The idea that China holds the key to solving the ongoing political and military crisis on the Korean Peninsula has been the standard jack-in-the-box of U.S. North Korea policy for the past seven decades, set to pop up whenever U.S.-North Korea tensions escalated and the threat of war thought imminent.
U.S. President Donald Trump and former Chief White House Strategist Stephen Bannon are only the latest to espouse the view that China has the power and influence to induce its “client state” to stop its saber-rattling and nuclear provocations. (This view is not just confined to U.S. policymakers, either.) In fact, ever since Chinese troops crossed the Yalu River on October 1, 1950 and attacked U.S. and UN forces on North Korean soil, numerous U.S. policymakers have been looking to Beijing as the éminence grise of the Kim dynasty that can sway the latter’s behavior.
Indeed, despite substantial evidence that the incumbent North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has a strained relationship with his big neighbor and has been openly antagonizing the communist leadership in Beijing as well as deliberately curtailing Chinese influence in his country, the “client state” narrative continues to hold sway. However, this narrative decidedly runs counter to the deep historical sense of mistrust between the two nations.
In particular, the negative influence and legacy of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War on North Korean perceptions of China has been neglected. China attacking a close ally in 1979 — one which it had supported since the first Indo-China War in the early 1950s — underlined the perception that Beijing, despite Chinese intervention in the Korean War and the signing of the 1961 Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Friendship Treaty, is ultimately not to be trusted.
China-North Korea relations got off to a bad start right from the inception of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). North Korea’s first leader, Kim Il-sung, was convinced that he would not need Chinese help to unify the Korean Peninsula at the beginning of the Korean War in 1950. He treated Chinese representatives with disdain, even denying Chinese officers’ requests to study the battlefield in the event that Chinese military support was needed after all. Kim’s behavior was partially the result of his own hubris and his closer ties with the Soviet Union. (The DPRK in essence was a Soviet satellite in the late 1940s.) However, Kim also harbored deep suspicions about the new communist government in China and he tried to minimize its role on the Korean Peninsula.
Chinese leader Mao Zedong saw Korea as a focal point of larger tensions between the East and West. Because of continuing U.S. support of Chiang Kai-Shek in Taiwan, Mao saw China in a de-facto war with the United States by 1950. Since China at the time had neither sufficient air forces nor a strong enough fleet to support an invasion of Taiwan and complete the unification of China under communist leadership, Mao in particular saw mountainous North Korea as the battlefield where the People’s Liberation Army could bring its distinct relative advantage — superior numbers — to bear against the Americans and show the world that China was a great power to be reckoned with.
For Mao, Korea was first and foremost a pawn in a much larger great powers game. He cared little about the Kim regime per se. As the historian David Halberstam writes in The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, what the Chinese did in Korea “entering the war, taking terrible casualties, but stalemating the Americans and the United Nations in the process — they did for their own reasons, not out of any great love for the North Koreans. Their respect for the Koreans and Kim at that moment was in fact quite marginal.”
This would change very little throughout the rest of the Korean War and the 1950s.
In the 1960s, relations between the DPRK and China declined further. Among other things, the Korean Workers Party (KWP) called the Cultural Revolution “great madness” and referred to Mao Zedong as “an old fool who has gone out of his mind.” China in turn accused North Korea of revisionist tendencies. This set a pattern of disagreement for the coming decades, continuing in the post-Cold War period down to the present. As the Chinese historian and North Korea expert John Delury notes, “if there is one word that sums up the North Korean perspective on the history of their ‘alliance’ with China, it is probably ‘betrayal.’”
The War of Dragons
While the Sino-Vietnamese War neither directly impacted North Korea militarily nor politically, it did illustrate to Pyongyang the inherent asymmetry of Chinese relations with minor allies and China’s ruthlessness in pursuing its national interests. For over two decades from 1950 to 1975, China had provided Vietnam with more than $20 billion in economic and military aid. It also dispatched political and military advisors to help support the war efforts against the French and then the Americans. Overall, China reportedly dispatched 320,000 troops to North Vietnam in the 1960s with more than 4,000 estimated to have been killed during the war. Recent research suggests that China, similar to what it ultimately did in Korea, would have intervened with conventional military forces in the event of an U.S. invasion of North Vietnam.
However, Sino-Vietnamese relations quickly deteriorated in the middle of the 1970s following the end of the Vietnam War. Vietnam joined the Soviet-dominated Council for Mutual Economic Cooperation (COMECON) and signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union (USSR) in 1978, as China and the Soviet Union were locked in fierce competition over communist leadership in the Third World. Beijing felt slighted by Hanoi. As Nguyen Minh Quang states: “China called the treaty a military alliance and branded Vietnam the ‘Cuba of the East,’ pursuing hegemonistic ‘imperial dreams’ in Southeast Asia.” As a result, China felt it needed to “teach Vietnam a lesson.”
During a visit to the United States in January 1979, Chinese Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping explicitly told U.S. President Jimmy Carter about the impending military action: “The little child is getting naughty, it’s time he gets spanked.” A deep Chinese sense of betrayal lay at the heart of these remarks. Beijing thought that Hanoi was ungrateful for Chinese aid and sacrifice during the wars in Vietnam. At the same time, China feared Soviet encirclement and it wanted to show Vietnam that its new ally, the Soviet Union, would be unwilling or unable to come to its aid during a military conflict.
China’s then-leader Deng Xiaoping also had domestic reasons to seek a military confrontation as a war with Vietnam would sideline senior Maoist officers in the People’s Liberation Army. “[S]ome historians have speculated that a war was necessary to support Deng’s modernization plans by highlighting the technological deficiencies of the PLA and keeping the army preoccupied,” Nguyen Minh Quang writes.
Deng assembled a force of over 300,000 near the Sino-Vietnamese border in early 1979 and waited for the right moment to strike. The immediate casus belli were the mistreatment of a Vietnamese ethnic minority, Vietnam’s full-scale invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 and the subsequent removal from power of the China-backed genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, as well as the Vietnamese occupation of the Spratly Islands also claimed by China. In reality, the war would be “an act of revenge,” according to one historian.
On February 17, 1979, China launched its invasion, calling it a “self-defensive counterattack” against “the hooligans of Asia” and “running dogs of the Soviet Union,” as Chinese propaganda referred to the Vietnamese. For 30 days, the PLA fought the bloodiest battles since the Korean War. By March 16, China had completely withdrawn all of its forces from Vietnamese territory after Beijing claimed it had achieved its war goals, which included the occupation of two Vietnamese cities. The result of the clash of arms: roughly 22,000-63,000 Chinese killed and wounded in action. Vietnamese casualties were estimated at around 10,000. (Low level border skirmishes/ tension continued all the way into the early 1990s.)
The Legacy of the Sino-Vietnamese War
The Sino-Vietnamese War left a deep impression on China’s immediate neighbors in Asia and its major lesson must have been obvious for North Korea: China would not hesitate to abandon an ally or shrink from the use of force to advance its national interests. True to Lord Palmerston’s dictum that there are no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies, but only eternal and perpetual interests, China chose to go to war with a country it had supported economically, militarily, and politically for over two decades.
North Korea’s leadership at first saw North Vietnam’s victory over the U.S. and the South as a strategic opportunity. As John Delury notes: “Kim Il Sung would have naturally looked on the unfolding situation in Vietnam, with envy, as a proxy for the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. pull-out and evacuation of Saigon in 1975, coming in the context of Nixon’s overarching ‘Guam Doctrine’ to reduce U.S. defense commitments in Asia, presented a strategic opening for Kim to make a renewed push at reunification on the North’s terms.”
Indeed, North Korea was buoyed by its first-hand experience in Vietnam during the Second Indochina War. Pyongyang provided substantial economic and military aid including dispatching a fighter squadron. Kim Il-sung reportedly told North Korean pilots to “fight in the war as if the Vietnamese sky were their own.” According to some estimates, over 200 DPRK pilots fought in the war. In addition, Pyongyang dispatched at least two anti-aircraft artillery regiments to defend Hanoi. An unknown number of ground soldiers also fought alongside the regular North Vietnamese Army. It is unknown how many North Korean military personnel was killed in the war.
Yet, according to historian Shen Zhihua, when Kim visited Mao in 1975, the Chairman refused to support the Great Leader’s renewed initiative for reunification of the Korean Peninsula. To make matters worse, North Korea soon found out that unification does not guarantee Chinese non-interference and the right of an ostensible ally to an independent foreign policy. “Imagine the outrage Kim might have felt when, three years later, Deng visited Pyongyang and presumably told Kim of China’s impending invasion of the reunified Communist Vietnam,” Delury stresses.
“What were Vietnam’s sins? Pursuing an independent foreign policy in Southeast Asia and doing so with the backing of Beijing’s arch-rival, the Soviet Union.”
Scholars have pointed out that North Korea also adhered to the principle of non-alignment throughout much of the Cold War years. “Kim too maintained ties to Moscow, refusing choose one side or the other in the Sino-Soviet split. If China could turn around and invade a reunited Communist Vietnam, how safe was Communist Korea?,” notes Delury. The gravity of this question would not have been lost on the North Koreans back in 1979 and, likely, continues to occupy policy makers in Pyongyang to this day perennially undermining trust in Beijing.