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.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.