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North Korea’s Relations with ChinaChen Jian
Despite that the PRC has been the DPRK’s main ally since the 1950s, Beijing’s relations with Pyongyang are by no means without serious problems.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Early Contacts
- Prior to and during the Korean War
- The 1956 Crisis and Its Consequences
- The Ups and Downs of the 1960s
- The Limited Reconsolidation of the 1970s
- Widening the Gap in the 1980s and After the Cold War
- The Difficult Challenges of the 1990s
- The Short-Lived “Rosy Hopes” of 2000-2001
The end of the global Cold War in the last decade of the 20th century concluded a century of radical revolutions. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet-led East European Communist bloc, and along with such “Communist” countries as China and Vietnam actively pursuing a path of development characterized by “reform and opening to the outside world,” the international communist movement collapsed as a fundamental alternative to global capitalism as the preferred path toward modernity and beyond.
Yet a few “Communist” states, such as North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) and Cuba, survived the end of the Cold War and persisted in a domestic system dominated by rigid political dictatorship and an external policy of continuously staying as “outsiders” of the existing international system. In the case of North Korea, the regime in Pyongyang not only has remained a challenger to international stability and order in a general sense but also, and more seriously, has repeatedly created dangerous crisis situations in East Asia through such endeavors as persistently pursuing its own nuclear and missile programs. In the post-Cold War era, North Korea has been the single-most serious factor threatening international peace and stability in Northeast Asia.
Whether or not the Korean crisis will spiral out of control depends upon many conditions, and a key factor is policies and attitudes of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Indeed, the PRC was the DPRK’s main ally throughout the Cold War period. From the 1950s to the 1980s, Beijing continuously provided Pyongyang with significant military and other material support. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the PRC has become the sole big power from which the DPRK may receive substantial material support. Beijing also has served as the main international bridge (for example, through sponsoring the six-party talks) that Pyongyang has maintained contacts and, at times, “dialogues” with the outside world. Therefore, how the crisis situation on the Korean peninsula will develop, be controlled and, with any hope, resolved is closely related to what Beijing will and can do.
Despite the fact that the PRC has been the DPRK’s main ally since the 1950s, Beijing’s relations with Pyongyang are by no means without serious problems and restrictions. While the ties between them are often boasted by a discourse of “lips and teeth” solidarity, there were times that substantial differences in perception and practice existed between the two allies. In a sense, the legacies of the uneasy history of Chinese-North Korean relations are mirrored in the complexity of the PRC-DPRK relationship today, revealing the limits to which Beijing may influence the orientation of Pyongyang’s attitudes and policies. Therefore, a critical historical review of Chinese-North Korean relations will shed useful light upon some of the crucial aspects of the Korea challenge that the world has been facing.
Historically, the Korean Communists had intimate ties with the Chinese Communists. During the 1930s, Kim Il Sung, who later became the leader of Communist North Korea, waged an anti-Japanese guerrilla struggle in Manchuria. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, a group of Korean Communists (including Pak Il Yu, who would later become North Korea’s vice prime minister and a head of the “Yan’an faction” within the Korean Workers’ Party [KWP]) went to Yan’an, the “Red Capital” of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and joined China’s War of Resistance against Japan. During the Chinese civil war between the CCP and the Nationalists in the late 1940s, while Communist North Korea served as a strategic supporting base for the CCP in Manchuria, around 100,000 ethnic Korean residents in China joined the Chinese Communist forces. The 156th, 164th and 166th divisions, three of the best combat units of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), were mainly composed of ethnic Korean soldiers.
Prior to and during the Korean War
In 1949, when the Chinese Communist revolution achieved nationwide victory and Kim Il Sung was planning to unify the entire Korean peninsula through a revolutionary war, the Korean Communists hoped that their Chinese comrades would return the favor. From summer 1949 to spring 1950, top Chinese and Korean Communist leaders had a series of discussions, resulting in the CCP sending around 50,000 to 70,000 ethnic Korean soldiers in the PLA—with their weapons—back to Korea. These troops, forming a core part of the Korean People’s Army’s offensive capacity, would later play a crucial role in North Korea’s invasion of the South. By doing so, the CCP virtually provided Kim with a green light to attack the South.
But even at this early stage of the China-North Korea relationship, significant problems existed between Chinese and Korean Communists. Kim Il Sung, in planning the war to invade the South, did not visit Beijing to consult with Mao Zedong and the CCP leadership about his ideas until mid-May 1950, only one month prior to the war’s beginning. Furthermore, he failed to inform Beijing of the exact schedule of the invasion.
During the war years, especially after Chinese troops entered the war to rescue Kim’s regime in October 1950, China’s relations with the North Korean Communists became extremely close, but problems continued between the two sides. According to Chinese sources available since the end of the Cold War, China and North Korea experienced four major disputes during the Korean War years: First, in January 1951, when Chinese troops had pushed the battle line from areas close to the Yalu River to areas south of the 38th parallel, PLA commanders believed that their troops were not in a position to continue the offensive, but Kim insisted upon bringing the war further to the South. Second, in spring 1951, when U.S. forces had begun a counteroffensive on the battlefield, the Chinese commanders carried out a strategy of “positive defense” to win time and space to reorganize their troops. Kim again tried to push the Chinese to use a counteroffensive of their own to cope with the American offensive. Third, after the armistice talks began in July 1951, the Chinese found it necessary to continue to control North Korea’s railway transportation system, but Kim endeavored to resume Pyongyang’s direct control of the railway system. Fourth, in June and July 1953, after South Korean leader Syngman Rhee ordered the release of more than 25,000 anti-communist North Korean prisoners, the Chinese believed it necessary to give the enemy “another bitter strike” before reaching an armistice. Kim opposed the plan and argued that it was better for military operations on the battlefield to stop immediately.
These differences can be regarded simply as discrepancies in strategies and tactics that usually emerge in any alliance relationship. More serious, however, was Kim Il Sung’s purge of several prominent members (including Pak Il Yu and Mu Chong, the highest ranked PLA commander in the Korean People’s Army) of the “Yan’an faction” within the KWP. Indeed, Kim demonstrated an extraordinary ability to manipulate this issue under the circumstances that his own regime’s very survival was at the mercy of 1.35 million Chinese troops who were fighting a war in Korea on his behalf. Ostensibly Kim was able to use Mao Zedong’s promise that Chinese troops in Korea would under no circumstances interfere with Korea’s internal affairs to keep the Chinese out of these inner-Party purges. In essence, however, this epitomized a more general pattern in Beijing’s mentality—one that had been profoundly penetrated by the “Central Kingdom’s” sense of moral superiority in dealing with its smaller neighbors (such as Korea and Vietnam)—in perceiving and handling relations with Kim and North Korea. For Mao, to send Chinese troops to Korea was not for such an “inferior” purpose of pursuing China’s direct political and economic control in Korea, but was for, among other aims, achieving the Korean Communists’ inner acceptance of China’s morally superior position. This was why, in late September 1950, Mao refused to help opposition factions within the KWP get rid of Kim when Chinese troops were to enter Korea; and this was why Beijing established a self-imposed principle on not interfering with North Korea’s internal affairs throughout the war years.
The 1956 Crisis and Its Consequences
Yet Kim, a Korean nationalist in soul and increasingly a dictator in practice, neither tolerated the continuous existence of any remaining pro-foreign faction within his Party nor felt comfortable with having to live under the shadow of a morally superior China. All of this formed one of the most important conditions under which Kim introduced in 1955 the “Juche” ideology, emphasizing that the Korean revolution must be carried out in an indigenous Korean way and must achieve “self-reliance” in all spheres.
It was against these backdrops that a serious crisis erupted between Pyongyang and Beijing in late 1956. At an August 30-31 KWP Central Committee plenary session that was officially designated for Kim to give a speech on his recent visit to the Soviet Union and East Europe, several prominent Party leaders who, allegedly, belonged to the pro-China “Yan’an faction” and pro-Soviet factions stood up to criticize Kim’s personality cult and challenge his economic policies. Kim, informed of the attack in advance, organized effective rebuttals. This resulted in four top Party cadres—Yun Kong Hum (Minister of Commerce), So Hwi (Chairman of Trade Unions),Yi Pil Guy (Minister of Construction Materials), and Kim Kang—fleeing to China, and several other Party cadres (including Yi Sang Jo, DPRK’s ambassador to Moscow and a member of the Yan’an faction) seeking asylum in the Soviet Union. Kim responded by expanding the purge. In addition to expelling these cadres from the Party, two top Party leaders, Choi Chang-ik (vice premier and, reportedly, head of the Yan’an faction after Pak Il-yu’s purge) and Pak Chang-ok (another vice premier and, reportedly, head of the pro-Soviet faction) were expulsed from the Party and arrested.
In response, those KWP cadres who had fled to Beijing and Yi Sang Jo in Moscow presented their cases to the Chinese and Soviet parties. Beijing’s and Moscow’s leaders, who sympathized with the purged KWP cadres, believed that the recent crisis within the KWP leadership was caused by “differences in policies and opinions” rather than, as Kim had claimed, “reactionary attacks on the Party.” On September 18, at a four-hour meeting between Mao Zedong and Anastas Mikoyan, the Soviet Union’s first deputy prime minister and Party politburo member who was then leading a Soviet Party delegation to attend the CCP’s Eighth National Congress, Mao expressed his strong disapproval of Kim’s handling of North Korea’s inner-Party problems. He pointed out that in handling their own inner-Party problems, the Chinese communists had always adhered to a practice of “while the majority should not be arrested, not a single one should be executed.” He emphasized that Kim’s methods of using police force to deal with inner-Party problems and identify long-time comrades as “foreign spies” and “class enemies” were totally mistaken. Mikoyan, representing the Soviet Party leadership, expressed complete agreement with Mao’s opinions. The Chinese and Soviet leaders thus decided to step in to help “investigate and mediate” the crisis situation in North Korea. They decided that a high-ranking joint Chinese and Soviet delegation would travel to Pyongyang to “help Kim correct his mistakes.” On September 19, a joint Chinese and Soviet delegation headed by Marshal Peng Dehuai (defense minister and former commander of Chinese Volunteers to Korea) and Marshal Nie Rongzhen (vice chairman of CCP Central Military Commission), together with Anastas Mikoyan, flew to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Il-sung. After intensive discussions lasting four days, Kim finally agreed to make some concessions. On the same day that Peng, Nie and Mikoyan left Pyongyang, September 23, another plenary session of the KWP Central Committee decided to restore Choi Chang Ik and Pak Chang Ok to the Central Committee and to reinstate Yun Kong Hum, So Hwi, and Yi Pil Gyu as Party members.
But this was the last time that Beijing (and Moscow) was able to force Kim to change his course of action, and, as it soon turned out, Kim’s concessions were only temporary. In a few months’ time, he took action again. He not only waged massive purges of the “August factionists” but also, through carrying out a “concentrated guidance” campaign, established a more monolithic political structure with himself as North Korea’s undisputable paramount leader. In the face of such a situation and also considering that Beijing needed Pyongyang’s support in its pursuit of China’s leadership role in the international Communist movement, Mao decided to make a major compromise with Kim. In November 1957, when both Mao and Kim were attending the meeting of leaders of Communist and Workers’ Parties from socialist countries in Moscow, reportedly the CCP chairman made “self-criticism” about Beijing’s handling of the August 1956 crisis (although he might still have advised Kim that he should not treat comrades with different opinions as “reactionaries” but, rather, should learn from the CCP’s practice of “while no one would be executed the majority would not be arrested” in handling inner-Party struggle). Mao and Kim also agreed that all Chinese troops would withdraw from Korea in the near future. Following the general plans that had worked out between Beijing and Pyongyang after the Mao-Kim Moscow meeting, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai visited Pyongyang in February 1958 to work out the details of the withdrawal. By the end of 1958, all Chinese troops indeed had left North Korea.
The 1956 crisis and the ensuing troop withdrawal from Korea significantly transformed the foundation of Beijing’s relations with Pyongyang while, at the same time, changing North Korea’s position in the international communist movement. Up to that point, North Korea had been a “little brother” under Moscow and Beijing, and Kim Il Sung, in spite of his consistent efforts to maintain autonomy in Pyongyang’s own decision-making, would have to consult with the two Communist “big brothers” on many important occasions. As a consequence of the 1956 crisis, Kim achieved greater independence and a more equal status in dealing with Beijing and Moscow. In the DPRK’s official propaganda, accompanying the discourse of “solidarity with other socialist countries” was a highlighted emphasis upon “opposing flunkeyism” as a fundamental principle that the Party should follow in its external relations. As a result, when Kim further consolidated his absolute control over North Korea’s Party and state through a series of massive purges at home, he also dramatically enhanced Pyongyang’s capacity in resisting influences from Beijing and Moscow. In July 1961, when the PRC and the DPRK signed a treaty of friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance, it symbolized that the Chinese–North Korean relationship, by its essence, was now one between two “equal partners.”
The Ups and Downs of the 1960s
In the early 1960s, Pyongyang further gained leverage in its dealings with Beijing when a great polemic debate concerning the nature of true communism emerged and intensified between China and the Soviet Union. In appearance, the North Koreans maintained neutrality toward Beijing and Moscow, but in reality they were more sympathetic to Beijing.
Kim Il Sung’s pro-China attitudes were determined largely by his resentment of Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign and criticism of Stalin’s personality cult. For Kim, at a time when he was making all-out efforts to establish and enhance his own personality cult in North Korea, it was inconceivable that he would be willing to support Khrushchev’s anti-personality cult discourse even in a general sense. In addition, the failure on the part of Khrushchev and the Soviet leadership to provide sufficient military and other material support to North Korea alienated Pyongyang from Moscow. Therefore, in 1963-1964, North Korean Communists stood on Beijing’s side in the CCP’s great polemic debates with the Soviets, criticizing Moscow’s “modern revisionism” (but Pyongyang was short of opening identifying Khrushchev and the Soviet leadership as “modern revisionists).
When Mao and the CCP were increasingly isolated in the international communist movement with the deepening of the Sino-Soviet split, Pyongyang’s support was crucial from Beijing’s perspective. In a 1964 conversation with Choe Yeongeon, North Korea’s second in command, Mao even asked him to comment on whether or not the Soviet Union would attack the PRC from the north, trying to win firmer support from Pyongyang. During this period, although Beijing’s influence upon Pyongyang was further reduced, Chinese–North Korean relations—now based upon a foundation that was quite different from that of the early and mid-1950s—were very close.
The situation, however, changed in the mid-1960s. On the one hand, after Khrushchev’s downfall in October 1964, the new Soviet leadership substantially increased material support to the DPRK; on the other, the eruption of the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” in 1966 sunk China’s Party, state and society into great chaos, causing the PRC’s external relations in general— and its relations with the DPRK in particular—to be severely derailed. Consequently, Chinese–North Korean relations reached low ebb in 1967-1969, when the Cultural Revolution was experiencing its most hectic stage. The Red Guards in China widely made Kim Il Sung a target of criticism, proclaiming that North Korea, like the Soviet Union, had degenerated into a “revisionist country.” And the Beijing leadership, which was in a constant disorder, did little to stop these activities. At some points it even seemed that the PRC-DPRK alliance was going to be undermined.
When both Beijing and Pyongyang strongly felt the negative impact caused by the deterioration of their relationship, they started to take action to improve relations. In October 1967, Zhou Enlai asked Mokhtar Ould Daddah, President of Mauritania who was then visiting China and would be visiting North Korea, to carry a “personal message” from Chairman Mao Zedong and himself to Kim Il-sung, stating that “China values very much the traditional friendship with Korea and the Korean people,” and that China would stand on the side of North Korea “in the case of imperialist aggression.” When Daddah returned from Pyongyang, he brought back a message from Kim to Mao and Zhou, in which the North Korean leaders stated that “in the case of imperialist aggression, DPRK and PRC will certainly stand on the same side.”
In January 1968, when a serious crisis erupted between the DPRK and the United States after the U.S. intelligence vessel Pueblo and its crew were captured by the North Koreans, the PRC government issued a statement on January 29, 1968 to provide “firm support” to the DPRK. The statement—especially the strong language used in it—revealed Chinese leaders’ intention to improve relations with North Korea.
A dramatic turn in Chinese-North Korean relations occurred on September 30, 1969, the eve of the 20th anniversary of the PRC’s establishment. Although Beijing had decided in principle that no foreign delegation would be invited to attend the celebrations for the anniversary, at 3:20 p.m. on September 30, “for the purpose of improving Chinese-Korean relations,” Beijing issued an invitation for a top North Korean leader to visit Beijing. At 6:25 p.m., Pyongyang replied that Choe Yeongeon would travel to China, and Choe arrived in Beijing at 11:30 that evening. The next day, Mao met with him atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace, telling him that “the relations between our two countries are special and our aims are identical, so we should improve our relations.”
The Limited Reconsolidation of the 1970s
Mao issued these statements at a time when China was not only engaged in a two-decade-long confrontation with the United States but also, and worse, faced serious security threat from the Soviet Union—indeed, reportedly Moscow even considered conducting preemptive strikes on China’s nuclear facilities. It would have been unwise if Beijing had failed to take action to improve relations with the DPRK as a neighbor and a Communist ally.
But this also meant that Beijing’s leverage upon Pyongyang became even more limited than before. When both Beijing and Pyongyang again emphasized the solidarity between them in the early 1970s, the alliance, along with a shared belief in communist ideology, was supported by a series of shrewd security agreements. One important element was that Beijing, by standing together with North Korea in the “armistice regime” on the peninsula, naturally occupied a crucial position to prop up the security of the DPRK, whereas North Korea served as a security buffer on China’s northeast border. Mutual political support, such as Beijing contending that the DPRK legally represented the entire Korea and Pyongyang firmly supporting the notion that the PRC was China’s sole legal government, formed another important aspect of the alliance. Furthermore, the personal ties between top leaders of the two sides—who by then had known each other for over a quarter-century—played another key role to make the relationship stable.
One of the most important turning points during the Cold War was the Sino-American rapprochement in the early 1970s. Compared with the resentment from Albania and North Vietnam, two of China’s other Communist allies, Pyongyang demonstrated a willingness to understand and support Beijing on this issue, to which Chinese leaders were grateful. To reward the support from Pyongyang, Beijing also significantly increased China’s material support to North Korea in the early 1970s.
However, this did not mean that Beijing would be willing to stand on Pyongyang’s side on any matter that was important to the North Koreans. The limitedness of the Chinese–North Korean alliance was most clearly revealed in April 1975, when Kim Il Sung traveled to Beijing to try to gain China’s backing for his renewed interest in using a “revolutionary war” to unify the Korean peninsula. Kim’s visit occurred against the background of impending Communist victories in Vietnam and Cambodia and the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina. Kim delivered a highly belligerent speech after arriving in Beijing, contending that Asia was approaching “a new era of revolution” and that if a revolutionary war were to break out in Korea “we will only lose the Military Demarcation Line and will gain the country’s reunification.” But Beijing showed little interest in Kim’s ideas. Reportedly, in Kim’s meeting with Mao, the CCP chairman referred him to Deng Xiaoping for discussions of “issues related to Korea.” Deng, in meeting with Kim, emphasized that China was facing the great challenge of promoting socialist economic reconstruction at home, and therefore would not be in a position to commit itself to Kim’s “revolutionary war” plans.
Widening the Gap in the 1980s and After the Cold War
As it turned out, the discrepancy demonstrated in the 1975 Deng-Kim meeting was with a meaning much deeper and broader than the issues under discussion. It indicated that Beijing, after persistently pursuing a Korea policy aimed at bringing about revolutionary changes on the peninsula, was willing to live with the status quo. This new tendency in Chinese policy became more evident after Mao’s death in September 1976.With Deng Xiaoping ascending in the late 1970s to become China’s paramount leader, a profound derevolutionization process swept across China. When Deng placed on top of his agenda modernizing China’s industry, agriculture, national defense, and science, the unfolding of a new era of “Reform and Opening to the Outside” also made China depart from the path as a “revolutionary country” in international politics. Consequently, Beijing, even before the end of the global Cold War, began to consider the feasibility of normalizing relations with South Korea, further revealing that its Korea policy as a whole was increasingly taking the maintenance of the status quo as a basic aim.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War completely changed the context of East Asian international politics. It also brought about new and important differences to the PRC and the DPRK. The most outstanding among them has been the different ways in which Beijing and Pyongyang have coped with their respective legitimacy crises. Beijing chose to enhance the “Reform and Opening” process by establishing a Chinese style “socialist market economy” so that China would be incorporated into the international community, whereas Pyongyang opted to remain closed to the outside world and stick to its own codes of behavior in every sense. Thus emerged a new fundamental difference between Beijing and Pyongyang that had not existed during most of the Cold War: While the PRC has gradually changed into an international actor within the existing international system, demonstrating a general willingness to be bound by the rules and regulations widely accepted by other actors, the DPRK has persistently stayed outside the existing international system, refusing to act in accordance with the widely accepted rules and regulations. In addition to all the reasons that had contributed to China’s limited influence over North Korea in the past, this new difference makes it even more difficult for Beijing to affect the orientation of Pyongyang’s attitudes and policies in the post–Cold War age.
The Difficult Challenges of the 1990s
Not surprisingly, during most of the 1990s—especially after the PRC normalized diplomatic relations with the Republic of Korea (ROK) in 1992 and Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994—China–North Korea relations sunk into another cold period. In almost seven years (1992-1999), top leaders from the two countries did not visit the other. In response to the PRC-ROK normalization, Pyongyang intentionally demonstrated an interest in developing economic and cultural ties with Taiwan. It has been widely speculated that in 1993 the North Korean member of the International Olympic Committee did not cast a supporting vote for Beijing in its unsuccessful bid for the 2000 Olympic Games. In February 1997, when Beijing allowed Hwang Jang Yop—a KWP secretary and, as widely perceived, a main architect of the Juche ideology—to defect to the South through seeking refuge at the ROK embassy in Beijing, tension became further intensified between the PRC and the DPRK.
All of this was to be followed by the disastrous consequences of the North Korean food crisis in the mid-1990s, which caused flows of refugees to enter China’s Northeast neighboring North Korea. Accompanying all these tensions was a steady decrease in the volume of PRC-DPRK trade. After the two abolished their barter system for bilateral trade in 1992, the value of Chinese–North Korean trade reduced continuously in the following seven years, from $899 million in 1993 to $370 million in 1999. In the meantime, Beijing’s relations with Seoul developed rapidly and comprehensively. Throughout the 1990s, the trade relationship between the PRC and the ROK maintained a two digit annual rate of increase, which made Pyongyang feel genuinely offended. The difficulty of handling the relationship was further augmented, as personal ties among top leaders in Beijing and Pyongyang were no longer operative following the deaths of Kim Il Sung and Deng Xiaoping. Beijing’s leaders, like concerned policymakers in other parts of the world, at times seemed unable to understand the new North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s behavior.
Despite these numerous problems, Beijing’s leaders endeavored to maintain the “traditional friendship” with Pyongyang. They had reasons to do so. In addition to the strategic consideration that North Korea would serve as a buffer for China, they also understood that the DPRK’s political and economic collapse would result in a geopolitical earthquake in Northeast Asia, thus bringing about a detrimental impact upon China’s own plans for economic modernization. Even with the dramatic decrease in overall trade with North Korea, China remained the DPRK’s largest outside supplier for food and oil. In the mid-1990s, Beijing’s emergency food aid to Pyongyang probably saved the North Korean society from a disastrous collapse. In the meantime, Beijing had tried to play a constructive role in international diplomacy about issues related to the Korean peninsula (such as participating in the Four Party Talks process beginning in 1997), while, at the same time, trying every channel to advise Kim Jong Il that for North Korea’s own sake it should pursue its own path of “reform and opening to the outside world.”
The Short-Lived “Rosy Hopes” of 2000-2001
Another turning point came in 1999. In June, Kim Yong Nam, then a KWP politburo member and chairman of the DPRK’s Supreme People’s Assembly, visited Beijing. In October, Chinese foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan visited Pyongyang. The next year, Kim Jong Il shocked the world by agreeing to attend the North-South summit. Right before the meeting, he visited China in May 2000. Seven months later, in January 2001, he traveled to China again—this time to Shanghai, China’s model case for reform and opening polices. Beginning in 2000, Chinese–North Korean trade started increasing. At the moment it seemed as if Kim Jong Il was willing to develop a reform strategy of his own version. Meanwhile, high-level talks were waged between Pyongyang and Washington, revealing the possibility that the 1994 Geneva Agreement Framework, together with the result of the North- South summit, could be transformed into a new peace structure that would replace the unstable “armistice regime” that had existed on the Korean peninsula for almost half century.
But this period of rosy hopes turned out to be short-lived. While Kim Jong Il failed to demonstrate a willingness and ability to stick consistently to the course of reconciliation that had been initiated by the June 2000 North-South summit, Washington’s inclusion of Pyongyang as part of the “axis of evil” further interrupted the process designed by Seoul, Beijing and Washington during previous years to engage North Korea. When the atmosphere of confrontation had replaced that of reconciliation on the Korea peninsula, a crisis situation emerged again. North Korea persistently pursued its own nuclear and missile programs. Beijing repeatedly made efforts to bring North Korea back to the negotiation table—especially through the creation of the institution of the six-party talks on the Korean nuclear issue.
However, Beijing’s impact on Pyongyang’s decisionmaking seemed limited. A clear revelation in this respect is that Pyongyang has tested its own nuclear weapons and repeatedly made missile tests despite Beijing’s advice or even warnings. Pyongyang also abandoned the “six-party” framework of dialogue that Beijing had made such great efforts to create. Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2011 and Kim Jong Un’s succession after that further increased the North Korean leadership’s sense of legitimacy crisis while, at the same time, significantly weakening whatever personal connections that might have existed between Beijing’s and Pyongyang’s top leaders. As a result, China’s capacity to influence North Korea has reduced further.
What can or will Beijing’s leaders do to deal with the North Korea challenge? There is no simple answer to this question. Beijing has plenty of reasons not to allow the potential crisis situation in the Korean peninsula to grow out of control. Since the mid-1970s and certainly during the post-Cold War era, a fundamental feature of Beijing’s policy toward the Korean peninsula has been the maintenance of the status quo. If any transformation in the region were to happen, Beijing would prefer it to happen through negotiations between the two Koreas and through international diplomacy involving Beijing as a main East Asian power. Beijing’s leaders need North Korea to continuously serve as China’s strategic buffer on its northeastern border, and need a stable and peaceful environment in East Asia that will help promote China’s plans of economic modernization. Therefore, Beijing certainly has a strong desire to help resolve the Korean nuclear crisis.
However, the real problem is not what Beijing is willing to do, but what it is in a position to do. Beijing’s relationship with Pyongyang, though close in a general sense, has not been harmonious. And Beijing’s ability to influence the orientation of Pyongyang’s attitudes and policies has been quite limited. Even during the Korean War years, when large numbers of Chinese troops were present on Korean territory, Beijing failed to stop Kim Il Sung from purging outstanding members of the Yan’an faction within the KWP. Kim Il Sung’s shrewd handling of the 1956 crisis further demonstrated that he was capable of sticking to his own course of action in the face of pressures from Beijing. Since then, Pyongyang has developed a policymaking structure, as well as a rationality associated with it, that is highly independent (epitomized by the Juche ideology). In the post-Cold War age, Beijing and Pyongyang have been further driven apart by their different attitudes toward the existing international system and as a result of the passing away of the old generation of leaders who communicated with each other through special “personal ties.” In these senses, Beijing has not occupied a more privileged position than others in dealing with Pyongyang’s leaders. Indeed, given that Korea historically had been part of China’s sphere of influence and both Chinese and North Korean leaders have been extremely sensitive toward the impact of that tradition, Beijing’s leaders will have to show real caution in trying to advise, let alone applying pressure on, Pyongyang.
Beijing’s real leverage on Pyongyang is North Korea’s economic dependence upon China. But this certainly does not mean that Beijing’s leaders are in a position to impose certain policy decisions upon North Korea at will. Beijing’s leaders face a major dilemma: if they do not apply the economic means, it is likely that their voice will go unheard by Pyongyang’s ears; but if they do use economic means—such as cutting off China’s aid to North Korea—this might backfire and, in the worst case scenario, might even cause North Korea’s economic and societal collapse and thus result in a huge blow to China’s own interests. Therefore, Beijing’s leaders will have to draw their own lessons from China’s previous experience in dealing with North Korea and come up with a good strategy that will help control the potential crisis situation on the Korean peninsula.