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