Princeton University Library Catalog

Beyond the “Lips and Teeth”: An Analysis of China’s Ambiguous North Korea Policy

Gu, Wenyi [Browse]
Senior thesis
Ikenberry, John [Browse]
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs [Browse]
Class year:
120 pages
Summary note:
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) have shared a volatile history, marked not only by ideological similarities and a memory of war, but also by frequent periods of mutual distrust and cold silence. The pattern of China’s foreign policy towards North Korea throughout the decades has been ambiguous at best, as it frequently changes across a continuum; at one end is a supportive, traditional alliance position, and at the other is a hardline stance, critical of North Korea’s actions. As North Korea grows more provocative and continues to develop its nuclear arsenal, the international community has grown frustrated at the ambiguity of China’s foreign policy towards its client state. This thesis therefore seeks to unlock the puzzle behind the ambiguous historical pattern of China’s attitude and policy towards North Korea, by utilizing three levels of analysis—the individual leader, the domestic climate, and the international system—to analyze a series of five policy shifts throughout the development of PRC-DPRK relations. I demonstrate that China has altered its attitude and foreign policy towards North Korea not simply in recent years, but indeed during a number of periods stemming from the beginnings of their official alliance in 1961: 1. China’s denunciation of Korean “revisionism” in 1966 2. Rekindling of relations in 1968-1975 3. Cooling relations in the late 1970s-early 1980s 4. Rebalancing and warming of relations in the 1990s 5. Harsh opposition of North Korea’s nuclear test in 2013 Moreover, I argue that while China’s strong leadership and domestic affairs have played a large role in directing its external relations, these five case studies reveal that in the case of North Korea, geopolitical concerns ultimately serve as the most important factor in the shifts in China’s policy. As China progresses through its own development plan to become a superpower, it has needed to respond accordingly to changes within the international political climate. These changes influence China’s perceptions of threat, which have often led China to respond by reconsidering its strategy and policy towards North Korea.