Most Western experts describe China's North Korea policy as a failure. If that is the case, China has had many failures, not just one.
Combing through Sino-North Korean history, we discover a series of intriguing relational hiccups between the two, with their relations fluctuating between ups and downs, often in such dramatic ways that compelled outsiders to reach a sweeping conclusion that the couple was about to divorce.
For instance, during China's Cultural Revolution, North Korea's founder and fluent Mandarin speaker Kim Il-sung never set foot on Chinese soil between 1964 and 1970. This didn't end the relationship, though. China and North Korea muddled through the Cold War by sticking together.
After the Cold War, in 1994, Kim Il-sung met his sudden death and his son, Kim Jong-il, took power. Although they were in the same Socialist bloc, China frowned upon North Korea's hereditary power transfer from father to son, seeing it as going against socialist tenets. Kim Jong-il didn't blink.
For the ensuing six years, there was no top-level contact whatsoever between the two countries, including party-to-party, government-to-government and military-to-military. All three channels were stalled.
That period included the North Korean famine period (1994-1998), called the Arduous March. China largely sat back and didn't come to North Korea's rescue. Somewhere between 1.5 million to 3 million North Koreans were estimated to have died from starvation.
In May 2000, at the invitation of Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Kim Jong-il finally made a three-day visit to China. It was his first since taking office as North Korea's top leader, under the official title of general secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea. The following year, Kim visited China again.
Afterwards, every two or three years, Kim went to China.
Then, in 2010 and 2011, in less than two years, the North Korean leader visited China as many as four times ― until he died of a stroke on December 17, 2011.
This brief historical review shows that Sino-North Korea relations often display quite a broad spectrum of a closeness–and-aloofness cycle, and yet points towards overall resilience.
From this perspective, it can be argued that the lack of any meetings for four years between Xi Jinping and North Korea's current leader Kim Jong-un itself is not too extraordinary either― even though it may seem quite unusual to the eyes of outsiders.
Sino-North Korean relations survived some many crises such as the 1992 decision by China to establish diplomatic relations with South Korea and the 1997 defection by Hwang Jang-yop, Kim Jong-il's personal tutor, to South Korea. When Hwang was first hiding in China, North Korea demanded his repatriation. China sent Hwang to South Korea instead.
In a similar vein, it would be an overstatement to depict the execution of Jang Song-thaek in 2013, who was widely seen as a pro-China figure, as completely putting the China-North Korea relations in disarray.
Kim Jong-un's swift purging of Jang with no signs of a coup, in fact, impressed the Chinese leadership, according to my interviews with Chinese interlocutors.
Previously, the young Kim Jong-un had been a largely unknown, untested, inexperienced new leader in China's eyes. With the swift and brutal purging, Kim proved his mettle. As one Chinese said, "Like father, like son." Chinese interlocutors told me that China also finds it more convenient to deal with North Korea's leader directly, without having to go through a middleman like Jang.
To outsiders, it is a mystery how the odd couple manages their relationship. But so far, they have beaten the odds.
The outside community promotes a view that China, more than ever, has to realize that if North Korea proceeds with a robust nuclear weapons program and Beijing doesn't exert real pressure on Pyongyang, it will result in increasingly negative repercussions for China's own strategic interests.
Unfortunately, this doesn't square with China's own perceptions. Even though China sees North Korea's provocations as destabilizing, including the latest nuclear test and missile launches, it regards the collapse of North Korea as an even greater liability. Further, China thinks the U.S. and its allies pose a more grave danger to China's strategic interests than North Korea does. Just look at China's reaction to THAAD.
Chinese mistrust of the U.S. remains the primary obstacle to cooperation with the United States on North Korea. Despite the inconvenience North Korea poses, geo-strategically speaking, China can hardly afford to put North Korea in an adversarial position.
The common way to describe the U.S. policy on North Korea as "strategic patience" is fallacious. Technically speaking, the U.S. has been patient with China, not with North Korea. Washington's strategy is to see how far China can go in pressuring North Korea. Against this backdrop, that's a prescription for inaction.
The future of China-North Korea relations has its uncertainties, yet the odds for the U.S. strategy have even more.
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.