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China and North Korea
A Changing Relationship
By Gloria Koo

This paper will address how the changing relationship between North Korea and China affects the nonproliferation process in North Korea. This complex issue entails a two-fold set of arguments. First, I contend that the relationship between the two countries has changed, as it evolved from consisting mainly of military and ideological ties to encompassing economic exchanges. During the Cold War years, political similarities were the main factors that consolidated their relationship. With the fall of the ‘Iron Curtain,’ the geopolitical shifts in Northeast Asia combined with the broadening of Chinese foreign policy objectives and the decline of North Korea’s economy strained their relationship. Secondly, I argue that the relationship between the two countries has the potential to dictate the current nonproliferation attempts. Here, a discussion of North Korea’s economy and China’s leverage over its survival is indispensable because North Korea’s economic interests are key incentives in developing weapons of mass destruction. I conclude that China can utilize its relationship with North Korea and play an important role in securing peace in Northeast Asia, and it should rightly take the responsibility to do so.

The Foundation and the Extent of China's Relationship with North Korea

Traditionally, the Chinese have had a tremendous cultural influence on the Korean people. In particular, Buddhist beliefs and Confucian ideals that originated from China were, and still are, deeply entrenched in both cultures. In the early years, many settlements on the Korean peninsula were founded by Chinese people, and many Korean words are derived from Chinese characters.

In addition to the cultural and social influences, China also has had a significant military influence on Korea. During the Korean War, the Chinese authority supported the North Korean leaders who endorsed Communist principles. China provided abundant human resources and heavy military assistance to the North. China’s People’s Liberation Army came to the rescue of North Korea when U.S. General Douglas MacArthur pushed up to the Yalu River with the intention of unifying the peninsula under American rule.1 China continued to fight in the War alongside the North Koreans until an armistice was signed in 1953. The two countries maintained their military relationship; indeed, until the 1980s, China was a major weapons supplier to North Korea.2 During the Cold War, China and North Korea, together with the Soviet Union, shared strong political ties and military cooperation and formed a Communist block against the capitalist states, notably the US and South Korea.

Recently, the relations between China and North Korea extended from military and political ties to economic exchanges as well. Unilaterally, China provides a significant source of economic transfers to the declining North Korean economy. Economic mismanagement by the North Korean government, coupled with unfavorable weather changes, maimed the industrial base and left many North Koreans short of food.3 In the 1990s, the country suffered a famine that killed an estimated two million people.4 Many resorted to eating a mixture of tree bark, roots and cabbage.5 North Korea’s economy continued to decline, and its real GDP growth is estimated to have fallen from 3.7% in 2001 to 1.2% in 2002, and then to -2.5% in 2003. In 2004, it is projected to be -4%.6 Facing starvation, countless people escape and illegally enter China in search of food.7 In the northeast region of China, near the border between North Korea, numerous refugees from the declining country receive help from the Chinese and nongovernmental organizations.

North Korea’s government also receives humanitarian aid and energy assistance from China. North Korea suffers from a perpetual shortage of sustainable energy sources, and the situation only deteriorated in 2002 when the Bush administration suspended the delivery of 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil per year, which had been pledged as part of the Agreed Framework accords reached by the US and North Korea in 1994. Currently, electricity circulates for three or four hours per day in the most rural areas where the temperature can drop as low as minus 40 degrees Celsius (minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit) during the winter.8 To alleviate the dire situation, China offered a substantial aid package of 10,000 tons of diesel oil in 2003.9 China supplies 70% of North Korea’s energy to this day.10

China also remains North Korea’s largest trading partner, running annual bilateral deficits of about $500 million against North Korea. The amount is even larger if barter transactions are counted.11 Continuously engaging with North Korea, China protects the North Koreans from economic sanctions implemented by the US. China is reluctant to participate in a multilateral action against North Korea, such as a blockade, because such pressures may lead the North Korean economy, and furthermore the regime, to collapse.12 Such disintegration may induce a chaotic inflow of the hungry to China, overpopulate the area, create regional economic instability, social unrest and political disorder. Certainly, China is not interested in encumbering this additional burden.

Relationship Strains and Changes

Shifting geopolitics in the post-Cold War period and systematic changes undertaken by the Chinese government affected China’s relationship with North Korea. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union ended the super-power rivalry and weakened international communism. In addition, the four major powers the US, the Soviet Union, China and Japan became more interested in increasing their political influence in Northeast Asia. They pursued bilateral relationships with each other, and especially with South Korea.

In 1990, the Soviet Union normalized its relations with the capitalist South Korean government.13 This was a radical action, considering that the Soviet Union was the pillar of the Communist bloc and that North Korea, one of the Soviet Union’s allies, and South Korea are staunch enemies. Moreover, Russia abandoned communism a year later and stopped giving handouts to North Korea.14 This was partly due to the Soviet Union’s weakening economy, but was also indicative of its intention to distance itself from North Korea and furthermore the Communist system.

In 1992, Beijing opened diplomatic relations with Seoul.15 China’s normalization with the South Korean government was a blow to North Korean interests. South Korea favored China while the Chinese had little animosity towards the South Koreans and were impressed by their economic achievements.16 More importantly, China’s trading ties with South became vastly more profitable than its ties with the North.17 In fact, recently, China surpassed the United States as South Korea’s largest trading partner.18 These developments further isolated the North Korean regime.

These external changes were closely related to the systematic transformation that was occurring in the Chinese government. During the post-Cold War years, China transitioned to a quasi-capitalist economy, reformed its political governance, and broadened its foreign policy objectives. These changes exacerbated the rift between China and North Korea. Economically, China grew out of its proposed economic autarky and slowly opened up to the rest of the world. First, it established free trade zones, and then gradually opened up the entire country to trade. China became a rapidly expanding market for foreign investments and production, and also a major producer of textiles and other manufactured goods. China is now also an untapped bastion for outsourcing high technology industry jobs.

China’s expansion of the scope and extent of its foreign relations further alienated North Korea. The Chinese leadership recommitted to the objectives of border stability and reliable partnerships with surrounding nations, deepening its involvement with them. Earlier, during the Mao Zedong Era, the Chinese government opposed the international system and actions of the superpowers, notably the US and the Soviet Union. China remained relatively isolated from international organizations as well.19 When Deng Xiaoping came to power in the 1970s, however, a transformation through the ‘reform and opening’ movement took place. China entered various international organizations and participated in key multilateral organizations. For instance, China initiated a number of interactions with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and in 2001, it hosted the ninth leaders’ meeting in Shanghai.20 While China initiated these foreign affairs, North Korea remained fairly isolated. China’s initiatives widened its circle of relations and enhanced its place as a significant regional power, but enlarged a gap between itself and North Korea.

This is also visible in China’s expansion of the number and depth of its bilateral relationships. From 1988 to 1994, Beijing opened diplomatic relations with 18 countries, including several Soviet successor states, reaching various levels of “partnership” for economic and security coordination with them. Throughout the 1990s, China also increased its engagements with the countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In 2001, Beijing and Moscow established the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation.21

These foreign connections signify Beijing’s broadening perspectives and interests in foreign relations. This strains its relationship with North Korea because now China’s actions will take into consideration the interests of its new allies, and these interests may be in opposition to North Korea’s. For instance, China enlarges its trade exchanges with South Korea, in the interests of both China and South Korea, and forms closer ties with South Korea, although it is in conflict with North Korea’s interests.

The shift in China’s internal structure also signifies divergence of interests and similarities formerly shared with North Korea. For instance, the Chinese foreign ministry began to recruit diverse sources of policy analysis, both in and out of the government. The policy planning department of the foreign ministry now works as a significant internal think tank, and many specialists are hired as consultants on technical issues such as nonproliferation and missile defense. Moreover, there is a growing public discussion of global affairs with open debates on nonproliferation and missile defense; such instance was unheard of ten years ago.
Opinion pieces in newspapers and magazines, TV talk shows, and books relating to politics also contribute to the active discussions.22 In the latter half of the 1990s, an increasing number of scientists, military officers, and academics became involved in the arms control and nonproliferation research and policymaking. Also, senior leaders of the government became sensitized to the importance of these issues to the country’s overall foreign policy and national security.23 Active government participation and discussion not only from the party members but also in popular and scholarly societies encourages the Chinese government to take a larger initiative in nonproliferation attempts. The dynamic political culture in China contrasts with that of North Korea, and this drift distances the two countries.

While China seems to have stepped up into the international community, moving away from its fairly isolated state, it can also be argued that it is too early to expect Beijing to play a significant role in world politics given its mostly passive approach to foreign relations outside its immediate sphere of influence. Great power comes with responsibilities, and it is uncertain whether China is willing to take on such a burden. For instance, Beijing adapted a passive stance on the Iraq issue and limited its involvement in the recent crisis. China can thus be seen as minimizing its involvement abroad, and assuming a safer, middle ground by not taking a strong stance on actions of other major powers. In addition, the administration is already occupied with many domestic issues of economic development and political consolidation. With many changes underway, uncertainties in domestic politics, society and economy hinder the administration from making a full-fledged commitment to foreign relations.

Nonetheless, China is undergoing an economic and political transformation with a more outward perspective, and they are willing to become more involved and take more ownership in foreign affairs.

China's Implications for North Korean Nonproliferation Potential

China has significant leverage over North Korea and can affect North Korea’s disarmament. China holds a uniquely advantageous position, different from that of the capitalist US, South Korea and Japan. It shares Communist roots with North Korea, and the Chinese people have cultural ties with the Koreans on the both halves of the peninsula.24 Politically, China has a special advantage in that it has fairly good relations with both Koreas. In pursuing relations with both Seoul and Pyongyang, Beijing adopted a ‘dual track’ approach.25 With North Korea, China is the only country to ‘maintain’ the Cold War alliance pact.26 Through the years, they frequently exchanged military and economic transfers and government delegations.27

In 1999, Beijing and Pyongyang once again exchanged high-powered delegations with the goal of strengthening their relations. During those high-profile state visits, the leaders of the two countries made arrangements that confirmed their alliance. For instance, China pledged to provide 150,000 tons of grain and 400,000 tons of coal. Later that year, Kim Jung Il made a first-ever visit to Beijing.28 Although the visit did not include official summits or discussions on specific issues, it was a notable event for the fact that the highest leader of the North Korean government took the initiative to visit the Chinese provinces and observe the system. While China maintained its relationship with North Korea, it invested their efforts in its relations with South Korea as well.

In 2000, China sent a military delegation to Pyongyang to reaffirm their military ties. Meanwhile, China’s civilian delegation visited Seoul in hopes of enhancing its ‘cooperative partnership’ to full-scale.29 Since China opened its diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992, the two countries continue to foster and grow their economic partnership.

Beijing’s current influence over Pyongyang is significant, given the large amount of aid that China offers North Korea. If Beijing were to stop its fuel and food aid, the Pyongyang regime would suffer tremendously. From what we know, the Kim Jung Il regime is heavily dependent on China’s provisions.30 However, it can also be said that the food aid does not actually result in a greater political influence, because North Korea realizes that the aid is given out of China’s self-interest. Nonetheless, the significance of China’s aid packages to North Korea’s survival gives China considerable weight on the North Korean government. However, China is reluctant to exercise the power because it fears an implosion could destabilize the region and instigate an inflow of refugees.
In terms of economic development, China was able to influence the North Korean model; to a certain extent it succeeded in inspiring North Korea’s economic reforms. In 1992, for example, North Korea modeled its foreign investment laws on that of China’s.31

Through the institution of special economic zones and agricultural reforms, China demonstrated that economic reforms need not destabilize the political system. China also illustrated to North Korea how it could open up to the world while maintaining political control at the same time. With this in mind, North Korea started to build special economic zones, modeled after China’s one in Shenzhen, near its border with China and Russia.32

Establishing greater leverage over North Korea is a difficult task. Although China’s pressures have induced changes in North Korea, there are obstacles that hinder Beijing from engendering a significant change. First of all, fifty years of close ties between China and North Korea make it difficult for Beijing to put pressure on Pyongyang. Also, general long-term goals regarding the North Korea issue are hard to define. While China impressed the international community with its active pursuit of working relations with both North and South Korea, China’s two-Korea strategy was limited in its long-term visions. China’s strategy sought to maximize short-term gains and minimize short-term constraints, by focusing on maintaining the status quo of a somewhat peaceful coexistence between the two Koreas.33

Nonetheless, China showed more involvement in resolving the North Korea issue. For instance, Beijing consistently encouraged Pyongyang to adopt a conciliatory stance toward Washington and mediated between the two. In 1987, after China’s mediation, Washington eased its diplomatic restrictions against Pyongyang, leading to a series of discussions between North Korean and American diplomats in Beijing.34

State Border Issues

Overall, regional stability and peace is the foremost concern for China, Russia, Japan, US and South Korea.35 In particular, China is deeply concerned with the survival of the North Korean regime. While Beijing’s concern can be traced to the nostalgic attachments to Kim Il-Sung’s old-school Communism, it is more closely related to the straightforward desire to avoid instability on its frontiers. The prospect of the economic collapse of North Korea poses an immediate threat to Beijing policymakers. For example, North Korea’s disintegration would bring a flood of refugees into the northeastern part of China.36 The inflow of illegal refugees overpopulates and destabilizes the already economically weak region of northeastern China.

The presence of the unprotected, stateless, poor and hungry people in the region induced a number of illegal activities such as theft, rape, sex trafficking and black market; and some of these events currently still occur in the northeast region of China, a destination of many North Korean refugees. In 2002, an estimated 150,000 North Koreans illegally hid in China, and in 2003, this number doubled.37 China is intent on keeping these refugees out. The Chinese police often use violent means to capture the refugees, brutally keeping them away from seeking sanctuary in foreign embassies. People living in Yanggang-do and Chagan-do often cross the Yalu River to get to the northeast part of China; they risk their lives and are at the mercy of the North Korean guards. In 2003, China assigned the role of protecting its Korean border to the military, rather than police, in order to prevent more effectively the inflow of North Korean refugees. China stays close to its commitment to crack down on the refugees, partly in order to avoid offending the North Korean leadership.38

The Chinese bolster Kim in part because he is preferable to what they perceive as the alternatives, which consist of a regime collapse leading to chaos and a horde of refugees, or the unification of the Koreas under a pro-U.S. government led by South Koreans.39 China would not favor the domination of capitalist governance in the Korean peninsula, which would resemble West Germany’s incorporation of Communist East Germany, thereby undermining Communism in the European region.40 In contrast, the perpetuation of the North Korean regime would maintain a Communist buffer between China and the “freewheeling ways” of democratic South Korea.41

Security Issues

While the Chinese leaders sympathize with North Korea’s demand for an American pledge of non-aggression, they also are deeply concerned about North Korea’s credibility or the lack thereof.42 They are almost as upset with Kim’s nuclear program as are the Americans because nuclear proliferation in North Korea upsets the peace balance in Northeast Asia. The possibility of North Korea becoming a declared nuclear state is worrisome because it spreads fear in the region and may engender nuclear proliferation in other countries like Japan and especially South Korea.43

The capital city of South Korea, Seoul, is within 50 miles of the demilitarized zone. In the case of an attack or an outbreak of war, the heavily populated city and the surrounding region will be seriously hurt. If North Korea brandishes nuclear weapons, South Korea, who once explored nuclear proliferation, may resume such activities. A nuclear North Korea will also probably lead to a nuclear Japan, China’s strategic nightmare. As it stands, North Korea already possesses missiles that have wide ranges. For example, missiles of the second ring easily reaches peripheral parts of China and Japan, and missiles of the third ring cover the entire islands of Japan and much of China. Frighteningly, in 1998, North Korea tested its missiles over the Japanese mainland.44 If North Korea builds nuclear weapons to place atop these missiles, Japan will almost certainly develop a nuclear capability for itself. Such a spiral poses a great threat to China and the rest of the world, thus justifying proactive measures to curb North Korean proliferation before it gets out of control.45

Nuclear North Korea is a worrisome possibility also because its nuclear weapons program and missile technology may spread to other ‘rogue’ states. North Korea has a history of weapons trading. In 1993, North Korea provided missile technology to Pakistan in exchange for information about building nuclear weapons. Furthermore in 1999, North Korea reportedly agreed to provide missiles to Iraq in violation of U.N. sanctions. Although the missiles were never delivered, the possibility was certainly ever present.46 The spread of weapons and support for transnational crimes is a disconcerting prospect to China, the major power of the region.

The situation was brought to the world’s attention in the early 1990s when the CIA estimated that Kim’s regime might have enough plutonium to hold a nuclear bomb. In 1993, North Korea refused to allow an inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency of two suspected nuclear sites and announced that it would pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). North Korea secretly produced more plutonium than it had owned up to; it was suspected, moreover, of building a bomb, despite its NPT promise not to do so.47 In 1994, when Pyongyang began to reprocess plutonium rods at the Yongbyon reactor, the US, together with South Korea and Japan, reached an accord, known as the Agreed Framework, under which North Korea would freeze its weapons program in exchange for shipments of fuel oil and the construction of two light water reactors. These reactors would run on plutonium that cannot be reprocessed into weapons-grade material. That agreement officially fell apart last year when North Korea announced that, it secretly continued a uranium-enrichment program.48 There are conflicting explanations as to why the Agreed Framework did not succeed in halting the nuclear program. While the discussion of the content and the merit of the Agreed Framework is beyond the scope of the this paper, it should be noted that normalization of relations with US, international recognition and other energy provision measures assured by the US were not delivered as promised. The failure of the Agreed Framework to halt North Korea’s proliferation is undoubtedly alarming to the countries in the region, and begs the question of how else, what else, and who else should step up to lead the non-proliferation effort. This presents an avenue for China to expand its involvement in the overall nonproliferation efforts.

In 2002, with an admission of its active involvement with a nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, the Kim Jung-Il government again precipitated a major crisis. Experts project that weapons-grade plutonium produced in the plant may be enough to supply as many as 20 devices.49 North Korea also announced that it would pursue the ongoing production of plutonium, the key ingredient in a nuclear bomb. In 2003, it appeared to be on the verge of possessing enough weapons-grade plutonium to make six nuclear bombs. A nuclear weapon armed North Korea means weapons are likely to be on the open market, possibly accessible to terrorist organizations and other ‘rogue’ states.

China’s involvement in the nonproliferation attempts recently has been growing. In early 2003, “China arranged tripartite talks in Beijing, and in July, Chinese envoys held talks with Kim Jung-Il, in what could yet prove to be the most important intervention in the nuclear confrontation since it surfaced in October 2002.”50 Understandably, Beijing is hesitant to reveal precisely what actually was discussed with North Korea in July, and Pyongyang is equally reticent. What is almost certain, however, is that China attempted to persuade Kim Jung-Il to take part in further nonproliferation talks, involving not only Seoul, but also Tokyo and Washington.51 Most recently, the Chinese helped persuade North Korea to accept six-party talks with South Korea, Japan, Russia and the US.52 As these events reveal, China has become more involved with the agenda of global arms control and nonproliferation. China also ratified arms control and nonproliferation accords, including the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the Chemical Weapons Convention, and agreed to adhere to the basic tenets of the Missile Technology Control Regime. In 1996, the government signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.53 All of these steps indicate that China is ready to take a lead role in addressing the Korean nuclear crisis.

North Korea’s interest in acquiring nuclear weapons lies in their belief that the weapons can deter a US attack.54 In addition, North Korea believes that the proliferation and possession of nuclear weapons will endow them with substantial leverage at the negotiation table. With a failing economy, the weapons industry is a rare bargaining tool for the North Koreans essentially to extort aid. China’s political and economic relationship with North Korea can effectively curtail North Korea’s drive to develop weapons of mass destruction. By engaging but also pressuring the North Korean regime, China can help North Korea gain both the diplomatic recognition and economic benefits it so zealously pursues. Involvement in the weapons issue is in the interests of China as well. By taking a more active role in the nonproliferation process, China can promote peace and stability in the region and also benefit politically. Cooperation with the US in managing their mutual threats will help build trust and stabilize their bilateral relationship.55 Also, by becoming more involved in the affair, it can establish itself as a significant political actor in Northeast Asia.

Nonproliferation Attempts & Objectives

In nonproliferation attempts, timing of the process is crucial; once the bombs are created, the objective is no longer nonproliferation but deterrence and possibly an arms race. If China were to step up and make a difference, it should do so soon. At the very least, China may be able to prevent North Korea from exporting the weapons or related technology to even more unscrupulous parties.56
Nonproliferation campaigns in North Korea are difficult to sustain for several reasons. First, the absence of inspectors and the lack of transparency of the system make it difficult to monitor North Korea’s progress on its nuclear armory. Secondly, actors involved in the situation are reluctant to give up their demands: North Korea’s demand for the Americans to sign a non-aggression treaty and America’s assurance of security by North Korea themselves. If China retains its close relations, it will facilitate monitoring and assessing the proliferation progress. Also, China has a crucially advantageous position as a mediator among North Korea, the US and South Korea.

There can be different paths to nonproliferation and disarmament. The only safe way to deal with North Korea’s claimed nuclear weapons is to impair its capacity to make them, “completely, verifiably and irreversibly” as America has insisted. Like its missile technicians, North Korean nuclear experts could fan out and pass on the technology to anyone willing to pay cash for it. Alarmingly enough, some may have done so already. North Korea’s nuclear posturing has already stirred debate in Japan about its nuclear future. In the past, both South Korea and Taiwan toyed with building bombs. All three could rapidly turn nuclear. Such nuclear turbulence would harm security throughout the region.57 Timing is a crucial factor in ensuring peace in Northeast Asia, and China has a significant responsibility for it.

Conlcuding Remarks

Throughout its history, China has maintained close relations with Korea. Both the Chinese and the Korean people share similar cultural and social roots, and the two governments shared close political ties as well. With the outbreak of the Korean War, China asserted its Communist influence on the North, and the military ties between the Chinese government and the North Korean regime strengthened throughout the Cold War years. However, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of Cold War politics, the geopolitical environment in the Northeast Asia region shifted and the relations between formerly hostile countries softened.
China’s emergence as a major power in the region is notable, with its rising economic capabilities and broadening foreign policies. These developments strained the North Korea-China relationship. Economic dependence and refugee issues arose between the two and many adjustments had to be made. However, as the only country to have working diplomatic relations with North Korea, China has an ostensible responsibility to promote positive developments. China can utilize its already established ties not only with North Korea but with other nations in the region to facilitate the nonproliferation process and also bring much needed economic reforms in North Korea. In effect, the strained yet extending relationship between China and North Korea can potentially play a crucial role in ensuring peace and stability in the Korean peninsula, and further, the greater East Asian region.

The burden now lies on China’s shoulders. The intensity of China’s involvement in nonproliferation endeavors depends on several factors. The first consideration is the objective of the Chinese government. China has made enormous economic progress, and it may want to continue to foster its economic interests, more so than security concerns. For instance, the Chinese government may want to concentrate on growing its trade relations, inviting foreign investments, encouraging consumer markets and increasing production capacities. Furthermore, other domestic concerns may be of more importance than international interests. Secondly, other countries’ political recognition of China’s engagements also may direct its level of involvement. In particular, how the US perceives and promotes the role of China will influence China’s actions. Third and finally, how China perceives the efficacy of its attempts will affect the intensity of its engagements. If China realizes the fruits of its efforts, it will be encouraged to act further. This is also related to North Korea’s receptiveness and its perception of its relations with China. All of these factors will shape China’s course of action but ultimately, the decision lies with the Chinese leaders who will weigh the costs and benefits of maintaining or challenging the status quo. How influential their decisions will be to the regional stability and peace have yet to be determined.


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