North Korea Doesn’t Trust China to Protect It

North Korea Doesn’t Trust China to Protect It

  • Pyongyang will never accept the shelter of another power’s nuclear umbrella.

When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping met for the first time in March 2018, the official topics of discussion were predictable: peace, denuclearization, industry, economic development, and deepening North Korea-China relations. That’s unsurprising for two countries that are each other’s only formal treaty allies and have been for decades. But the relationship is far more taut than public displays indicate. North Korea is happy to have Beijing on its side. But it’s never going to be willing to put its ultimate security in China’s hands. Nowhere is this more important than in denuclearization. The United States has been able to pressure allies, such as South Korea and Taiwan, out of the possibility of nuclear programs in the past, thanks to offers of protection—whether the ambiguous guarantees to Taiwan or the formal shelter of the U.S. nuclear umbrella offered to Japan and others. That makes the idea of a Chinese nuclear umbrella over North Korea an attractive and legitimate avenue for denuclearization—but one that Pyongyang itself will never agree to.

China and North Korea share ideological roots, and Beijing laid the foundation for an enduring alliance when it came to North Korea’s aid during the Korean War. But there are key differences between the North Korea-China alliance and the United States’ alliances with South Korea and Japan that make the creation of a Chinese nuclear umbrella over the North highly unlikely. Any offer would directly clash with three critical North Korean concerns in policymaking: adherence to the ideology of juche (“self-reliance”), economic entwinement with China, and maintaining nuclear leverage.

Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, dictated that juche become a guiding principle in North Korean life and policymaking in response to the country’s volatile geopolitical environment in the early 1960s. His son Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s father, further operationalized juche ideology, ensuring its longevity as a centralizing concept. Juche ideology maintains that North Korea uphold independence and self-reliance in domestic and foreign-policy making, economic development, and military defense.