Strengthening China-North Korea ties sets back denuclearization efforts

China and North Korea have begun strengthening their ties on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the two countries’ defense treaty. Moves that go against the international community’s efforts to denuclearize North Korea are unacceptable.

The Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance stipulates that if either China or North Korea came under armed attack and war broke out, the other would immediately provide military assistance. It can be seen as a symbol of the close relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang, which has been dubbed a “blood alliance” as they fought together against the United States in the Korean War.

The treaty has significant meaning, especially for North Korea, as it can be used as a strong card to keep the United States at bay. If the United States launches an attack on North Korea, the treaty provides the grounds for China to automatically intervene. Therefore, the treaty is believed to be a deterrent against U.S. attacks.

The Chinese and North Korean leaders exchanged congratulatory messages and presented a friendly front. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said that challenges and obstructive moves from hostile forces have become more desperate, while Chinese President Xi Jinping called for greater cooperation with North Korea.

The remarks may be a sign of their shared stance of countering pressure from the U.S. side. China also aims to show the United States that it has a certain degree of influence over North Korea.

The problem is that China’s conciliatory stance has provided a loophole in sanctions against North Korea, hampering efforts to resolve the country’s nuclear and missile issues.

An expert panel of the U.N. Security Council’s Sanctions Committee, which monitors the implementation of sanctions, has pointed out that coal has been exported from North Korea to China and other countries, which is prohibited under U.N. resolutions.

China also reportedly continues to allow North Korean workers to be employed in the country, although U.N. resolutions call for such workers to be sent back to their country.

Coal exports and migrant labor are believed to be a source of foreign currency for North Korea, which it uses to fund its nuclear and missile development programs. It is only natural that the United States has criticized China for seeking to effectively undo U.N. sanctions.

A series of sanctions against North Korea have been adopted by the U.N. Security Council, including China, and are legally binding. As a permanent member of the Security Council, China must take the initiative and fulfill its responsibility to implement the resolutions.

Dialogue between the United States and North Korea regarding Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program has stalled. China has urged the United States to consider North Korea’s demand to lift the sanctions. North Korea’s selfish behavior will not change if China keeps acting as Pyongyang’s spokesperson.

If the issue is left unaddressed, the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs will increase, inevitably leading to instability in East Asia. Xi should recognize that the national interests of China, which values regional stability, will also be harmed.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on July 16, 2021.