Written by Adam Cathcart.

In the lengthening aftermath of the Jang Song-taek execution, writers who are fond of metaphors for Chinese-North Korean relations can take heart. The bilateral relationship which had been “like lips and teeth” continues its transition into a new era, one of bleeding lips, or, as the historian Shen Zhihua puts it, a “marriage of convenience” experiencing serious discord.

In order to properly review recent changes and action in the bilateral relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang, we need to do more than read the latest rumor; we need to investigate the broader arc of Sino-North Korean relations in the months after the Jang Song-taek purge. From the Chinese perspective, things with Pyongyang are going poorly, and Beijing’s strategic discourse on North Korea continues its pattern of gradual change. Apart from a few recent bright spots involving genuflections before a wax statue of Kim Jong-il, Pyongyang shows itself to be increasingly resistant and publicly resistant to Chinese advice. Things have gotten more than a touch acrimonious in the aftermath of Jang’s elimination. In spite of the steady (and expected) professions from Beijing that no “channel” of influence to Pyongyang has been lost with the death of Jang Song-taek, frustration is clearly mounting on both sides.

In an interview with a Chinese television station, Zhang Liangui complained that South Korean analysis of Jang’s wrist bruises was overwrought. But Zhang reserved his most steady critiques for the North Koreans, who (and also according to Zhang’s colleagues) were in the middle of changing their economic deals with China. North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun left Jang’s death warrant up on the front of their Chinese homepage for over a month (no idle mistake, that), and Chinese television news editors had since refused to purge Jang Song-taek from their stock footage of North Korea, making him into the virtual equivalent of Banquo’s ghost.

On the whole, there were few positive signs that 2014 would be anything other than a year of recalibration and uneasy distancing for Sino-North Korean relations. China’s reluctant acceptance in December of North Korea’s new Special Economic Zone scheme, launched the prior month with no consultation, was one of the half-hearted Chinese attempts to at least pretend that things were proceeding normally even as high-level communication was poor.

China’s Ambassador in Pyongyang, Liu Hongcai, reemerged in late January with a cultural embassy of Chinese musicians and dancers from Dalian city and Jilin province who had come to Pyongyang to celebrate and buck up the Overseas Chinese community – another sign of the quest for stability and normalcy. China and North Korea had thus already begun mending fences in their peculiar way after the Lunar New Year, even as Chinese journalists wrote patronizingly about North Korean female football players in China unable to understand or use e-mail and bereft of the trust of their superiors.

Today, the North Korean leadership seems more prone to express itself in acts of military testing and rhetorical belligerence, none of which bring much succor to Beijing. The Hwanggumpyeong/Huangjinping island Special Economic Zone across from the new city in Dandong is nowhere near operational or transformative; the terminus to Beijing’s new bridge to North Korea is surrounded by a wall; there is no road from it to Sinuiju. Kim Jong-un shows few signs of returning to talks, let alone abandoning his nuclear weapons programme. The DPRK’s recent flirtations with Japan are surely viewed with extreme prejudice in Zhonghanhai and the Foreign Ministry in Beijing. Only at the United Nations are the old comrades still in lockstep, on human rights inquiries and unspeakable attempts of Western imperialism to blow up the girders of both of their Leninist Party-states, (i.e., the goal of the Commission of Inquiry also aims to call into question Youth Leagues, mass dancing, forcefully secularized countryside, arbitrary executions, etc.)

Geography and geopolitics will keep this relationship relatively stable, but there are ample grounds for further fracture (following distinctly recent abuse) in this marriage of convenience.

Adam Cathcart is a Lecturer in the Dept of East Asian Studies, University of Leeds. He is a CPI Blog Regular Contributor and tweets @Adamcathcart.

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