Relations between China and North Korea have been going through a seeming strained phase especially in the wake of Chinese economic and strategic interests being jeopardized by Pyongyang’s confrontation with the US which could lead to hostilities between the two countries. The North Korean state media recently issued a stinging denunciation of China, which has been an unabashed friend, saying Beijing should be grateful for North Korea’s protection. The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) carried a commentary warning of “grave consequences” if China tests its patience further. The Chinese have doubtlessly been getting increasingly exasperated by North Korea’s nuclear antics, fearing a regional crisis. At the same time, seeing how trigger-happy President Trump is, it is conscious that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s provocations could lead to war in its neighbourhood.
When in February last China had announced the suspension of coal imports from the North for the rest of the year, a crucial foreign currency earner for the authorities, there was much consternation in Pyongyang. Recent Chinese moves to rein in North Korea on US goading have irritated the North Koreans further. The Chinese state-run media has called for harsher sanctions against the North in the event of a fresh atomic test, urging Pyongyang to “avoid making mistakes at this time,” and spoken of the need for it to abandon its nuclear programmes. The KCNA in turn denounced the “reckless remarks” and said nothing will shake Pyongyang’s determination. “We will never beg for the maintenance of friendship with China, risking our nuclear programme” said its commentary. The fact that Kim Jong-Un has yet to visit Beijing, more than five years after taking power is not a reassuring signal for China’s ties with North Korea. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week warned the United Nations Security Council of “catastrophic consequences” if the international community — most notably China — failed to pressure the North into abandoning its weapons programme. But Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi brushed aside Mr. Tillerson’s comments, saying that “the key to solving the nuclear issue on the peninsula does not lie in the hands of the Chinese side.”
North Korea, which has thus far done 90 per cent of its trade with China, is now looking at Russia as a limited alternative if Beijing imposes economic sanctions against it due to its nuclear programme. Though trade with Russia has not increased, there are signs of business and transport links between the two countries getting stronger. Yet, there is a chance that the China-North Korea strains in ties may be more make-believe than real to befool the Americans and the world at large.