North Korea-China Treaty of Friendship: New Implications and Current Bilateral Relations
Lee Sang-sook

Visiting Professor
Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security

I. Introduction


The year 2011 marked the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance between North Korea and China. In July 2011, Chinese Deputy Premier Zhang Dejiang visited Pyongyang to represent Beijing in celebrations of the treaty signed on July 11, 1961. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and Chinese President Hu Jintao exchanged congratulatory cables on the anniversary.


The amity pact embodies the long history of ties between the two neighboring countries and is the linchpin to their bilateral relations. The clause on “immediate intervention” in the treaty requires either country to come to the aid of the other in the event of external aggression, thereby creating a military alliance between the two nations.


Nowadays, the two countries refrain from Cold War-era rhetoric that proclaimed they were “blood-tied allies.” Instead, they now describe their relations as “traditional friendly ties.” Some Chinese pundits even assert that the treaty has virtually become ineffective. In a significant remark made in 2009, the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that Sino-North Korean bilateral relations were the kind existing between any “two normal states.” Meanwhile, North Korea no longer mentioned “military alliance” with China, claiming that it was an independent state in terms of national security.


In recent years, China has not exported military equipment to North Korea, nor has it conducted joint military exercises or exchanged military intelligence with North Korea. This led some analysts to take the extreme position of denying the existence of alliance as they noted the absence of routine events of military cooperation between the two states.


Despite these peculiarities, neither country has suggested the need to revise or repeal the friendship treaty. On its half centennial, it is important for the security of the Korean peninsula and the Northeast Asian region to review what significance the treaty has on the present bilateral relations between the two communist states. The treaty created the framework for a military alliance, but the contents of the alliance have changed since the end of the Cold War. Hence there is the need to scrutinize the nature and legal validity of the pact.


Military tension between South and North Korea remains high because of the North’s sinking of the South Korean Navy patrol craft Cheonan and artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. Therefore, further strengthening of ties between Pyongyang and Beijing will affect the overall security situation on the Korean peninsula. The perennial economic difficulties of the North have worsened in the face of the South’s refusal to provide aid, but China’s generous expansion of economic cooperation has helped ease the North’s adversity.


In October 2011, China’s Executive Vice Premier Li Keqiang, who is likely to be named the next premier, visited both Pyongyang and Seoul to discuss the resumption of the six-party talks on denuclearizing the North and other matters of common concern. This demonstrated Beijing’s intent to solidify cooperation with the next generation of the North Korean leadership just as Vice President Xi Jinping did when he visited Pyongyang in 2008.


The current interaction can be seen as moves to revitalize the past security alliance. In this regard, it is necessary to analyze the practical validity of the friendship treaty, particularly the “immediate intervention” clause of Article 2, as well as the possibility of expanding security cooperation under the provisions of the existing treaty.


This study is primarily aimed at analyzing the significance of the ongoing efforts of North Korea and China to strengthen cooperative relations under the framework of the amity treaty. Debates on the validity of the pact have either ignored the background to forming the treaty or disregarded the present situational factors. Therefore, it is necessary to review the significance of the treaty in defining the present bilateral relations, while recounting the circumstances of writing the treaty in light of the security threats confronted by the two allies after the 1950-53 Korean War.


II. The Nature of the North Korea-China Friendship Treaty


1. Significance of the Treaty


The North Korea-China Friendship Treaty of 1961 put the two countries into a typical asymmetric security alliance based on a preset system of cooperation. In an asymmetric security alliance between large and small countries, the stronger side provides security assistance for the weaker party while the weaker side accepts restrictions to its independent military activities.


An asymmetric alliance often ignites clashes of interests; the stronger country expects deference from its weaker ally but the latter seeks “autonomy” in order to pursue its interests. In this situation, the superior state is concerned that its control may be reduced if the weaker party teams up with another state or tries to bolster defense capabilities on its own. Therefore, an asymmetric alliance leads to asymmetric conflict.


Although China and North Korea formalized their security alliance in the 1961 treaty, their relations were already tantamount to an alliance during the Korean War. The two countries practically entered into a military alliance when China intervened in the war to help North Korea in 1950, just one year after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Even after the signing of an armistice agreement in 1953, the Chinese army units, which had fought in the war, remained in the North until 1958. After a complete troop withdrawal, China still continued to provide security alliance while the two countries increased cooperation in science and technology.


2. Causes of the Treaty


External and internal threats aroused the desire for the amity treaty. China, which had parted ways with the Soviet Union, needed to eliminate the possibility of renewed conflict with the United States. Hostility with the United States would be an external threat and North Korea’s provocation of South Korea an internal threat.


China was not only in conflict with the Soviets, it had a border dispute with India. Under these circumstances, Beijing pressed North Korea, North Vietnam and Mongolia for cooperation treaties to secure peace along their shared borders. Additionally, China wanted to restrain North Korea from trying to take advantage of the internal turmoil in South Korea following the student uprising on April 19, 1960 and the military coup on May 16, 1961, and triggering another war. Renewed fighting on the Korean peninsula would be detrimental to China’s security as it grappled with its own border problems. It was for this reason that China’s amity treaty with North Korea had more concrete and precise provisions than its pacts with other states.


North Korea, on the other hand, needed a cooperation treaty with China to counter the threats of South Korea-U.S. alliance. Throughout the Cold War period, North Korea felt threatened by the United States and Japan, and the 1961 military takeover in South Korea increased the North’s worries about an invasion from the South. The deepening ideological and border disputes between China and the Soviet Union added to Pyongyang’s security concerns because a military confrontation between its two largest supporters meant North Korea would have no ally to help if South Korea or the United States attacked.


Pyongyang signed a treaty of friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance with the Soviet Union in June 1961, and a similar pact with China the following month. North Korea sought generous assistance from both Beijing and Moscow while preventing abandonment by both.


3. Contents of the Treaty


Article 1 of the Sino-North Korea treaty is a declarative clause pledging efforts for the protection of world peace and security of all nations. Article 2 is a provision on mutual military assistance in the event of security threats to either party. The phrases on detailed military intervention imbue the treaty with characteristics of a pact for security alliance.


“The two parties undertake jointly to adopt all measures to prevent aggression against either party by any state,” the article says. It also provides that “in the event of one of the parties being subjected to the armed attack by any state or several states together and thus being involved in a state of war, the other party shall immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal.” The word “immediately” was inserted obviously because China did not promptly extend assistance during the Korean War.


Article 3 says: “Neither party shall conclude any alliance directed against the other party or take part in any bloc or in any action or measure directed against the other party.” This clause has the effect of restricting diplomatic activities of each other to forestall cooperation with capitalist states. Yet, there are little grounds to support the interpretation that this article was purposed to preclude North Korea’s cooperation with the Soviet Union in actions directed against China. By this time North Korea already had concluded a similar treaty for security cooperation with the Soviet Union.


Article 4 provides that the two states will continue to consult with each other on all important international issues of common interest. Article 5 says that the two states, under the principles of mutual respect for sovereignty, non-intervention in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and in the spirit of friendly cooperation, will continue to provide each other with every possible economic and technological assistance, and continue to consolidate and develop economic, cultural, and scientific and technological cooperation. This provision clarifies that the treaty is not confined to a security alliance but concerns cooperation in multiple areas.


Article 6 refers to reunification of the Korean peninsula. It provides that “the unification of Korea should be realized along peaceful and democratic lines” and that “such a solution accords exactly with the national interests of the Korean people and the aim of preserving peace in the Far East.” This article seems to have fully reflected Pyongyang’s position.


Article 7 says that the treaty takes effect upon the exchange of the documents of ratification and will continue to remain in force until both parties agree on its amendment or termination. The article suggests the treaty will remain valid for a considerable time.


All in all, the North Korea-China Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance was the diplomatic documentation of the “blood-tied alliance” established during the Korean War. It contains more concrete provisions compared to the North Korea-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance.

III. The Changing Nature of the Friendship Treaty and its Validity


1. Changes in Bilateral Relations after the End of the Cold War


After the Cold War ended, South Korea and China agreed to normalize relations and established formal diplomatic ties in August 1992. Consequently, the significance of the friendship treaty between North Korea and China lost much of its significance and validity.


Pyongyang expressed serious concerns about the normalization of relations between Seoul and Beijing. In December 1992, North Korea complained and threatened to suspend tourism, culture and sports exchanges with China and demanded the writing off of its debts amounting to 25 billion yuan (about $3 billion). China invited Kim Jong-il, then second in command of the North Korean hierarchy, to visit Beijing and meet Deng Xiaoping, but Pyongyang rejected the invitation and also canceled a senior Chinese official’s participation in Kim Il-sung’s birthday celebrations.


In February 1993, Chinese Premier Li Peng presided over a Foreign Ministry policy session in which China decided not to expand political and military relations with North Korea and to support inter-Korean negotiations for the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. Under the “eight principles” adopted by the Chinese Foreign Ministry to define future relations with North Korea, Beijing said that it would suspend political and military conferences with North Korea, not recognize any working-level contacts for such meetings, stop supplying modern military technologies to North Korea, and restrain activities that could cause damage to the existing ties with the North.


Despite these developments, the two countries made no move to revise or terminate the friendship treaty, which remains valid until today. In contrast, North Korea and Russia initialed the “New Treaty” in 1999 to replace the 1961 North Korean-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, and then signed it in August 2000. The “New Treaty” between North Korea and Russia has no clause on military cooperation.


2. Validity of Each Provision


Under Article 2 of the North Korea-China Friendship Treaty, China is not required to assist any North Korean attack on South Korea, because the treaty obliges either party to intervene for defense when the other party is attacked by a third state or states. There were unverified claims that China in 2002 demanded a revision of Article 2 to alter the phrase of “immediate intervention” but North Korea objected. Similarly, North Korea reportedly demanded a revision of Article 2 when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Pyongyang in 2009 but Beijing declined. 


Whether China will intervene in any open military conflict on the Korean peninsula would depend on how Beijing assesses the actual situation, the causes of conflict and possible domestic and external consequences of its action. The Chinese intervention in the Korean War in 1950 had been decided cautiously and prudently after intensive, time-consuming internal debates. China as a superpower in the post-Cold War era will be even more prudent if full-scale hostility erupts again on the peninsula.


When serious confusion occurs in the internal ruling system of North Korea, China may inevitably take measures to maintain stability on the border with North Korea, but Beijing will find it difficult to decide to intervene unilaterally in Pyongyang or other large population centers in an emergency situation.


Article 3 has the effect of regulating foreign affairs of China and North Korea. It provides that either party will not participate in any alliance, bloc or action directed against the other party. After the Cold War ended, China violated Article 3 when it normalized diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992. The action strained relations between Beijing and Pyongyang, as North Korea strongly protested, but their friendship treaty remained unaffected and no sanctions were demanded.


North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006 without prior consultation with China raised questions over Article 4 of the treaty, which calls for consultations on major international issues of common interest. China strongly criticized North Korea’s action, which impacted its security interest, but again the friendship treaty was not affected. Moreover, the summit talks between China and North Korea in May 2010, shortly after the sinking of the Cheonan in the West (Yellow) Sea, agreed to increase mutual visits and strengthen strategic communication, suggesting better adherence to Article 4.


Article 5, which calls for concrete cooperation in the areas of economy, culture, and science and technology, is being well implemented with the increase of economic cooperation since 2009. Article 6 on mutual efforts to realize the peaceful reunification of the Korean nation has been repeatedly quoted by the leaders of the two countries with Beijing continuously pledging support for it. This is a declarative clause but it provides practical grounds for Chinese intervention in the process of Korean unification.


As for Article 7 concerning the revision or termination of the treaty with mutual consent, no objection has been raised. Recently, Chinese sources claimed that the treaty has been automatically extended every 20 years and its most recent extension will remain in effect until 2021.


IV. New Implications of the North Korea-China Friendship Treaty and Bilateral Relations


1. Reasons for the Treaty’s Continuing Validity


The Sino-North Korean friendship treaty has served not only as the legal basis of bilateral relations but also as the symbolic foundation of the ties between the two neighboring countries. With their relations changing during the 50-year existence of the treaty, the full validity of the pact has seldom been asserted, and both sides have been freed from the absolute obligation of strictly applying the articles on their relations.


Even though the validity of the treaty has been considerably weakened, the two parties have not taken any initiatives to terminate the pact because they both recognize its symbolic significance in securing their national interests. Both sides needed the treaty to entrap each other in the complex regional security environment: China wanted to use the treaty to cope with the threat of the South Korea-U.S. alliance as well as possible instability in North Korea; North Korea needed it to counter the direct threat of the South Korea-U.S. alliance. Both Beijing and Pyongyang have doubts about the applicability of individual provisions but they want to maintain the treaty as a whole because they are aware of the practical interests the treaty provides for them.


China finds the treaty with North Korea useful for maintaining its influence over the Korean peninsula, the most volatile place in the region. Beijing has also been wary of North Korea’s provocations against South Korea which would increase regional instability. When the two states signed the friendship treaty in 1961, China felt North Korea could attack the South again and Chinese leaders still remain sensitive to the possibility. The Beijing leadership also believes that the treaty helps maintain stability on the Korean peninsula because the United States and South Korea have to consider the possibility of Chinese intervention if military hostility flares anew on the peninsula.


After North Korea’s second nuclear test in May 2009, the Chinese government made immediate efforts to steer its North Korea policy toward maintaining the North’s regime and managing security on the peninsula. In this regard, the usefulness of the treaty was further recognized.


As for North Korea, the treaty with China offers a counterweight against the strengthening South Korea-U.S. alliance and worsening inter-Korean relations. Pyongyang also regards the treaty as useful in maintaining domestic stability as the power transition unfolds.


The alliance between Seoul and Washington has been consolidated since 2008, raising security threat to North Korea. China’s intervention under the friendship treaty would be an important variable if military conflict erupted. In short, the treaty would deter South Korea and the United States from attempting armed provocation against the North to achieve reunification.


North Korean leaders cannot but consider the possibility of public unrest during the power transition from Kim Jong-il to his son Kim Jong-un and the vital importance of China’s support. Internal instability also results from economic difficulties, which have further deteriorated since the failed currency reform in November 2009. In January 2010, the New Year’s joint editorials used the expression “public sentiment” (minsim) for the first time, indicating concerns about widespread discontent among the general population. China’s help is essential for North Korean leaders to stave off economic crisis and the friendship treaty serves as the basis for cooperation with China.

2. Development of Sino-North Korea Economic Cooperation since 2008


Economic cooperation between North Korea and China slumped in 2006 but rapidly increased from 2008 through 2010. (See Table 1) Behind the expanding economic interactions between the two countries was the strengthening of the U.S.-South Korea alliance since the inauguration of the Lee Myung-bak government in Seoul. While North Korean leaders had a growing sense of crisis, the Chinese felt compelled to keep North Korea from causing any trouble in the region before the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. China thus decided to expand economic cooperation with North Korea.


International criticism mounted against North Korean belligerence after the sinking of the South Korean patrol craft Cheonan and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, and international humanitarian aid to the North was markedly reduced. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visited China in August 2010 to discuss expansion of bilateral economic cooperation, prior to designating his third son Jong-un as his successor later that year. The two-way trade volume between North Korea and China increased sharply in 2010 (See Table 1) as Pyongyang leaders tried to mitigate popular discontent and prevent unrest by gaining maximum amount of Chinese economic assistance. 

Economic cooperation between the two countries accelerated following Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to the North in October 2009. Further growth was seen after Kim Jong-il’s visits to China in May and August 2010.


In November 2009, the Chinese government announced the designation of the “Chang-Ji-Tu Pilot Zone for Development and Opening” under the Tumen (Tuman) River Area Cooperative Development Plan. The plan covering the cities of Changchun, Jilin and Tumen envisages local industrial development in areas adjacent to the North Korean and Russian borders, especially the Rajin port of North Korea, with the North’s participation.


Shortly after Kim Jong-il’s tour of northeastern China and his summit talks with Hu Jintao in Changchun in August 2010, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce and North Korea’s Joint Venture Investment Committee agreed on a plan to develop Wihwado and Hwanggumpyong islets in the Amnok (Yalu) River at the western end of the North Korea-China border and the Rajin-Sonbong special zone at the eastern end.


Earlier, on January 4, 2010, the Standing Committee of the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly issued a decree to upgrade the Rajin-Sonbong zone to Rason Special City and announced the “Rason Economic and Trade Zone Law” consisting of some 50 edicts related to foreign investment in the zone. The entire project is designed to induce large-scale investment by Chinese enterprises.


Ground-breaking ceremonies were held at the Hwanggumpyong-Wihwado zone on June 8, 2011 and at Rason Special City the following day, launching the joint development of the two special zones in border areas. For the Hwanggumpyong zone, the two governments agreed to apply a “joint development, joint management” model for economic cooperation.


In the August 2010 summit in Changchun, Hu Jintao suggested the “four principles” of bilateral economic cooperation that governments take the initiatives; enterprises play the leading role; the market mechanism is respected; and mutual interests are pursued. Kim Jong-il agreed on expanding economic cooperation under these principles for mutual benefits. It was a step forward from an earlier agreement in 2005, when the two leaders emphasized the role of governments to encourage corporate participation and market mechanism.


In June 2011, North Korea started to build a 15-kilometer road branching out from the Hunchun-Rason highway and leading to Chongjin Port on its east coast. There also are plans to open highway routes linking Chongjin to different Chinese locations, including Longjing, Sanhe and Helong, across the Chang-Ji-Tu zone by 2015. The Tumen city government is providing materials and capital for these infrastructure projects which are jointly undertaken by North Korea’s Joint Venture Investment Committee. The scales of these projects indicate that the central government in Beijing is offering assistance on a significant level.


Through the economic cooperation projects, China seeks to speed up the reform and opening of the North Korean economy initially in the border areas for the purpose of increasing its influence on North Korea. China is showing particular interest in the development of Rason to secure a port to the East Sea while North Korea is seeking to turn Hwanggumpyong into a viable international economic zone. North Korea named Chang Song-taek (Jang Song-thaek), the powerful vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, as its head of the Hwanggumpyong project and China appointed Vice Commerce Minister Chen Deming as Chang’s counterpart, indicating how much importance the two governments attach to the development project.


Progress of the two special zone projects has been slow as the two governments are taking considerate steps to establish their operating systems envisioning long-term development. China is taking cautious steps to minimize losses to its enterprises in the event of unfavorable progress, while North Korea seeks to concentrate on the construction of infrastructure facilities under a 10-year plan stretched to 2020.


China wants to make Hwanggumpyong a model of North Korean economic reform and opening, with an expectation that it will eventually make greater contributions to the North’s economy than the Kaesong (Gaeseong) Industrial Complex near the South-North border of Korea. China plans to build dormitories for North Korean workers and their families in Hwanggumpyong so they can taste the effects of Chinese-style economic openness.


3. New Implications of the Friendship Treaty and its Limitations


As observed above, there are important reasons why the friendship treaty remains valid despite the fact that both China and North Korea have failed to strictly abide by it. First, China is concerned with possible increase of instability in North Korea as the United States and South Korea have strengthened their alliance in recent years and the inter-Korean relations have been markedly worsened. Beijing considers it important to maintain the friendship treaty with North Korea as it will justify its intervention in an emergency on the Korean peninsula.


When North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, China strongly criticized it. But in 2009, after the North’s second nuclear test in May, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited North Korea in October and discussed economic cooperation measures. This revealed Beijing’s strategy to cope with the possibilities of North Korea’s military aggression on one hand and its internal instability on the other.


Since the Cheonan incident, China has continued to increase its economic cooperation with North Korea. This will give China greater leverage to control the North in future events. It is believed that China made an internal decision in the summer of 2009 to separate the denuclearization issue from its overall approaches to North Korea.


Yet, there exist negative factors inherent to asymmetrical conflict arising from the asymmetric security alliance of the two countries. While China wants North Korea to show “deference” in issues of security as a reward for its increasing economic assistance, North Korea consistently pursues “autonomy” in security affairs and rejects China’s interference in its internal affairs.


If economic cooperation expands while security cooperation remains elusive, bilateral relations could rupture in the event of an emergency. China would want to use its influence over the North in addressing security problems, whereas the North may not acquiesce, depending on the situation.


China and North Korea will likely remain ambiguous as to the validity of their friendship treaty while they continue to recognize its existence. In other words, the friendship treaty has the positive effect of economic cooperation and policy communication whereas it has only indirect and passive effect in security cooperation by deterring conflict with third countries. In this context, the treaty carries the latent possibility of dispute over security problems.


V. Matters for Consideration


1. Strategic Dialogue with China through Multiple Channels


The South Korean government needs to conduct a strategic dialogue with Chinese authorities to explain its past experience in relations with North Korea. Seoul expanded economic cooperation with Pyongyang without waiting for the settlement of the nuclear problem, leading to neither progress in the denuclearization process nor reduction of security concerns on the peninsula. Seoul needs to emphasize the importance of cooperation between China and South Korea in endeavors to resolve the North Korean nuclear question.


In China, diverse sectors including the military, local governments and enterprises are playing increasing roles in shaping both domestic and foreign policies. South Korea needs to broaden contacts with these various sectors to seek their cooperation.


2. Close Observation of the Sino-North Korea Economic Cooperation Model


China has promoted joint economic projects with North Korea, replicating special trade zones for Chinese investors. This is understood as an attempt to minimize investment losses in case of unsuccessful progress. Such a strategy can be a useful guideline when Seoul expands economic cooperation with Pyongyang in the future.


North Korea is reportedly providing the “three freedoms” of transportation, communication and customs clearance for Chinese investors in the Hwanggumpyong and Rason special economic zones, while it has not allowed comparable conveniences for South Korean investors at the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Seoul needs to press Pyongyang in future negotiations to get equal or even better treatment.


China demands that its domestic laws be applied to business systems in North Korean special economic zones. South Korea should also request similar concessions when it negotiates with the North so its domestic laws can be applied to cross-border business activities of South Koreans.


3. Strengthening Cooperation with Three Northeast Provinces of China


China’s three northeast provinces – Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang – should be the strategic targets of South Korean investment. They are the focus of the Chinese central government’s Northeast Promotion Plan and have sought to accelerate development through active economic cooperation with North Korea. The large ethnic Korean population in the region provides advantage for South Korean investors.


Economic development of the northeast provinces of China will attract North Koreans to market economy and help create favorable conditions for Korean reunification. North Korean residents can easily learn about the merits of market economy from these border provinces of China, the only window for them to the outside world.


Friendly assessment of South Korean economy and society among the residents of these provinces can significantly influence the attitudes of North Koreans toward the South. The hallyu boom of South Korean pop culture which has reached this region will promptly be passed to North Koreans. It will help create favorable sentiments toward South Korea among the younger population in the North and will form the base of popular support for unification under South Korean terms.


4. Russian Gas Pipeline Project through North Korea


North Korea experienced failure with the Sinuiju Special Economic Zone project in 2002 as Chinese cooperation was not available. Therefore, North Korea shows strong desire for Chinese support. When Hwanggumpyong and Rason special zones begin operating, China will have immense leverage on the North Korean economy.


According to Chinese Ministry of Commerce statistics, North Korea-China trade volume during the first nine months of 2011 amounted to $4,190 million, or 77 percent up over the same period in 2010. The annual total of 2011 is expected to reach $6 billion.


When China holds the keys to resolving both security and economic problems of North Korea, South Korea will have relatively weaker leverage in the North. The South should make substantial efforts to avoid such eventuality; one possible step is promoting a Russian gas pipeline project passing through North Korea, which will help Seoul secure considerable influence on the North Korean economy.

[Analysis of Major International Issues, November 11, 2011, published by the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security]