North Korea's missile and nuclear tests conducted unilaterally have put China's North Korea policy under intense internal and external pressures. The dramatic developments since 2018 like the détente of the two Koreas and the unprecedented US–North Korea summits are not to be seen as signs that China has played an effective role through its North Korea policy. Why does North Korea always seem to have the upper hand in its relationship with China despite its obvious unilateral economic dependence on China? How did Sino–North Korean relations evolve into their current contradictory state? What is the nature of their relationship? This article considers these questions by analysing China's North Korea policy over the past three decades, since the end of the Cold War. Current research mainly focuses on analyses of specific periods and the interpretation of specific events. By systemically investigating the policy evolution in the past 30 years, this article argues that the US-centric mentality is the primary variable for informing China's perception and policy towards North Korea after the Cold War.