‘Lips and teeth’ no more as China’s tenuous ties with North Korea fray
BEIJING: When Kim Jong-un inherited power in North Korea in late 2011, then-Chinese president Hu Jintao was supportive of the untested young leader, predicting that “traditional friendly co-operation” between the countries would strengthen.
Two years later, Kim ordered the execution of his uncle Jang Song Thaek, the country’s chief interlocutor with China and a relatively reform-minded official in the hermit state.
Since then, ties between the allies have deteriorated so sharply that some diplomats and experts fear Beijing may become, like Washington, a target of its neighbour’s ire.
While the US and its allies – and many people in China – believe Beijing should do more to rein in Pyongyang, the acceleration of North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities has coincided with a neartotal breakdown of high-level diplomacy between the two.
The notion that mighty China wields diplomatic control over impoverished North Korea is mistaken, said Jin Canrong, an inter national relations professor at Beijing’s Renmin University.
While their relationship has always been clouded by suspicion and mistrust, China grudgingly tolerated North Korea’s provocations as preferable to the alternatives: chaotic collapse that spills across their border, and a Korean peninsula under the domain of a US-backed Seoul government.
That is also the reason China is reluctant to exert its considerable economic clout, worried that measures as drastic as the energy embargo proposed this week by Washing- ton could lead to the North’s collapse.
Instead, China repeatedly calls for calm, restraint and a negotiated solution.
Until his death in 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il made numerous entreaties to ensure China would back his preferred son as successor.
While then-president Hu reciprocated, the younger Kim, in his late 20s at the time, began to distance himself from his country’s most powerful ally.
Former Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s description of North Korea’s relationship with China is typically mis-characterised as being as close as “lips and teeth”.
His words are better translated as: “If the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold,” a reference to the strategic importance of the North as a geographical security buffer.
Despite its resentment at the pressure North Korea’s actions have put it under, Beijing refrains from taking too hard a line.
It said little when Kim Jong- un’s half-brother was assassinated in February. Kim Jong-nam had been seen as a potential rival for power in Pyongyang and had lived for years in Beijing, then Macau.
Zhao Tong, a North Korea expert at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre in Beijing, said North Korea was deeply unhappy with China’s backing of earlier UN sanctions.
“If China supports more radical economic sanctions that directly threaten the stability of the regime, then it is possible that North Korea becomes as hostile to China as to the United States.” – Reuters
Kim Jong Un