China's relationship with North Korea is quickly becoming a liability. North Korea, split from its thriving and diplomatically dynamic southern half, has continued its age-old pursuit for survival against perceived threats like the United States. But Pyongyang has begun to adopt a more provocative approach, combining isolationism with military buildups and nuclear deterrence to hold the world's great powers at bay. China, meanwhile, continues to consider the Korean Peninsula its most strategic bulwark. But with the South a staunch U.S. ally, the North has taken on even greater importance in China's efforts to keep foreign foes off its doorstep. Though Pyongyang's erratic policies routinely conflict with Beijing's own, China's options for shaping North Korea's behavior will continue to be limited so long as keeping a relatively stable state on its border remains its greatest imperative.
This largely explains why China is fairly ambivalent toward Pyongyang's nuclear program. For one, Beijing understands that the North Korean government considers nuclear weapons to be one of its last resorts in safeguarding the security of the country and its leaders. Though Beijing has its own concerns about the idea of a nuclear North Korea, it prefers that outcome over the collapse of the government in Pyongyang. Such a political upset could create a power vacuum on China's northeastern border that other countries — particularly the United States — might try to exploit or even intervene in militarily. Beijing's desire to maintain a relationship with the North Korean government hampers its ability to pressure Pyongyang into abandoning its nuclear activities, whether through sanctions or by other means.
North Korea has come to rely on China's pragmatic stance for its own diplomatic dealings abroad. But Pyongyang's mounting hostility toward the rest of its region has begun to severely compromise the strategic gains Beijing makes by backing it. As the prospect of a nuclear North Korea has moved closer to becoming a reality, China has also been less able to restrain the recalcitrant government in Pyongyang. Its steadfast refusal to shutter its nuclear program has also caused international pressure to build against Beijing. With military options largely off the table at present, Washington and its allies have turned to sanctions as a means of forcing Pyongyang to capitulate. But Beijing, fearing the destabilizing consequences of the North Korean government's potential collapse, has defied them, putting it at odds with the United States and its Asian neighbors.
As North Korea's actions have grown less predictable and more provocative under Kim Jong Un's rule, Beijing has become increasingly estranged from its longtime ally. This, coupled with rising international concerns over Pyongyang's nuclear program, has renewed debate among Chinese policy circles about Beijing's options for dealing with its unruly ally. China remains the nation most able to economically and politically shape Pyongyang's actions, and the Communist Party is certainly aware of the benefits its partnership with North Korea can bring. Yet it is also becoming increasingly aware of the costs, so much so that it may soon be forced to rethink the terms of its relationship with its headstrong ally.