China has recently joined with other countries in condemning North Korea for a failed missile launch earlier this month. It was a rare public rebuke of its internationally isolated ally, leading many to closely scrutinize whether Beijing’s policies toward Pyongyang are shifting.
This week U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said China has provided some assistance to North Korea’s missile program, possibly violating U.N. sanctions on the country.
Beijing has denied the allegations, but Panetta says that China must do more to bring North Korea to the negotiating table.
"We've made very clear to China that China has a responsibility here to make sure that North Korea -- if they want to improve the situation with their people, if they want to become a part of the international family, if they, in fact, want to deal with the terrible issues that are confronting North Korea, there's a way to do that," he said. "And China ought to be urging them to engage in those kinds of diplomatic negotiations. We thought we were making some progress and suddenly we're back at provocation."
Beijing has long been Pyongyang’s most important backer, providing key economic support and acting as an international advocate during times when tension escalates between Pyongyang and other countries.
Mike Chinoy is a Senior Fellow at USC's U.S.-China Institute and has traveled to North Korea 15 times. He says there are signs that despite the close ties between the two, China may be re-evaluating its relationship.
“I think Beijing has been taken aback by the North Korean decision to stage the satellite launch and by the generally tough and somewhat truculent tone that the North Koreans have adopted. It’s a problem for the Chinese, because they don’t really like what the North Koreans are doing,” Chinoy explained.
In South Korea this week, news media have focused on China’s repatriation policy for North Korean defectors. Beijing has long sent defectors back to the North, despite protests from South Korea and human rights activists that the practice endangers their lives.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Weimin was asked about a possible change in policy this week and refused to confirm or deny the reports.
He says I am not aware of the specifics, but China has been handling relevant issues according to humanitarian principles and domestic and international law.
In recent weeks China allowed five refugees, who had stayed for three years in South Korean diplomatic missions in Beijing, to safely seek asylum in Seoul.
Mike Chinoy says these kinds of actions could signal worsening relations between China and North Korea - but not necessarily a long-term policy change. “What we’re seeing is more likely to be occasional gestures by the Chinese to signal unhappiness with North Korea," he noted. "Rather than Beijing suddenly saying the door is open, come one, come all, we won’t send you back.”
There are signs that China’s longtime economic support has not waned since the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Chinese government statistics indicate trade between the two countries jumped 18 percent in January, and Chinese exports to North Korea increased 24 percent that month compared to the same period last year.
Bradley Babson is chair of the DPRK Economic Forum at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. “China is making sure that North Korea has the resources it needs to make this early 2012 transition period economically successful," he said.
China and Russia have also been building infrastructure projects like roads and highways to easily transport goods in and out of the country. Bradley Babson says this is an indication that North Korea will continue to benefit from increased trade with its neighbors in the future. “The fact that they are publicizing these things is a signal of expectation that a lot more Chinese investment is going to come towards North Korea in the coming year or two,” he stated.
A key indicator for the future of their relationship could come in coming months, if North Korea carries out plans for another nuclear test.