The Debate

North Korea: China is a ‘Turncoat and our Enemy’

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The Debate

North Korea: China is a ‘Turncoat and our Enemy’

North Korea has resumed openly criticizing Beijing, according to new reports.

North Korea has hung signs denouncing China in one of its premier military academies, according to a report in a South Korean newspaper.

Chosun Ilbo, a conservative South Korean newspaper, reports that a sign in North Korea’s Kang Kon Military Academy states that China is a “turncoat and our enemy.” The newspaper bases the reports on “sources” without any further identification information. It quotes another source as saying: “”The position of the North Korean regime is to use China, but not trust it.”

The fact that the newspaper has not provided any further identification information about its sources have led some to criticize Chosun Ilbo and doubt the accuracy of the report. However, calling China a “turncoat and our enemy” would hardly be unprecedented for North Korea. Indeed, the phrase is a quote from Kim Il-Sung, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) eternal president, who uttered it shortly after China established diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992. After that, banners bearing the phrase were hung on the walls of the Kang Kon Military Academy for three years until 1995. The same banners were temporarily re-hung on the walls of the Kang Kon Military Academy after North Korea’s second nuclear test in 2009.

According to the Chosun Ilbo report, “North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered the signs displayed again at the academy after China joined UN Security Council sanctions last year over the North’s long-range missiles and third nuclear test.”

However, Ahn Chan-il, president of the World Institute for North Korea Studies, told NK News, a subscription service reporting on North Korea, that if the new reports are true, “a meeting of two presidents from South Korea and China has likely affected North Korea’s decision to hang the sign again.”

Ahn continued: “China has successfully adopted a market economy while maintaining its communist idea. But Pyongyang knows it will be impossible for North Korea to do same thing…. That’s why North Korea is afraid of China’s influence, and hanging the sign is one of its efforts to resist any kind of influence from China.”

This history does demonstrate that the often-depicted close relationship between North Korea and China is overly simplistic. During the Cold War, Pyongyang repeatedly played the Soviet Union off of China to preserve its foreign policy autonomy. Since the end of the Cold War, North Korea has become increasingly dependent on Beijing for its survival.

Nonetheless, it has often remained defiant against China, including by purging North Korean officials who advocate closer ties with China, such as Kim Jong-Un’s uncle Jang Song-Thaek.