China and Korea: A change of partners?
By Aidan Foster-Carter
Didn't they make a lovely couple? Two 60-somethings, both looking good for their age. He tall and smart in dark suit and red tie, she elegant in lemon-yellow jacket, as together they inspected a combined services honor guard of the People's Liberation Army.
A power couple, too. Both are new leaders of old and important countries. Xi Jinping's China is one of the planet's two superpowers. Park Geun-hye's South Korea is an economic
powerhouse: the world's seventh-biggest exporter. Moreover they are neighbors. China and Korea share a border, a history, and much culture.
Korea's last dynasty, the Choson (1392-1905), was strongly neo-Confucian. Then and for centuries earlier, Korean literati studied Chinese classics and wrote in Chinese characters. The visitor gave a speech in Chinese. Local media on that day in late June praised her and enthused of "Park fever".
What could be more natural than for neighbors to be good friends and visit one another? Plenty. Something else China and Korea shared was a turbulent 20th century. Since 1945 there have been two Koreas. That was America's bright idea: a "temporary" partition of a country occupied since 1910 by Japan into US and Soviet zones, just to take the Japanese surrender.
When China saved North Korea
In 1948 the split hardened into rival regimes - the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North) and the Republic of Korea (ROK, South) - just as China's own civil war was ending. Naturally, the young PRC supported the communist North.
That proved costly when its young leader, Kim Il-sung, invaded the South in 1950. When US-led UN forces counter-attacked, the DPRK would have been wiped out had China not sent in troops. Those Chinese "volunteers" turned the tide: at one point they occupied Seoul, the ROK capital. Both Korean states survived, but four million Koreans and Chinese did not. They include Mao Zedong's eldest son Mao Anying: killed by napalm aged 28, and buried in a valley east of Pyongyang. On July 29, Kim Jong-eun and other top North Korean leaders paid a rare visit to his grave.
Fast forward 60 years: a potent number in the old sexagenary cycle which Korea shares with China. July 27 was the 60th anniversary of the armistice (there was never a peace treaty) that ended the fighting in Korea after three bitter years. The world has moved on since 1953, with both China and Korea - one half of Korea, anyway - changed almost beyond recognition.
Since 1953, the Koreans have fought on other battlefields, not least the economy. It's hard to believe now, but rapid post-war reconstruction (with generous aid from China and the Soviet bloc) initially put the North ahead. Some radical states in Africa saw the DPRK as a model. That didn't last. Despite much urging to reform from China after 1980, North Korea refused to change its sclerotic system, not even after 1991 when Moscow finally pulled the plug and stopped all aid. The DPRK's boast of self-reliance was always a myth, and its people paid a terrible price. In the late 1990s famine killed a million people. Malnutrition remains endemic.
One country, two planets
Meanwhile, South Korea exported its way to growth and prosperity. Today the Koreas can be called "One country, two planets", so vast is the gap between them. Taking just one example, China is much the largest trade partner of both. Thanks to mineral deals, PRC-DPRK trade almost tripled in the four years 2007-2011, to US$6 billion. Nor was this mainly imports (ie aid) as formerly: North Korean exports quadrupled from $507 million to $2.46 billion. But this is still chickenfeed as against China's trade with South Korea, which last year reached $256 billion. ROK firms have also invested $56.5 billion in China; vice versa the figure is $4.46 billion. A bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) now being negotiated will boost these figures further.
Business is business, but politics is politics. Korea was where the Cold War turned hot, and it is still defined by that straitjacket. For decades, peninsular diplomacy was a "two triangles" structure. North Korea had China and the Soviet Union; South Korea, the US and Japan. Nobody crossed those lines till 1988 when, over protests from the North, China and the Soviet bloc (except Cuba) sent athletes to the Olympic Games in Seoul. Despite the memory of 1950, South Koreans cheered for China. Apparent harmony was restored fully in 1992 when the PRC and ROK finally opened relations. Since then contacts have really taken off: 40 million South Koreans (that's almost all of them) have visited China, while 16 million Chinese tourists have crossed the Yellow Sea. 700,000 Chinese live in South Korea. 70,000 South Koreans study in China, and 60,000 Chinese in the ROK.
Scowling from the sidelines
All this leaves North Korea on the sidelines, scowling. China has tried hard to get its original Korean ally to adapt to a changing world. In 1983 Deng Xiaoping personally escorted Kim Jong-il, then the North's crown prince, on his first public visit to China. The "dear leader" can't have liked what he saw: he stayed away for 17 years. Despite a flurry of visits in Kim's final years, the DPRK still refuses to follow China on a reform path - so its economy suffers.
Instead Kim proclaimed a military-first policy (Songun), including nuclear weapons. In 2006, China openly criticized its old ally, calling the first DPRK nuclear test "brazen"; there have been two more since. From 2003 China chaired six-party talks - with both Koreas, the US, Japan and Russia - on the DPRK nuclear issue, to little avail. These have not met since 2008.
Kim Jong-il's death in late 2011 raised hopes that his son Kim Jong-eun, Swiss-educated and young, may finally lead the DPRK into the 21st century. The new Kim has said his people should no longer have to "tighten their belts". In April, ex-premier Pak Pong-ju, a known reformer, returned to the premiership. His predecessor Choe Yong-rim ended his final report on the economy on April 1 by saying: "Joint venture and collaboration should be actively promoted and the work for setting up economic development zones be pushed forward."
Good idea. Yet the day before, North Korea said it was in a "state of war" with the South. A week later it pulled its entire 53,000 workforce out of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), the last surviving inter-Korean joint venture. This has been idle since, causing US$900 million in losses to the 123 small ROK firms invested there. As of early August, the KIC remains shut, despite six rounds of talks on reopening it. Sadly, there is a real risk that it may never reopen.
Its closure was part of wider tension-raising this spring by the DPRK, including threats of pre-emptive nuclear strikes on the US - something it is not actually able to do, yet. Extreme even by DPRK standards in its rhetoric and duration (two months), this bombast was an own goal, uniting friend and foe in exasperation. When Xi Jinping told the Boao Forum in Hainan on April 8 that "no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains," everyone knew at whom China's new president was pointing the finger.
Actions speak even louder than words. It was remarkable that Xi invited Park, so soon after they both took office, on a state visit of noticeable warmth. Meanwhile Kim Jong-eun has had no such invitation. For China to host South Korea's leader before inviting North Korea's is unprecedented. For that matter, new ROK presidents always go to Washington first, and then to Tokyo second. Not Park: she put China ahead of Japan. That too is a striking shift.
WikiLeaks: Better not believe it
How far might the new Sino-South Korean rapport go? Maybe all the way. On November 29, 2010 the top front page story in the Guardian, a leading British daily paper, bore the striking headline: "Wikileaks cables reveal China 'ready to abandon North Korea'" The sub-heading expanded and explained: "Leaked dispatches show Beijing is frustrated with military actions of 'spoiled child' and increasingly favors reunified Korea."
Really? No, not really. On closer inspection this was just gossip. A particular official known to be an outspoken hardliner - Chun Yung-woo, senior foreign policy secretary to the then ROK president, Lee Myung-bak - was telling the US ambassador in Seoul, over breakfast, some grumbles about the DPRK he'd heard from low-level Chinese officials on the sidelines of the six-party talks - in 2008, two years earlier! So this was no bombshell, but tittle-tattle.
It was also very misleading, since in fact China's line was the exact opposite. In May 2010, when South Korea accused the North of torpedoing one of its warships in March (46 young sailors drowned), Beijing angered Seoul by refusing to condemn Pyonyang - which denied responsibility. More broadly: From about 2008, when Kim Jong-il's health first became a concern, all signs indicate that China took a strategic decision to grit its teeth and prop up the Kim regime, no matter what. Trade (see above) and visits both rose markedly.
Why would China choose so? Old friendship - "like lips and teeth", it used to be said - was the least of it. Old-timers who valued wartime comradeship no longer held power in China. Their pragmatic successors were impatient with the DPRK as an ungrateful loose cannon.
So why support it? For very cogent reasons. Seen from Beijing, if there is one thing worse than North Korea, then it is no North Korea. Both the process and outcome of any regime collapse in the DPRK look like nightmares for the PRC. Thousands of refugees would flee across the long (1,416 kilometer) and porous river border into China. There might be fighting, and China could get drawn in.
The nightmare scenario would be if China intervened, but so did the US and South Korea. A superpower clash in Korea, again? One Korean War was bad enough. (Chinese casualties were huge: 145,000 deaths, 25,000 missing, 260,000 wounded.) As for the outcome: If Korea reunifies like Germany and the DPRK vanishes, then the ROK, a staunch US ally which hosts 28,000 US troops, would share a border with China. Not good.
Yet this calculus is not set in stone. What if North Korea refuses to change, but continues to tax China's and everyone's patience with nuclear defiance and provocations? Or on the other side of the coin, a smart China should also cultivate South Korea and try to lure it away from quite so tight an embrace of the US. Many in Seoul fret that the ROK is punching below its weight on the global stage, and yearn for the foreign policy autonomy of a Turkey or a Brazil.
Eventually, if North Korea is stupid enough to remain obdurately recidivist, China may have to choose. Thinking strategically and long-term, which of the Koreas does it make economic and political sense for China to have as its ally or at least a good friend? If the question is put like that, the answer is obvious. So Kim Jong-eun had better not push China too far.
If Beijing ever decides it has had enough and cuts the cord, that would be the end of the DPRK. But if Kim sees the light and opts for peace and reform, there could still be two Koreas for a while to come. Northeast Asia's future, and his country's and his own, all hinge on how he decides. That visit to Mao Anying's grave suggests that Kim knows which side his bread is buttered.
Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University in the UK, and a freelance consultant, writer and broadcaster on Korean affairs. A regular visitor to the peninsula, he has followed North Korean affairs for 45 years.
A Chinese translation of an earlier version of part of this article was commissioned by and first appeared in SingTao Daily (Hong Kong), issue of 27-28 July 2013. Used by kind permission.
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