In the wake of North Korea’s recent rocket test and its threat to restart its nuclear programme, the international community is now banking on the isolated country’s closest ally China to get Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table. But China is caught between two camps. After some tussling, it agreed to sign the UN Security Council’s condemnation of the rocket launch but it refuses to criticise its communist neighbour outright.
The China Korea Friendship Bridge connects the city of Dandong in China with the city of Sinuiju in North Korea
China and North Korea -- two communist brothers -- are linked not only by their common border but by a long-lasting friendship. At an emergency UN Security Council meeting called in the wake of North Korea’s rocket test in early April, China and Russia used their vetoes to refuse any more sanctions being imposed on North Korea.
"China is North Korea’s main trading partner,” explains Jin Canrong, a North Korea expert at Beijing’s People’s University.
“It is the biggest investor there and is North Korea’s most important energy supplier. Basically, if there are new sanctions they will also affect China. China will have the biggest burden because Japan, the US and Russia have very few trade relations. Moreover, such a measure would damage political relations between North Korea and China.“
Acting out of own security interests
But above all China is protective of North Korea because of its own security interests. North Korea acts as a form of buffer between China and South Korea, which has the protective hand of the United States. A US attack on North Korea would be catastrophic for China.
"If North Korea were to fall apart,” predicts Jin Canrong, “one to two million refugees would probably stream over the border. That would be a heavy burden for China if they took them. If they didn’t take them, China would be accused of violating human rights. The other aspect is regional. If South Korean or US troops march into North Korea then there will be a security problem in China.”“
In such a case, the world’s number one super power -- the US -- would have troops right on China’s border. China would have to rethink its whole military strategy.
A difficult balancing act
Therefore, China is attempting a difficult balancing act in order to avoid economic losses, refugee problems and security risks. On the one hand it wants to be a responsible member of the international community. On the other hand, it will do everything to avoid putting North Korea under pressure.
"China has a principle of non-interference in other countries’ domestic matters. If it puts pressure on North Korea then it is violating this principle,“ says Jin Canrong.
This is also how China justifies its own behaviour. If the international community criticises China because of its Tibet policy for instance, China says these are domestic matters which concern nobody else. Therefore, China will continue to push for negotiations with North Korea about its nuclear programme.
The six nation talks are aimed at making the Korean peninsula atomic weapon-free. North Korea is now refusing to take part in talks. But experts such as Jin Canrong do not think that this is Pyongyang’s last word. North Korea has shown in the past that it is quite capable of changing its behaviour.