Factbox: Ties binding China and North Korea

SEOUL (BestGrowthStock) – Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visits South Korea from Friday for bilateral talks and a regional summit sure to focus on escalating tension over North Korea, which Seoul says sank its warship, the Cheonan, in March.

China is North Korea’s sole major economic and diplomatic supporter and Wen faces calls from South Korea, Japan and the United States for firmer pressure on Pyongyang over the sinking. Here is an overview of Chinese-North Korean ties.

COMRADES-IN-ARMS

Communist China was a crucial backer of North Korean Communist forces in the Korean War, and sent soldiers across the border into Korea from October 1950. The two neighbors had formally established relations in October 1949.

After the 1953 armistice, China continued supporting North Korea, helping with its post-war reconstruction.

In 1961, the two countries signed a Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, which calls for either to aid the other if attacked. It remains in force.

After China’s rapprochement with the West and its establishment of formal diplomatic ties with South Korea in 1992, ties between Beijing and Pyongyang turned frosty.

In recent years, China has sought to shore up relations and increased aid to its poor neighbor.

In early May, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il visited China on his first trip abroad since 2006. Both sides stressed hopes for stronger economic ties, and Chinese President Hu Jintao urged Kim to share his plans about major domestic and external issues.

Chinese Premier Wen visited North Korea in October 2009, when he was given an effusive welcome by Kim Jong-il. He was the most senior Chinese visitor since President Hu went in 2005.

SHIP SINKING

South Korea lost 46 sailors when its warship, the Cheonan, sank on March 26. Seoul said last week that an official inquiry found there was no doubt North Korea torpedoed the ship, but Pyongyang has denied it is responsible. Since then tensions between the two sides have jumped.

China has stayed low-key about the dispute, reflecting its desire to stay friendly with both North and South Korea. Chinese officials have voiced sympathy for the deaths but avoided publicly blaming Pyongyang over the sinking, instead urging restraint from all sides to avoid spiraling confrontation.

NOT ALWAYS IN STEP

Precedent suggests that China may nonetheless ultimately accept a statement, or even a resolution, from the United Nations Security Council regretting or criticizing the sinking. As a permanent member of the Council, China can block such actions.

In October 2006, North Korea held its first nuclear test explosion, defying public pleas from China. Beijing condemned the test and supported U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718, which authorized sanctions against North Korea and demanded it halt nuclear weapons and ballistic missile activities.

After the North held its second nuclear test on May 25, 2009 Beijing backed Security Council Resolution 1874, authorizing more sanctions on Pyongyang, including a ban on its arms exports.

SIX-PARTY TALKS

China has sought to defuse confrontation over North Korea by hosting six-party nuclear disarmament talks since August 2003.

The negotiations bring together North and South Korea, China, the United States, Japan and Russia, seeking to end the North’s nuclear weapons ambitions in return for aid.

The six-party talks have been stalled for more than a year. In April 2009 North Korea said it was quitting them and reversing nuclear “disablement” steps it had agreed to, unhappy with implementation of an initial disarmament agreement reached at the talks in 2007. South Korea and the U.S. say resuming the talks will be impossible until the ship sinking dispute is settled.

ECONOMIC FLOWS

China’s trade and aid have become crucial to North Korea’s survival, especially as ties with South Korea have frayed.

In 2009, trade between China and North Korea was worth $2.7 billion, a fall of 4 percent compared with 2008 numbers, according to Chinese customs statistics. North Korea’s exports to China rose by 4.3 percent to $793 million.

In 2009, China’s bilateral trade with South Korea was worth $156.2 billion, according to Chinese statistics.

In the first three months of 2010, China’s imports from North Korea — which are mostly minerals, coal and seafood — fell by 17.5 percent in value compared to the same time last year, despite China’s frenetic economic growth. China’s exports to North Korea grew by 17.2 percent.

REFUGEES

China’s 1,415-km (880-mile) border with North Korea includes stretches of rivers that freeze over in winter, and in past years many North Korean refugees have crossed over, sometimes then making their way to other countries.

Outside groups have earlier estimated their numbers to be from tens of thousands to 300,000 or more. Beijing fears a collapse of Kim’s government will turn this flow into a flood, one of the reasons it still offers firm support.

Stock Market Today

(Sources: Reuters; Chinese Ministry of Commerce website www.mofcom.gov.cn; International Crisis Group; Andrew Scobell, “China and North Korea: From Comrades-in-Arms to Allies at Arm’s Length”; U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea; Congressional Research Service report, “China-North Korea Relations”)

Factbox: Ties binding China and North Korea