Written by Brian Benedictus.

When it comes to the level of trust and friendship between China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea or DPRK), it is clear that the relationship has hit rocky times in recent years. By contrast, China-Republic of Korea (South Korea or ROK) ties have warmed gradually over the past decade, placing China in the increasingly difficult position of balancing its relationship with its long-time Korean partner to the north and its growing friendship with the Korea in the south.

In recent years, actions undertaken by leadership in Pyongyang has pushed China’s patience to the brink. In early 2013, North Korea conducted its third nuclear weapon’s test against strong push pack from China, which saw the test as threatening the region’s stability. It also showed Beijing’s inability to prevent its strategic partner from undertaking such a provocative action. Last December, ties became further strained when China’s closest link in North Korea, former vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission, Jang Song Thaek, was accused of corruption and executed soon thereafter. The relationship once described by Mao Zedong as close “as lips and teeth” is clearly at one of its lowest points in history. Dr. Andrei Lankov, a Professor and historian at Kookmin University in Seoul, stated recently that “currently we see a gradual deterioration of Sino-DPRK relations, largely initiated by the North Korean side.” He also stated that “for China, North Korea is a trouble-maker whose adventurism occasionally puts China’s long-term interests at risk and whose disregard for the Chinese warnings is remarkable.” It is worth noting that there were over 40 senior level exchanges  between the two countries from 2009 to 2012, but the number during 2013 and 2014 dropped to just two.

China’s bilateral ties with South Korea have seen marked improvement in recent years. Xi Jinping’s summer meeting in Seoul with President Park Geun-hye marked the first time a Chinese leader visited South Korea prior to first visiting North Korea. The focal point of the relationship is the intensity of growing economic ties between the two countries, which has seen trade move from merely $6.37 billion in 1992 to over $200 billion in 2011. While South Korea’s trade volume with China is larger than its combined trade with Japan and the United States, a free trade agreement is expected to be ratified by the two countries later this month, which will only further cement ties between Beijing and Seoul. There are, however, some hard truths that all three countries realize when defining their respective bilateral relationships.

Simply put, Chinese trade and aid with North Korea will be maintained at least under current levels for the foreseeable future. For China, maintaining regional stability is paramount in the region. Any sudden government collapse in the DPRK could result in a heavy influx of North Korean refugees across border into China’s Jilin and Liaoning Provinces, resulting in a humanitarian crisis that Beijing would be stretched to manage. And while speculation has run rampant on the possibility of the two countries decreasing economic ties, the reality is that trade between them has been steadily increasing in recent years. In 2013 trade between China and North Korea grew by more than ten percent from 2012 levels to $6.5 billion. And while Chinese grain exports to the DPRK have decreased in recent years, this is due to a relatively stable North Korean economy and higher yielding domestic harvests, not geopolitical wrangling between the two states. Some observers also pointed to the apparent absence of Chinese shipments of crude oil to North Korea for the first seven months of this year, yet there were no reports of serious fuel shortages in the country. However, Yonhap news agency in South Korea reported that “…diplomatic sources with knowledge of the matter cautioned against reading too much into the official trade figures because China has been providing crude oil to North Korea in the form of grant aid and such shipments have not been recorded on paper.”

While the North Korean leadership has lashed out with a multitude of diatribes aimed at Beijing over the past year, the DPRK understands that China is its most reliable (and indispensable) friend. North Korea currently relies on China for nearly 90% of its energy imports and 60% of its total trade. Although it has looked recently to Russia, Japan, and even the European Union for economic alternatives, none of them would be willing to give Pyongyang an economic arrangement in the form that it currently enjoys with China. Since 1995, Beijing has allowed Pyongyang to run average annual deficits of nearly $358 million, which essentially China writes off as aid to the country. Pyongyang is also able to distribute Chinese food aid directly to its military, as such aid does not require distributional oversight as much of North Korea’s previous arrangements with international organizations have had,  thus reinforcing its Songun (military first) policy to maintain support of its vast military. North Korea’s primary export to China come from its vast and largely untapped mineral reserves. The reserves, which include anthracite and iron ore, provides North Korea’s leadership with a vital source of income, as most other countries currently do not trade on a large scale with the DPRK due to embargo restrictions.

Finally, while Beijing won’t sell off its “diplomatic stock” with the DPRK, it is increasingly diversifying its political capital into South Korea. In March, Beijing and Seoul announced  during the Xi-Park meeting that “…both sides are committed to realizing the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and hope to maintain peace and stability on the peninsula.” Beijing also seems to be taking the possibility of a ROK-led Korean unification more seriously, and doesn’t want to see the United States being the only major player whispering in Seoul’s ear if that time comes. Last year, in a major shift, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (which is under the direct control of the State Council) stated in a report that Korean reunification would become the focus of cross-border relations in the future and stressed the need to quiet concerns that China would continue to support North Korea under any circumstances. The report also stated that during informal discussions with South Korean officials, Chinese officials apparently have shown a keen interest in the prospects of reunification.

There are obstacles, however, that will test the limits of exactly how far and fast PRC-ROK relations can develop. Beijing must understand that South Korea has to maintain a delicate balance between its economic interests with China and its vital security relationship with the United States. Many South Koreans are also suspicious of Chinese motives in  deepening ties with their country, and often such negative thoughts stem from China’s long-standing relationship with the DPRK. In a 2012 poll, over two-thirds (68.1%) of South Koreans held negative views towards the China-North Korea relationship. For its part, China must realize that if it wants to be seen as a responsible actor in the region, it cannot continue to support North Korea unconditionally. It does appear that Beijing is aware of the high reputational costs that its relationship with the DPRK poses. With each step that China takes in order to distance itself from its long-time ally, the likelihood that the regime in Pyongyang collapses increases. For China, this balance is vital to its regional interests, and its approaches to both North and South Korea will be in a constant state of transition and change for the foreseeable future.

Brian Benedictus is a Washington D.C.-based foreign policy analyst specializing in East Asian security issues. He is also an Asia-Pacific Desk analyst for Wikistrat. Brian owns the blog Warm Oolong Tea. Image Credit: CC by Roman Harak/Flickr.