|North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Yonhap)|
Once called “as close as lips and teeth,” the bilateral ties are being reshaped into a normal state-to-state relationship amid Beijing’s growing discontent over the North’s nuclear adventurism and provocative moves, observers said.
“China-DPRK relations are, in the final analysis, state-to-state relations, which are regulated by the basic norms of international relations that all must abide by,” Beijing’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a recent interview with The Financial Times.
“Yet, as neighbors, the two countries have interacted a lot, which is all very natural.”
Under the direction of the third-generation despot Kim Jong-un, Pyongyang has defied a series of Beijing’s warnings by firing off a long-range rocket in December 2012 and conducting a third nuclear test last February.
Pyongyang’s saber-ratting has led to a strengthening of the South Korea-U.S. alliance, which has raised pressure on China to do more to encourage its provocative ally to behave well.
The latest setback for the Beijing-Pyongyang relations was the abrupt execution of Jang Song-thaek, the once-powerful uncle of the North Korean ruler, last December for plotting to overthrow the regime. Jang has served as a critical conduit for the two countries to maintain economic and political cooperation.
Apparently underscoring the strained relations, Wang Junsheng, a researcher at the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that Beijing should send an unequivocal signal to Pyongyang that it could be abandoned.
“A clear signal should be sent to Pyongyang that although it is a geographical asset for China, it could be abandoned for China to protect a greater national interest of securing peninsular stability, should the North repeat its aberrant behavior including nuclear tests,” he said in a report on the development of the Asia-Pacific for 2014.
But the researcher cautioned against Seoul misunderstanding that there may be a fundamental change in Beijing’s policy toward North Korea.
With China grapping with a plethora of domestic and external challenges, the ascendant power has prioritized stability on the Korean Peninsula.
The challenges facing the Xi Jinping government include escalating territorial disputes with neighboring states, income disparities, a slowing economy, an economic divide between inland and coastal areas, rural development, political corruption and increasing popular demands for political participation.
Suh Jin-young, professor emeritus at Korea University, said that Beijing and Pyongyang no longer seem to have good chemistry given that the former has adopted a new way of thinking in line with its international stature and international norms, while the isolated regime has stuck with its outmoded governing system.
“The way of thinking in Beijing and Pyongyang is very different now. China’s fifth-generation leadership, led by Xi Jinping, may think of the recent execution of Jang Song-thaek as a horrendous event that could happen only during the Mao or Stalin era,” he said.
“So the sense of kinship between Beijing and Pyongyang has been dissipating, while psychologically, the Chinese leadership has more affinity toward South Korea. But China may not give up or slight the North as it still has some strategic value.”
China’s so-called fifth-generation leaders are thought to be less ideologically skewed as they experienced the perils of ideological extremism during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, a notorious movement to enforce communism by removing all traces of capitalism.
With many of them having received education in the humanities and benefited from the country’s economic reform and openness, the latest leadership in Beijing is also seen as more flexible and adaptive to outside changes ― attributes hardly seen in the North Korean leadership.
Suh also pointed out that Beijing would keep an “equal-distance” diplomacy toward the two Koreas as Seoul emerges as a crucial partner in various realms including the economy and tourism.
“There are increasing signs of the Sino-North Korea relationship changing into just a strategic partnership rather than the fraternal communist relationship once said to be ‘forged in blood.’ But Beijing has sought much closer ties with Seoul,” he said.
“By keeping the equal distances with the two Koreas, Beijing apparently seeks to maintain influence over both of them.”
Despite the long-standing bilateral relations that were forged 65 years ago, Pyongyang has harbored some level of distrust toward its biggest patron as it has held a subordinate position while Beijing has sought closer ties with Seoul.
The North’s hard feelings toward its only major ally seriously worsened when China formed diplomatic ties with the South in 1992. They further deteriorated when Beijing was not active enough in helping the North when it was hit by a devastating famine in the mid-1990s, observers said.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)