North Korea Doesn’t Trust China to Protect It

Pyongyang will never accept the shelter of another power’s nuclear umbrella.

Young people attend a mass gathering denouncing defectors at the Pyongyang Youth Park Open-Air Theater in Pyongyang on June 6.
Young people attend a mass gathering denouncing defectors at the Pyongyang Youth Park Open-Air Theater in Pyongyang on June 6. Kim Won Jin/AFP via Getty Images

When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping met for the first time in March 2018, the official topics of discussion were predictable: peace, denuclearization, industry, economic development, and deepening North Korea-China relations. That’s unsurprising for two countries that are each other’s only formal treaty allies and have been for decades. But the relationship is far more taut than public displays indicate. North Korea is happy to have Beijing on its side. But it’s never going to be willing to put its ultimate security in China’s hands. Nowhere is this more important than in denuclearization. The United States has been able to pressure allies, such as South Korea and Taiwan, out of the possibility of nuclear programs in the past, thanks to offers of protection—whether the ambiguous guarantees to Taiwan or the formal shelter of the U.S. nuclear umbrella offered to Japan and others. That makes the idea of a Chinese nuclear umbrella over North Korea an attractive and legitimate avenue for denuclearization—but one that Pyongyang itself will never agree to.

China and North Korea share ideological roots, and Beijing laid the foundation for an enduring alliance when it came to North Korea’s aid during the Korean War. But there are key differences between the North Korea-China alliance and the United States’ alliances with South Korea and Japan that make the creation of a Chinese nuclear umbrella over the North highly unlikely. Any offer would directly clash with three critical North Korean concerns in policymaking: adherence to the ideology of juche (“self-reliance”), economic entwinement with China, and maintaining nuclear leverage.

Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, dictated that juche become a guiding principle in North Korean life and policymaking in response to the country’s volatile geopolitical environment in the early 1960s. His son Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s father, further operationalized juche ideology, ensuring its longevity as a centralizing concept. Juche ideology maintains that North Korea uphold independence and self-reliance in domestic and foreign-policy making, economic development, and military defense.

North Korean leaders viewed independence and self-reliance as increasingly crucial as their asymmetric relationships with allies remained inconsistent. When juche was introduced, North Korea was at odds with the Soviet Union and China. Simultaneously, North Korea was heavily dependent on Chinese and Soviet aid for economic stability and national security. This was unsettling for North Korean policymakers. How could North Korea maintain its sovereignty while economically and militarily dependent on those with opposing interests?

Historically, Chinese empires took a frequent interest in Korean territory. Modern China’s interests have also directly collided with North Korea’s on various occasions, with heavy consequences for bilateral relations. China took operational command during the Korean War, raising tensions between North Korean and Chinese military officers. China threatened military action against North Korea during the Cultural Revolution. China reinterpreted its mutual defense treaty with North Korea to relieve itself of the responsibility of defending its neighbor if North Korea attacked first. China supported sanctions against North Korea. China isn’t an exception to juche—it’s one of the key reasons it exists. Pyongyang fears capricious allies as well as clear adversaries.

Even North Korea’s strong economic relationship with China provides, paradoxically, an additional roadblock to a Chinese nuclear umbrella.

North Korea wants to reprioritize economic development through its byungjin (“parallel growth”) policy, which balances military and economic development. Kim Jong Un’s visit to an economic and technological development zone in Beijing in January 2019 supports this idea. North Korea has already shown a predilection toward economic development zones, which are a key component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese government officials have long complained in private of the North’s unwillingness to follow them in market reforms, so such steps are welcomed by Beijing.

Furthermore, the Observatory of Economic Complexity estimates that in 2018 China accounted for 62.5 percent of North Korea’s exports and a staggering 95.7 percent of its imports, making China the country’s top trading partner. China continues to support the North Korean economy despite sanctions and has advocated for the reduction of economic sanctions amid denuclearization talks.

However, a strong economic relationship does not imply North Korean willingness or pliability toward accepting a stronger security relationship. Quite the opposite, in fact: Pyongyang’s awareness of its economic dependence makes it even keener to maintain security independence. North Korea’s economic reliance on China is necessitated by sanctions that prevent the development of extensive economic relations with other nations. A lack of prospects for North Korean trade diversification increases vulnerability to Chinese interference in North Korean affairs.

COVID-19’s impact on the North Korean economy is a strong example of this vulnerability. North Korea shut its border with China in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in January. As reported by Daily NK, this resulted in a 91.3 percent year-on-year trade reduction with China in March, causing price instability and staple food unavailability.

For North Korea, China’s economic influence is doubly concerning as Beijing has previously weaponized economic dependence for political aims, as in its response to South Korea’s deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system. South Korea agreed to deploy THAAD on land donated by Lotte Group, a South Korean multinational company, despite China’s objections. In response, China prevented Lotte operations within its borders and sponsored state-led boycotts on South Korean goods and tourism, costing the South Korean economy an estimated 0.5 percent in GDP.

Finally, North Korea wants to be viewed as an independent sovereign nation with complete control to pursue its national security interests as it sees fit. Nuclear weapons play a significant role in North Korea’s engagement with the international community and in meeting its desire for international recognition.

Prior to becoming a nuclear threat, North Korea’s overtures to initiate communication with the United States often went unanswered. It was challenging for North Korea to engage a global superpower with opposing interests on the Korean Peninsula when it lacked military force. Nuclear weapons allowed North Korea to contend with the overwhelming conventional military forces of the United States and South Korea. They have allowed North Korea to communicate on more equal footing with the United States, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia.

Despite sanctions and isolation, North Korea has been surprisingly successful at leveraging its nuclear weapons for domestic and international political aims. In the 1990s, North Korea leveraged its nuclear weapons program to obtain food, energy, and economic aid from the United States, South Korea, Japan, and China. This was during a time when North Korea was in steep economic decline and faced a severe famine.

Domestically, nuclear weapons are a legitimizing and stabilizing force for the Kim regime. The Korean People’s Army (KPA) is the military arm of the North Korean government and one of its most powerful institutions. North Korea’s songun (“military-first”) policy was implemented to strengthen national resolve and ensure North Korea could contend with its military adversaries. The successful development of nuclear weapons under Kim Jong Un is the culmination of Kim Jong Il’s songun policy. This legitimizes the Kim regime by showing domestic political players, such as the KPA, the results of long-term national sacrifices. North Korea doesn’t just want to be safe. It wants to be safe on its own terms—and it will never accept swapping the guaranteed clout of its own nuclear weapons for the uncertain shelter of a Chinese offer.

Monet Stokes is a graduate of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Tsinghua University. She focuses on policy, economics, and culture in East Asia.

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