Features | Politics | East Asia

Why China Is Not the Solution to the Korean Crisis

Beijing calls the shots in North Korea? History shows that thinking is misguided.

By Mitchell Lerner for
Why China Is Not the Solution to the Korean Crisis

As tensions on the Korean Peninsula have grown, much of the relevant conversation within the United States has focused on China, the one nation that, according to many American policymakers, can control the North Korean leadership. “China does hold the key to this problem,” explained Senator John McCain, who described the Chinese “failure to rein in what could be a catastrophic situation,” as “disappointing.” Many other policymakers and media outlets agree.

This thinking is, however, fundamentally flawed on numerous levels. To begin with, it abdicates American leadership, deferring to a rival in an area of great strategic and economic interest. It also embraces facile solutions at a time when difficult decisions are needed. The U.S. may not have many good options on the Korean peninsula, but the nation’s long-term interests require its leaders to make some hard choices, rather than fall back on rhetorical nostrums that distract and delay without offering any substantive vision. Most significantly, however, the current approach suffers from a fundamentally flawed understanding of the true nature of the Sino-North Korean relationship.

Over the past decade, the world has finally begun to gain insights into DPRK policymaking, largely through materials obtained from former communist bloc states, most of which have been collected by the North Korea International Documentation Project. On a most basic level, these materials do confirm that China has been both North Korea’s most consistent ally and a vital provider of assistance in many forms. At the same time, these archival documents also suggest that the Sino-North Korean relationship has always been much more complex than Mao’s famous claim that the nations were “as close as lips and teeth” suggests.

These new materials point to four additional aspects of the relationship that policymakers must also consider. They suggest, first, that the alliance is rooted in strategic self-interest rather than strong fraternal or ideological bonds; second, that the closeness of the relationship has waxed and waned dramatically based on changing internal conditions and the evolving international environment; third, that DPRK leaders have often seen China as too expansionist, too assertive, and too unreliable to be fully trusted; and finally, that throughout the past half-century, the DPRK leadership has firmly and consistently resisted Chinese efforts to influence their policymaking.

These realities were on display as early as the Korean War. In the months preceding the North’s surprise attack against South Korea in 1950, China strongly discouraged the DPRK from launching a military campaign and refused Kim Il Sung’s suggestions for greater intelligence collaboration. A resentful Kim then failed to provide China with information about his war preparations, and did not even send a representative to brief the Chinese until three days after the attack. Mao was furious, venting that, “They are supposed to be our next-door neighbor, but they did not consult with us before taking military action, and they did not even notify us of the outbreak of the war until now.” The Chinese, of course, later intervened to save the North, but they did so because of Soviet pressure and a desire to protect and expand their own influence, not because of any genuine commitment to Kim. For his part, Kim was also reluctant to accept the Chinese as equal partners for fear of sacrificing his political control, leading to tensions over strategy and decisions ranging from the organization of the military command through control of railroads to the specific tactics to be implemented. In these cases, Kim almost always had to defer to the Chinese, given his need for their military support and Josef Stalin’s frequent interventions on the Chinese side. Nevertheless, Kim clearly resented the way the great powers made critical decisions without regard to his wishes, steadily fought against allowing his patrons to control internal matters, and constantly sought to minimize Chinese influence.

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The immediate postwar years offer similar examples of how Chinese aid and support did not translate into policymaking influence. During these years China provided massive economic aid and delivered thousands of Chinese soldiers to supply critical labor power as Pyongyang set out to rebuild a country that had been ravaged by war. Nevertheless, relations between North Korea and China remained tense, especially whenever Kim perceived potential Chinese threats to his domestic sovereignty. To guard against encroachment, Kim significantly downplayed China’s contribution in the war, stressing instead the internal leadership that he had provided as the decisive factor. He also tried to avoid Chinese diplomats in Pyongyang, a task simplified by the fact that China had recalled its ambassador in 1952 and did not reappoint one until 1955.

Diplomatic relations soon reached a new low, with the Soviets noting in 1955 that, “There is reason to believe that the Chinese comrades are not satisfied with the behavior of the Koreans…those present at receptions held by the Korean Embassy in Beijing cannot help but notice that Cde. Zhou Enlai barely talks to the Korean representatives.” Kim also purged many pro-Chinese Koreans from ranking party positions, publicly blaming them for “trying to overthrow the party and the government.” An exasperated Mao complained to Soviet officials that “What we want to say to Kim is that we do not want to overthrow you, but to help you, but you must correct your mistakes.” Mao had been unable to convey that message directly, however, since “Kim Il-sung has issues with us and does not listen to us.”

Sino-Korean relations had sunk to the point that, in 1956, Kim proposed to China that the UN be invited to assist with Korean unification, a fairly transparent effort to reduce Chinese influence by removing their forces from the Peninsula. Mao not only rejected the idea, but also called it evidence that Kim might pull his country out of the Soviet bloc; China would be happy, Mao volunteered, to use its army to “help Kim Il Sung to correct his mistakes.”

Relations improved in the late 1950s and early 1960s, although it was largely because Mao, hoping to win allies in the emerging Sino-Soviet split, agreed to increase aid, delay the repayment dates of DPRK loans, expressed regret for meddling in DPRK internal matters, and agreed to withdraw Chinese troops. In any case, relations again began to decline by the mid-1960s. Various factors underlay this change––Kim had differences with the Chinese about the Vietnam War; he worried about the economic impact of his nation’s deteriorating relations with the Soviets during the growing years of the Sino-Soviet split; he was aghast at the Cultural Revolution and worried about it spreading into Korea; but underlying it all was his determination not to yield his independent policymaking authority to Chinese pressure.

As the East German Embassy in Pyongyang later concluded, the decline in Sino-Korean relations was attributable to “attempts by the Chinese leaders to interfere into internal matters of the DPRK and apply pressure in order to move the DPRK towards a broad acceptance of Maoist positions and principles.” Chinese leaders pressured Kim to publicly support their position on Vietnam at international conferences, criticized a visiting DPRK delegation to Beijing for not supporting the Chinese line in international affairs, and used their economic and political aid to try to win DPRK commitments.

Kim, noted one Communist official, “assessed these attacks as an attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of the KWP” and, rather than yielding, struck back. In 1966, he issued the first public statement by KWP leadership against the Chinese, and noted that “the KWP will never dance to someone else’s tune;” he further demanded that all “fraternal Parties…strictly follow an independent policy.” Kim also limited the availability of Chinese radio broadcasts and press releases in North Korea, banned most forms of diplomatic and cultural exchange, and recalled Korean servicemen studying in China. He launched another wave of purges, carried out primarily against those who, noted a Hungarian diplomat, “may have opposed the shaping of the Korean Workers’ Party’s independent policy that rejected the political line of the Chinese party leadership.”

Tensions exploded in 1967. That year, the Chinese refused to obey Kim’s orders to remove photos at their embassy that glorified Mao as the leader of the world revolution, explaining that they would “observe the laws of the DPRK which they like and would not observe those which they did not like.” In response, Kim complained that the Chinese “did not submit themselves to the general rules,” and lamented this tendency as a “manifestation of Chinese big-power chauvinism.” More name-calling ensued, as an article in a Red Guard newspaper called the Korean hostility “more and more insane,” and warned that “Kim Il Sung and his ilk… will come to a bad end.” The Chinese also began persecuting Koreans living in China, and massed their troops along the border. Soon skirmishes between the two sides were occurring, and in 1967, Chinese Red Guard killed a number of Koreans living near the border, stuffed their bodies onto a freight train, and sent that train to the DPRK with anti-Korean slogans scrawled across it. “See, that’s how you will fare as well, you little revisionists,” read one.

Relations improved as the Cultural Revolution died down, especially after DPRK officials met with Chinese leaders in late 1969, and listed two requirements for improved relations: non-interference in the internal affairs of the DPRK and non-interference in DPRK relations with the Soviet Union. The Chinese accepted both, leading to a number of trade protocols and other agreements, and the exchange of numerous diplomatic delegations, with Kim himself even visiting China in 1975.

Still, it was hardly a relationship based on deep ideological or historical bonds. Kim had not forgotten the Chinese offenses from the previous years, and the 1975 trip, despite the public celebration that accompanied it, did little to mend fences, especially since Kim’s hope of getting support for a more militant policy towards the South was rebuffed by Chinese leaders, who did not want to damage their improving ties with the United States. Kim was sometimes frank about the real purpose of the friendship. He noted to a visiting Polish official that the DPRK had “arguments” with China, but admitted that he had to downplay the discord or risk encouraging his enemy to the South; “If we provide hints about bad relations with our socialist neighbors in the North,” he explained, “it weakens our position vis-à-vis the enemy in the South.” “There are people who believe the DPRK is more on China’s side,” Kim similarly told Erich Honecker in 1977. “This is not the case.”

The Chinese attitude was no more fraternal, as they refused to provide some of the economic credits that the DPRK sought, and trade agreements did not reach the amounts the DPRK wanted. Chinese propaganda offered increasingly strong statements of support for the North, but some speculated that this was largely for show, and that China in fact was not likely to support the unification of the peninsula for fear of expanding the power and influence of Kim Il Sung. Instead, noted a Soviet diplomat in 1973, “China is only prepared to support North Korean requests as long as the DPRK supports positions and policies of the Chinese.”

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Growing signs of Chinese opening to the West also worried Kim, and he resented China’s criticism in party newspapers of the decision to anoint his son, Kim Jong Il, as his heir apparent in 1980. Relations had thus improved but the alliance was still rooted in self-interest and hindered by suspicion; the East German embassy in Pyongyang concluded that despite many similarities, “there are some basic differences in interests, theoretical positions, and also in actual policy between the DPRK and PRC and their two respective parties.” Accordingly, the embassy noted, “One can still feel a certain restraint in party relations.”

Relations between the sides remained steady into the 1980s, but they were always marked by the same mix of suspicion and self-interest. The North was unhappy with China’s increasing economic ties with South Korea and the U.S., and concerned about the sincerity of China’s commitment to defend North Korea against the West. China’s decision to open its market to Western capital struck DPRK leadership as an abandonment, and Pyongyang viewed Tiananmen Square as both a cautionary tale and a vindication of its concerns. When Kim Jong Il visited China in 1983, a visit clearly intended to provide him with a measure of credibility for his impending succession, the Chinese treated him with caution, declaring the visit as one of a “personal guest” rather than a state official, allowing them to minimize the pomp and ceremony of the visit, and convincing the DPRK to again reach out to the Soviets for support.

Even after the Cold War, relations remained tenuous, especially after China’s recognition of South Korea in 1992, which the North saw as the ultimate betrayal. Wikileaks cables have clearly demonstrated the disdain that many Chinese officials have had for the North in the post-Cold War period, while also lamenting their inability to control them. DPRK behavior has confirmed these limits, as Northern leaders have generally resisted Chinese prodding to open their economy and follow in the Chinese model of development, and have refused to heed Chinese calls for restraint in the nuclear crisis of the last decade. A 2009 luncheon seems to best embody China’s general frustration with North Korea, as a Chinese official admitted to an American delegate that recent provocations by the DPRK had “gone too far,” and noted that the Chinese government had pressed Kim to return to the negotiating table but had had “no effect.”

“The only country that can make progress with the North Koreans is the United States,” this Chinese official advised, since in matters related to the North, “the United States was the key while China was only in a position to apply a little oil to the lock.” Other signs over the past few years, including numerous statements by Chinese officials, academics, and media outlets, have hinted at the same message: China is unhappy with the DPRK but limited in what it can do about it.

None of this, of course, is intended to suggest that China is not a critical player in the region, or that the U.S. can simply ignore China in its quest for solutions in Korea. But it is vital that policymakers in the U.S. and beyond recognize that China’s influence on Pyongyang is much more limited than conventional wisdom holds. Looking to Beijing for a solution is hence not only an abdication of American leadership but will also likely prove futile even as it distracts policymakers from making the more serious choices that have to be made. It is an embrace of easy rhetoric at the expense of hard reality, and accepting the hard reality is an imperative first step towards a resolution of the Korean crisis.

Mitchell Lerner is associate professor of history and director of the Institute for Korean Studies at the Ohio State University.