China, North Korea remain reluctant brothers in arms
While Beijing has guided fast-moving developments on the Korean Peninsula, history shows it would be a mistake to view Pyongyang as its pliant client
With a second meeting in just weeks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, this time in the northeastern Chinese town of Dalian on May 7-8, it is increasingly obvious that Beijing rather than Washington is the main powerbroker behind recent moves to resolve the Korean Peninsula’s nuclear crisis.
Without China’s public and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, it is doubtful that Kim’s upcoming historic summit with US President Donald Trump, now scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, would ever have materialized.
At the same time, it would be a mistake to believe that North Korea is a pliant Chinese client state, even with its economic and diplomatic dependence on Beijing for its survival.
When China and the erstwhile Soviet Union were bitter rivals, North Korea never sided with one against the other, and, in many ways, managed to play off the Soviets against the Chinese.
That worked despite the fact that China sent an estimated 1.35 million “volunteers” to fight alongside the North Korean army during the 1950-53 war. At least 180,000 Chinese soldiers died in that proxy war with America, including Mao Anying, the eldest son then Chinese leader Mao Zedong. There are thus emotional bonds between the two countries that cannot be erased.
More than 400,000 Chinese soldiers initially stayed behind after the war, but in return for aid and other support from Beijing were eventually withdrawn in 1958. Later, on July 11, 1961, a 20-year “Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty” was signed between the two sides.
The de facto security treaty’s article 2 stipulates that the two neighbors must defend each other inn the event of any outside attack. It has since been renewed twice, in 1981 and 2001, and is now valid until 2021 — which Trump may or may not have been aware of when he threatened to take “fire and fury” military action against Pyongyang.
A week before North Korea first signed the treaty with China, it had signed a similar agreement with the Soviet Union. At the time, North Korea’s “neutral stance” in the communist bloc did not go well inn Beijing.
Relations soured further during China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s when Red Guards came across the border to denounce then North Korean leader Kim Il-sung as a “revisionist” and disciple of then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
Also in the 1960s, a serious disagreement erupted between the two countries over the demarcation of the boundary around Mount Paekdu, which for the North Koreans is a holy site because they claim that it was from there Kim Jong-un’s grandfather Kim Il-sung led the war against Japanese colonialists.
It was also there that Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, was reputedly born. That is a myth because Kim Il-sung spent 1940-45 in exile in the Russian Far East, where Kim Jong-il was also born. There are several memorials to the two older Kims on the mountain, an enduring symbol of their victorious revolution.
The area in dispute, and the Chinese claim, covered over a thousand square kilometers, including the 2,744-meter summit of the holy mountain. It was not until 1970 that the Chinese yielded on its claim and relations improved.
Although North Korea is heavily dependent on China, especially for fuel as is does not have any indigenous sources of oil or gas, the leaders in Pyongyang have always maintained a certain distance from Beijing.
The Chinese could not have been particularly pleased when, in 1992, North Korea established a curious partnership with Taiwan. In August that year, South Korea decided to switch diplomatic recognition from The Republic of China, or Taiwan, to The People’s Republic of China.
South Korea and Taiwan had been close allies since the Korean War and throughout the Cold War. The two nations, which cooperated politically, economically and militarily, were widely seen as the region’s two most staunchly anti-communist nations.
Paradoxically, given Taiwan’s anti-communist stand — but understandable against the backdrop of South Korea’s “betrayal” — Taipei began to establish trade and commercial links with North Korea.
North Korean front companies were soon established in Taipei, where they could buy needed electronic goods, and Taiwanese politicians visited Pyongyang. There were also talks at one point about Taiwanese industrial and other investments in North Korea.
But, most likely because of pressure from the United States and Japan, the relationship fizzled out in the early 2000s. But China’s relations with South Korea continue to complicate its ties to Pyongyang.
And so, too, do groups of North Korean asylum seekers who have barged their way into foreign embassies in Beijing since the early 2000s and others that traversed China to once hospitable destinations in Southeast Asia, including Thailand.
That is not happening anymore, but tens of thousands of North Korean refugees are now stranded in China’s border provinces waiting for an opportunity to go to South Korea or the West. Many are hiding in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin province, which, as the name suggests, has a huge ethnic Korean population.
Aggressive raids by Chinese police looking for illegal immigrants in the area could upset the delicate relationship that China has with its own ethnic minorities.
Nor do North Korea and China see eye-to-eye on economic reforms. Despite several visits to China by Kim Jong-il, occasions where the Chinese tried to convince him of the benefits of economic liberalization, North Korea did little to deviate from its rigid system based of juche, or self-reliance, based on the idea that “the masses” are the “masters of the revolution.”
That policy has not changed since Kim Jong-un took over after his father’s death in December 2011.
China’s frustration with perceived North Korean intransigence became evident when they began to cultivate ties to Jang Song-thaek, the husband of Kim Jong-il’s sister (and therefore Kim Jong-un’s aunt) Kim Kyong-hui. Jang was supposed to be more open to the type of economic reforms China has promoted for North Korea.
During an August 2012 meeting with Hu Jintao, then general secretary of the Communist Party of China, Jang reportedly said that he wanted Kim Jong-un to be replaced by Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam, who was then living in Macau, a former Portuguese colony turned Special Administrative Region of China.
A tape from the meeting found its way to Kim Jong-un, and Jang was executed for treason in December 2013. Kim Jong-nam died in February 2017 after being attacked by two women who smeared a nerve agent on his face at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur airport while he was traveling back to Macau.
Even with touchy ties, Kim Il-sung was a frequent visitor to China. But the Chinese refused to provide North Korea with that it wanted the most: ballistic missiles and an atomic bomb. The North Koreans had to turn to Egypt in the 1970s to acquire a Scud-B missile, which they managed to reverse-engineer and produce their own arsenal.
Basic nuclear know-how was obtained at various academic establishments in the Soviet Union, and then refined in North Korea’s own scientific institutions. Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and it is noteworthy that his son and successor Kim Jong-il visited China only eight times as national leader.
Bilateral relations hit a certain nadir last year when China opted to support sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear tests. China subsequently ordered all North Korean companies in China to cease operations within 120 days.
But China had demonstrated it displeasure with North Korea long before that. Already in 2013, the Bank of China and other Chinese banks closed the account of North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank after Washington accused it of helping to finance Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. And in February 2016, Chinese banks froze the accounts belonging to other North Korean institutions.
The North Koreans responded with attacks on China in their state media. Last year, the North Korean state media again directly lambasted China.
The fiercest salvo came in February when the official Korea Central News Agency said that “this country”, meaning China, “styling itself as a big power is dancing to the tune of the US while defending its mean behavior with such excuses that it was meant not to have a negative impact on the living of the people in the DPRK (North Korea) but to check its nuclear program.”
It is therefore perhaps not surprising that Kim Jong-un had never visited China until his armored train pulled into Beijing’s central station on March 27. The rest is history: it is now abundantly clear that China is exerting maximum pressure on North Korea to come in from the cold and become a responsible member of the international community.
China clearly thinks that is only possible if it reforms its economy and opens itself to more trade and investment. North Korea’s trade with China, excluding illicit trade of weapons and other underground commerce, accounts for 90% of its total.
In that wishful direction, a wide, modern road now leads down from the Chinese town of Dandong opposite Sinuiju in North Korea. The Chinese have also almost completed construction of a modern dual-carriageway bridge on the Yalu border river to replace the old “friendship bridge” built decades ago.
This is China’s forward-looking, if not hopeful, investment for the time when North Korea makes peace with the outside world and international sanctions are lifted. For now, though, there is nothing more than a barren, open field on the other side of China’s infrastructure-building.
Only time will tell if cross-border links are established, but given decades of stubborn resistance to any kind of outside interference — including China’s — Kim’s regime will not easily dismantle the juche-based economy from which he, his father, and grandfather all derived their revolutionary legitimacy.