely consistent. It has been characterized as, “the acquisition of comprehensive national power deriving from a continued reform of the economy without the impediments and distractions of security competition.”[11]

In accordance with this grand strategy, the PRC pursues policy with four key objectives in mind: national defense, territorial control, domestic stability, and recognition as a great power. First and foremost, China seeks to maintain adequate defense measures to protect the “heartland.” Once national security is assured, China seeks to consolidate control of its vast territory and address regional and security threats, including potential moves against Taiwan “independence,” separatist activities in China’s Western provinces, and challenges to claimed territories in the East and South China Seas. By drawing in peripheral regions, the PRC seeks to suppress potential threats to its control. Next, by consistently demonstrating a preference for domestic order and social well-being, the PRC conveys that stability is vital to maintaining political control. Finally, China ultimately seeks to be restored to its “regional preeminence while attaining the respect of its peers as a true great power marked by high levels of economic and technological development, political stability, military prowess, and manifest uprightness.”[12] Therefore, through economic development and technological innovation, China seeks to not only protect national interests, but also cultivate its reputation within the international community. Though national security is fundamental to any society, China’s consideration of domestic stability and international reputation are equally important to China’s foreign policy.

China’s Foreign Policy Perspective and the North Korea Nuclear Threat

Given China’s close relationship with North Korea, China does not seem concerned by North Korea’s nuclear proliferation and is unlikely to be the target of a nuclear attack. The long-standing relationship between the two states and China’s overwhelming military power makes nuclear war between the two states highly unlikely. China’s primary concern is the possibility of regime collapse. Should North Korea’s regime collapse, due to sanctions, military strike, or even the assassination of Kim Jong-un, the resulting refugee crisis would send thousands of North Korean refugees fleeing into China and South Korea. An influx of refugees would not only place significant economic strain on China, but could also destabilize domestic society. This would directly contradict China’s focus on maintaining domestic stability, as well as divert money and resources away from achieving China’s other national goals. Therefore, despite criticism from human rights groups for violating the UNHCR Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, China has chosen to honor its agreement to repatriate North Korean refugees attempting to cross its border.[13]

In the event of regime collapse, there is also the question of who would fill the void in the Korean Peninsula. Given the US military presence in South Korea, North Korea currently acts as a buffer state against the United States. Should the regime collapse, the United States would take control of North Korea’s nuclear weapons while facilitating unification on South Korea’s terms. China does not want a US-allied power immediately on its southern border. Since the PRC would prefer a stable regime under Kim Jong-un to reunification under South Korean leadership, it has been willing to overlook North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and acts of aggression.

Finally, it is a little-known fact that North Korea and China have a mutual defense treaty. The Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, signed on July 11, 1961.[14] Under this treaty, China is obligated to intervene against “unprovoked aggression” towards North Korea. Though the treaty is up for renewal in 2021, the PRC government has attempted to persuade North Korean leadership to revoke this clause.[15] Although there are serious doubts as to whether the PRC would honor this treaty obligation should North Korea initiate conflict with the United States or South Korea, failing to do so would call into question China’s commitment to allies, agreements, and China-led institutions. Therefore, China has been willing to prioritize regime stability over denuclearization in order to avoid a refugee crisis, prevent reunification under South Korea, and keep from being drawn into war.

By this reasoning, China and Russia’s preferred method of approaching the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program is the resumption of multilateral talks and a “freeze for freeze” – a freeze in joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea in exchange for a freeze in North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests.[16] Though the United States has already rejected this proposal, refusing to back down in light of North Korea’s aggression, China and Russia continue to urge the United States not to further escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula. Since China does not fear a nuclear attack from North Korea, the greatest threat to China’s national security is the collapse of Kim Jong-un’s regime.

China’s Influence over North Korea

Although North Korea does not present a direct threat to China, North Korea’s nuclear program does negatively impact China’s national security. As its nuclear capabilities continued to advance, North Korea became increasingly difficult to control. Even though China aspires to one day become a “regional hegemonic power,” “North Korea’s capability means China can never be able to dominate the region as much as its leaders probably hope.”[17] Furthermore, nuclear weapons allow North Korea to fulfill the Juche ideology of “independence.” By providing the highest form of self-defense and liberating the Kim regime from its reliance on more powerful allies, North Korea can fulfill its desire for increased self-sufficiency. The perception that China was losing its influence over North Korea might even be evidence of North Korea’s growing feelings of “independence.”[18] In November 2017, the cancellation of flights from Beijing to Pyongyang and the failure of Chinese diplomat, Song Tao, to be granted an audience with Kim Jong-un during his visit to North Korea, furthered perceptions that China-North Korea relations had weakened.[19] Following joint military drills between China and Russia near the China-North Korea Border, China’s leadership affirmed that these events had nothing to do with the nuclear crisis.[20] However, some speculate that these demonstrations of overwhelming military force was an effort by China to send its “little brother” a clear message: Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

As demonstrated by Kim Jong-un’s unannounced visit to Beijing at the request of China’s President Xi Jinping, it appears that this message was received. On March 27, 2018, following a year of elevated tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program, Kim Jong-un announced his openness to dialogue with the US and his commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula: “If South Korea and the United States respond with good will to our efforts and create an atmosphere of peace and stability, and take phased, synchronized measure to achieve peace, the issue of the denuclearization of the peninsula can reach resolution.”[21] This announcement came as a surprise to the US, as well as the rest of the international community. Observers argue that this meeting shows that Kim Jong-un still “values or needs China’s approval.”[22] President Xi clearly supports denuclearization and the de-escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Though neither party has disclosed exactly what transpired between the two leaders, President Xi clearly exercised some influence on Kim Jong-un’s decision to denuclearize. Not only does this visit, and the following visit on May 8, 2018, demonstrate the renewed strength of China-North Korea relations, but also shows that China still maintains considerable control over North Korea.


At this time, the future of China-North Korea relations and the extent of China’s commitment to UN sanctions is still unclear. As North Korea’s primary trade partner, China plays a key role in ensuring that future sanctions may be successful. To the frustration of the UN, China’s questionable record of compliance has weakened the effects of sanctions. This is simply because it is within China’s interests to preserve Kim Jong-un’s regime. Although sanctions can pressure North Korea into entering negotiations, it also risks causing the collapse of Kim Jong-un’s regime, which could lead to a refugee crisis, reunification under the democratic South Korean government, or possibly bring China into war. On the other hand, even if China is fully compliant with UN resolutions, China’s influence alone may still not be enough to force North Korea to fully denuclearize. Therefore, the international community must be careful not to place overwhelming faith in one state, and ensure continued multilateral cooperation in addressing the North Korea nuclear issue.

As the “chilled” relationship between China and North Korea continues to warm, China may see this as an opportunity to succeed where the United States has failed. Given President Trump and Kim Jong-un’s hot-and-cold relationship, the international community has expressed doubts that the United States can adequately fill this role. If China is the one to negotiate a denuclearization agreement with North Korea, then it will actively contribute to its goal of being recognized as a great power and legitimize its role as a responsible member of the international community. For such a plan to be successful, China needs to be convinced that the potential benefits of gaining international respect outweigh the potential benefits of supporting Kim Jong-un’s regime. By assuring PRC leadership that its quest for regional preeminence will not jeopardize domestic order and stability, China may be convinced to sacrifice its alliance with North Korea in exchange for international peace.

DISCLAIMER CLAUSE: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

[1] Priyanka Boghani, “The U.S. and North Korea on the Brink: A Timeline,” Frontline, October 4, 2017, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/the-u-s-and-north-korea-on-the-brink-a-timeline/.

[2] Joshua Berlinger and Taehoon Lee, “Nuclear test conducted by North Korea, country claims; South Korea responds with drills,” CNN, September 4, 2017, http://edition.cnn.com/2017/09/03/asia/north-korea-nuclear-test/index.html.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Somini Sengupta, “After U.S. Compromise, Security Council Strengthens North Korea Sanctions,” New York Times, September 11, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/11/world/asia/us-security-council-north-korea.html.

[5] Eleanor Albert, “What to Know about the Sanctions on North Korea,” Council on Foreign Relations, January 3, 2018, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-know-about-sanctions-north-korea.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Alison Branley, “China’s been accused of transferring oil to North Korea, but is unlikely to face harsh penalties,” ABC News, December 29, 2017, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-12-29/china-oil-accusation-shows-un-sanctions-are-hard-to-enforce/9293112.

[8] “China says no sanction-breaking oil sales to North Korea,” Reuters, December 28, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-missiles-china/china-says-no-sanction-breaking-oil-sales-to-north-korea-idUSKBN1EM0TK.

[9] Christine Kim and Jane Chung, “North Korea 2016 economic growth at 17-year high despite sanctions: South Korea,” Reuters, July 21, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-economy-gdp/north-korea-2016-economic-growth-at-17-year-high-despite-sanctions-south-korea-idUSKBN1A607Z.

[10] Timothy R. Heath et al., “The PLA and China’s Rejuvenation: National Security, and Military Strategies, Deterrence concepts, and Combat Capabilities,” RAND Corporation (2016): viii, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR1400/RR1402/RAND_RR1402.pdf.

[11] “China’s Current Security Strategy: Features and Implications,” RAND Corporation, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1121/mr1121.ch4.pdf.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Eleanor Albert, “The China-North Korea Relationship,” Council on Foreign Relations,  September 27, 2017, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/china-north-korea-relationship.

[14] Chinese Communism Subject Archive. Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance Between the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. July 11, 1961.

[15] Albert, “The China-North Korea Relationship.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] Jane Perlez, “North Korea’s Nuclear Arsenal Threatens China’s Path to Power,” New York Times, September 5, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/05/world/asia/north-korea-nuclear-weapons-china.html.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Shi Jiangtao, “North Korea’s Kim Jong-un ‘snubs’ China in failure to repay diplomatic favour,” South China Morning Post, November 21, 2017, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2120939/north-koreas-kim-jong-un-snubs-china-failure-repay.

[20] Frances Martel, “China Assures North Korea Military Drills Near Border Not Directed At Them,” Breitbart.com, November 30, 2017, http://www.breitbart.com/national-security/2017/11/30/china-assures-north-korea-military-drills-border/.

[21] Steven Lee Myers and Jane Perlez, “Kim Jong-un Met With Xi Jinping in Secret Beijing Visit,” New York Times, March 27, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/27/world/asia/kim-jong-un-china-north-korea.html.

[22] Jane Perlez, “Kim’s Second Surprise Visit to China Heightens Diplomatic Drama,” New York Times, May 8, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/world/asia/kim-jong-un-xi-jinping-china-north-korea.html.

Good pieces need to be seen.


Joey Ching 程鳳

Joey Ching 程鳳

Joey Ching is from Kailua, Hawaii. She is a graduate from the US Air Force Academy, where she studied Political Science and Chinese. As a Fulbright Scholar, she graduated from the International Master's Program in International Studies at National Chengchi University, where she wrote her thesis on US-North Korea relations and deterrence strategy. She currently serves as a 1st Lieutenant in the US Air Force. 

Explore more

Research & Reflections

fulbright taiwan online journal