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