‘Lips and Teeth’: The Enduring China-North Korea Relationship

Publication: China Brief Volume: 21 Issue: 16

Image: From left to right, Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan, Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un and North Korean first lady Ri Sol-ju attend a gymnastics and art performance in Pyongyang during a state visit on June 20, 2019. (Source: Xinhua).


The leaders of China and North Korea marked the 60th anniversary of the China-North Korea Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance (Peking Review, July 11, 1961) on July 11, and pledged to renew the treaty for another 20 years (UPI, July 7). “Despite the unprecedentedly complicated international situation in recent years the comradely trust and militant friendship between the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] and China get stronger day by day,” North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un said in his message to Chinese President Xi Jinping. In a reference to the U.S., he also highlighted that the “hostile forces become more desperate in their challenge and obstructive moves” (Rodong Sinmun, July 11). Although many aspects of the notoriously opaque China-North Korea relationship are difficult to judge, the fluctuating bilateral ties recently appear to be on a firmer footing, driven by an alignment of interests, growing tensions with the U.S., and an increased emphasis on shared ideological roots.

Xi said that the signing of the treaty was a “far-sighted strategic decision,” and that he was ready to work with Kim to “strengthen strategic communication, chart the course for the China-DPRK relationship and lift the friendly cooperation between the two countries to new levels” (PRC MFA, July 11). Although the treaty serves as a firm legal basis for their friendship, its renewal was not a certainty as bilateral relations were seemingly going astray until recently. Kim’s much publicized visit in March 2018 to Beijing seemed to have put Sino-North Korean ties back on track after what had appeared to be a gradual drifting apart of the two traditional allies. Since then, the two countries have increased their public displays of friendship and camaraderie, but underlying mistrust of the other side’s motives and commitment towards the alliance remains.

Aspects of the treaty, in particular Article II, which compels Beijing to provide “mutual assistance” to Pyongyang in the event of an “armed attack,” had led some to wonder if Beijing might seek to modify its language. A debate has been underway in China for some time about whether the treaty—born under different circumstances and originally aimed at balancing against the Soviet Union—is becoming “outdated” and increasing the risk for Beijing to be drawn into an unnecessary conflict (Global Times, May 3, 2017; NK News, July 10).

Nevertheless, the treaty’s renewal shows that for now the motivations underlying close ties are stronger than those fostering divisions. North Korea confronts multiple challenges including COVID-19, sanctions and food shortages arising from a spate of extreme weather and natural disasters (Aljazeera, August 8), and it is expected to rely on China for greater support. Beijing, for its part, sees preventing a North Korean collapse as crucial to its security interests.

Deep-Rooted Ties

The Sino-North Korean relationship, often described as being “as close as lips and teeth,” goes back decades, with formal diplomatic ties being established in 1949. The two also fought together in the 1950-53 Korean War. Since then, China has provided political and economic support to sustain the North Korea regime. But the relationship has seen periods of turmoil, particularly in the 1990s when Pyongyang was upset over Beijing’s decision to normalize ties with Seoul. In 2001, the two countries restored high-level exchanges with then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s visit to North Korea.

North Korea’s test of a nuclear weapon in October 2006 and China’s subsequent endorsement of UN sanctions on Pyongyang again put a strain on their relationship. Beijing clearly signaled that it would not hesitate to punish Pyongyang for ignoring its appeals to not disturb peace on the Korean peninsula (Global Times, February 17, 2013). Over the years, North Korea’s repeated nuclear and missile tests have taken place despite China’s disapproval, and Beijing’s continued support for sanctions against Pyongyang also added to the deterioration in relations. Kim and Xi did not meet for several years, fueling suggestions about relations being frosty between the two countries.

China’s approach towards resolving the North Korea nuclear issue has evolved from advocating for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks to proposing the “double suspension” idea, which calls for North Korea to suspend all nuclear tests and the U.S. to halt its annual military drills with the South (Xinhua, March 8, 2017).[1] However, despite Beijing’s repeated insistence, the proposal did not manage to gain much traction. As South Korea and the U.S. took on a larger role to resolve the North Korea crisis after Pyongyang’s diplomatic outreach in 2018, many analysts said that Beijing was being marginalized (Global Times, May 28, 2018).

In March 2018, Kim’s first foreign visit since taking office in 2011 was to China, putting to rest theories about China losing its influence over North Korea. The two leaders have met four more times since then: in May 2018, June 2018, January 2019 and June 2019. The most recent meeting took place in Pyongyang, marking the first time that a Chinese leader visited North Korea since 2005 (Xinhua, June 20, 2019). The momentum of improved ties has been maintained with a flurry of messages, letters and meetings between officials.

Shared Mutual Interests and a Marriage of Convenience

The core component that underpins the relationship remains shared mutual interests, encompassing economic cooperation, geopolitical concerns and strategic rationale. Although there has been a recent decline in trade flows, China remains by far the largest economic and aid partner of North Korea. Informal trade across the porous border between the two countries has also become a crucial aspect of the bilateral relationship. Up until the COVID-19 pandemic, China-North Korea trade rose steadily from 2000, peaking at $6.86 billion in 2014. Although sanctions caused trade to plummet in 2018, Chinese exports to the DPRK climbed back up in 2019. But in 2020, Sino-North Korea trade tumbled 80 percent due to public health-related border restrictions as well as ongoing sanctions (Yonhap, February 12; 38North, February 25, 2020).

Geopolitical imperatives also dictate the two neighbors’ close relations, with China being one of the very few allies that the North Korean regime has in the face of Western pressure and sanctions. For China, its interest in sustaining the North Korean regime is more strategic than economic. It is deeply worried about the possibility of a unified Korean Peninsula under the leadership of Seoul, which is aligned with the U.S. A buffer state with close links to China is crucial to maintaining a regional strategic balance.

Further, regional stability is of particular interest to Beijing, which fears that being dragged into a spiral of conflict or chaos in the DPRK would result in political, social and economic upheaval inside China. While the Chinese certainly would prefer that North Korea not have nuclear weapons, their greatest fear remains regime collapse. Beijing also aims to ensure that it remains a significant party in the negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program.

Ideological Bonds: ‘Comrades-in-Arms’

Recent trends suggest that the growing bonhomie between the two countries is being increasingly guided by common principles of revolutionary socialism and shared animosity towards the U.S. The ratcheting up of tensions between Beijing and Washington has had the unintended effect of bringing China and North Korea closer. Beijing and Pyongyang both increasingly see themselves engaged in a long-running ideological competition with the West, and the leaders of the two countries consistently reinforce this viewpoint in their public remarks.

For example, during his June 2019 visit to Pyongyang, Xi Jinping said that, “We will pass down the China-North Korea friendship from generation to generation, consolidate and develop the two countries’ socialist cause, better enrich our citizens and advance regional peace, stability, development and prosperity” (The Korea Times, June 21, 2019). Kim said during the same meeting that the “invincible DPRK-China friendship will be immortal on the road of accomplishing the cause of socialism” (KCNA, October 6, 2019).

Strong ideological bonds between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) have also played a role in strengthening the alliance. Both countries have sought to amplify their shared history in the Korean War, emphasizing a friendship that has been “forged in blood” and reinforcing the notion of two single-party Communist states united in fighting against imperialism and U.S. interventionism. In a recent letter to Xi commemorating the centenary of the CCP, Kim said that the WPK and the CCP are “true comrades and the comrades-in-arms that have shared life and death in the protracted struggle for opposing imperialism and building socialism, writing the proud history of friendship” (Global Times, July 1).

Meanwhile, state media in both countries has pushed propaganda extolling the two communist countries’ socialist ties and shared opposition to the U.S. “As imperialists now have united and are plotting to isolate and crush socialist countries, it is required of North Korea and China to further develop their friendly relations based on the spirit and principles of the bilateral treaty,” said the Rodong Sinmun, which is the official newspaper of the WPK, said recently (Yonhap, July 11).

North Korean officials have also come to the defense of China as it faced mounting international criticism over actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, North Korean Ambassador to China Ji Jae-ryong said that the U.S. has openly smeared the CCP and the country’s socialist system, constantly agitating China-U.S. relations, which then turned into a confrontation of ideologies and systems (Global Times, July 3). Pyongyang appears to be signaling to China that it will publicly back Beijing against the U.S. on criticisms of domestic and international issues. In June, the two countries’ envoys stressed the importance of bilateral relationship in coordinated rare opinion pieces published in their respective host country’s state media to mark the second anniversary of Xi’s trip to Pyongyang (PRC Embassy in the DPRK, June 21; The Paper, June 21).


Both interests and ideology are driving the two countries together, and their traditional alliance is likely to solidify further with the Sino-U.S. rivalry as a key factor. In a message to Xi last month, Kim said that it is “the fixed stand” of his government to “ceaselessly develop the friendly and cooperative relations” between the countries (Rodong Sinmun, July 11). In another exchange, Xi pledged efforts to “defend, consolidate and develop” relations with North Korea, while Kim said that he will push to elevate the two countries’ ties to a “new strategic point” (Yonhap, July 30).

The contemporary status of the bilateral relationship should be seen through the framework of the simmering U.S.-China strategic rivalry. Under this dynamic, China and North Korea will likely remain steadfast allies despite the ebbs and flows in their relations. Zheng Jiyong (郑继永), director of the Korean Studies Center at Fudan University, has said that the ties between China and North Korea will not be severed but will instead grow stronger, adding that “wishful thinking held by some Western elites and observers who expect China-North Korea ties to split has collapsed” (Global Times, July 11).

The Biden administration has reiterated the long-held view that the U.S. and China have a common interest in the nuclear disarmament of North Korea, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken noting that Pyongyang is also a concern for Beijing as it represents a regional “source of instability” (South China Morning Post, March 18). But Washington should not count on support from Beijing to help end North Korea’s nuclear program; indeed, China’s incentives for doing so appear to be shrinking. Instead, Beijing may become even more reluctant to enforce sanctions and use its supposed leverage over Pyongyang to persuade Kim to adhere to international norms and laws.

China has recently stepped up calls for international sanctions on North Korea to be lifted and accused the U.S. of stoking regional tensions after it held talks to conduct military exercises with South Korea. “Given that North Korea has already stopped nuclear and long-range missile tests, its legitimate concerns should be addressed. An effective way to resolve the current deadlock is to lift sanctions imposed on North Korea by the United Nations Security Council,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said earlier this month (South China Morning Post, August 7).

The economic troubles caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and sanctions against North Korea as well as worsening food shortages are likely to further push Pyongyang into Beijing’s orbit. Fearing a humanitarian disaster on its border, China has already said it is “ready to positively consider” providing assistance to Pyongyang if needed (PRC MFA, June 30).

At the same time, suspicion and mistrust will continue to cloud the relationship. North Korea has shown no signs of abandoning its nuclear missile program, which irks China. For China, even a troublesome partnership with North Korea has strategic value, although recent warm ties would be at risk again if Pyongyang were to resume nuclear or long-range missile testing. Kim fears China gaining too much leverage through deepening economic and trade links, but he has skillfully managed the asymmetric relationship so far, constraining Beijing’s ability to influence Pyongyang.

Under the changing geopolitical landscape, China has shown itself willing to take the hit on its international reputation that comes with supporting North Korea as a fair price to pay to put pressure on Washington, and perhaps even begrudgingly accept a nuclear North Korea.

Pratik Jakhar is an East Asia specialist at BBC Monitoring, with over eight years of experience covering the region. He has written extensively on China and North Korea’s foreign relations, security issues, domestic politics and economic policy.


[1] For more on this, see Jayshree Bajoria, Beina Xu; “Backgrounder: The Six Party Talks on North Korea’s Nuclear Program.” CFR, 2013,https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/six-party-talks-north-koreas-nuclear-program.