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Understanding China's Approach to North Korea

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North Korea is not a Chinese province. Unfortunately, there are a large number of people in Washington who seem to believe otherwise. The repeated assertions that Beijing could put Pyongyang back in the box at a moment's notice spring from this assumption. Quite frankly, this line of reasoning is of little value to the U.S. policy community... and has no traction with our Chinese counterparts.

China's approach to dealing with North Korea is best explained by understanding the historical and political dimensions Beijing must balance during every conversation with Pyongyang. If a history of mutual sacrifice is a true measure of alliance, North Korea and People's Republic of China have indeed forged a relationship as close as "lips and teeth." In 1955, Americans could but wonder at the bonds which apparently tied Pyongyang and Beijing. Pyongyang had contributed thousands of personnel to Mao's struggle against the Nationalist Chinese, and, in turn, Beijing spent the lives of over a million soldiers in the Korean War. And that was just 60 years ago.

Relations between Korea and China may be traced back more than eighteen hundred years. While political and military interaction between the two states have waxed and waned with the passage of time, the Koreans have freely borrowed from Chinese culture and forms of governance. In fact, more than one scholar has noted that it was Confucian ideals which served to mold Korea's aristocracy, educational system, and governmental structure. As for Korea's political relationship with Beijing, the rise of the Ming dynasty and Korea's own internal instability resulted in the Peninsula's rulers "choosing" to become a "younger brother" to a growing Chinese Empire.

By 1388, Korean leaders realized they were in no position to ignore Beijing's bidding, and so entered an approximately 500-year state of answering to Chinese suzerainty. Interestingly, Beijing did not conduct this master-vassal relationship with a heavy hand. As a whole, the Koreans were left to govern their own affairs, and Beijing only intervened when it appeared outside interests were staking claim to the Peninsula.

China's "benign neglect" of its Korean suzerain is nowhere more apparent than in Beijing's military adventures on the Peninsula. Vestiges of the military relationship which was to characterize North Korean-Chinese relations in the 1950s, first appeared in 1274, when Chinese, Korean, and Mongol forces were assembled for an ill-fated invasion of Japan. This brotherhood in arms was renewed in 1593, when China dispatched troops to Korea as part of the effort to dislodge an invasion from Japan. In 1616, the Koreans reciprocated when their Ming suzerain requested a contingent of 10,000 troops be sent to help quell a Manchurian uprising. While their Manchu challengers ultimately toppled the Ming, the Koreans remained in a subservient role -- "free" to pursue domestic rule under Chinese tutelage. Forbidden from seeking an independent foreign policy, and wracked by internal political conflicts, the Peninsula retreated into its shell and so became known as the "Hermit Kingdom."

This isolationist policy met with China's approval and remained in place until the late-1800s. By 1870, would-be colonialists had emasculated Beijing thereby opening the door to outside exploitation of the Korean Peninsula. In February 1876, faced with a flotilla of Japanese warships, the Korean government signed a treaty of amity at Kanghwa Island. The Kanghwa Treaty declared Korea was entering into a trade relationship with Japan (and only Japan) as a free and sovereign state. Beijing, overwhelmed by Western encroachment, was in no position to stop their vassal's step away from a suzerain's dominance. However, as other nations -- particularly Russia and the United States -- began to press for equal access to the Peninsula, China felt compelled to act. In 1882, concerned by Japan's clearly colonial desires and a rebellion in Seoul, China dispatched a large force of ships and troops to Korea -- thereby forcing Japan's withdrawal.

Chinese troops were stationed in Seoul, and Korean diplomatic relations were once again placed under Beijing's control. This Chinese dominance was to last for the next 13 years. In 1895, this master-servant role came to an abrupt end, as the Japanese defeated Chinese forces on the Peninsula and abroad. The Treaty of Shimonoseki, signed in April 1895, closed a 500-year history of Chinese suzerainty and essentially excluded Beijing from participating in Korean politics for the next 50 years.

What are we to take away from this 500 years of Chinese dominance? As the historical record shows, the Chinese had a tendency to intervene in Korean affairs only when it appeared Beijing's interests on the Peninsula were threatened. Beijing's military and political presence only came to the fore when foreigners (primarily the Japanese) threatened their suzerainty. When not threatened by external forces, the Chinese left the Koreans free to establish an aristocracy and govern their own affairs. In light of this situation, characterization of this relationship as "benign neglect" is all-too-appropriate... and seemingly still accurate.

So much for the historical dimension of the relationship... on to the political ties.

Contemporary scholars argue Chinese-North Korean ties were initially based on personalities rather than politics. To place this statement in context, we have to return to the guerrilla campaigns targeting Japanese colonialization of China, Korea, and Manchuria. What began as random attacks and small strikes against Japanese outposts in the 1920s, had progressed to an "army" by the early 1930s. Operating in the wildness of extreme northeast China, in 1932 the Korean and Chinese guerrillas were united under the auspices of the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army.

That Kim Il-sung (Kim Chong-il's father) emerged as a leader in the Chinese dominated United Army should come as no surprise. Fluent in Mandarin, an early member of the Korean communist movement, and a known guerrilla, Kim attained the rank of Division Commander by the mid-1930s. How important were the personal connections Kim made during his days with the United Army?

Lucian Pye, in his seminal work Asian Power and Politics: The Cultural Dimensions of Authority, offers the following insight: "In Asia the politics of status refined the people's sensitivity to the essence of personal relations and also produced elaborate calculations of mutual obligations. Because the notion of relationships is inherent in the concept of status, the politics of status became in practice a highly personal form of politics... the imperative that people should above all recognize their personal obligations and ties of acquaintance ship...." More particularly, Pye goes on to note that, "Among Chinese it is expected that people who share a common background will instinctively be mutually supportive: people who are from the same place... or who attend the same school..., or who served in the same organization are expected to be available to help one another."

Interestingly, for the Chinese -- and, importantly for the North Koreans -- this sense of obligation does not imply a sense of reciprocity or a requirement to respond to every request. In fact, one party can return to the table and ask for favors on a recurring basis. It is up to the second party to determine when a response is appropriate. Thus, Kim's ties with the Chinese Communists, specifically those formed during the guerrilla campaigns, established a political relationship based on personality rather than pragmatic criterion. Both sides incurred a sense of obligation for the well being of the other -- yet both parties could choose to "look the other way" when it was to their advantage.

That said, all has not been well in this relationship for years. China's decision to pursue detente with America deeply disturbed Kim Il-sung. Despite continued promises of economic assistance and military aid, Pyongyang now realized it could no longer depend on China to offer a united front against America.

The full scope of China's changing approach to international affairs was likely brought to Kim Il-sung's attention during his April, 1975, meetings with Mao and Deng Xiaoping. Coming on the heels of Ho Chi Min's victory in Vietnam, the conference took place in Beijing. Marking the first time he had been in the Chinese capitol since 1961, Kim Il-Sung reportedly pressed his hosts to join him in expelling US troops from the Korean Peninsula. The Chinese response could not have been further from what Kim wanted to hear. Rather than seizing upon events in Indochina as a springboard for renewed hostilities in Korea, Mao and Deng urged Kim to follow a peaceful road to reunification.

Does this shift from ideological to pragmatic considerations mark a complete break in the personal relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang? Frankly, no. By the mid-1970s North Korea had entered a long period of economic stagnation that would ultimately lead to the state of near-collapse Pyongyang faces today. In a bid to prop up its ally, in 1974 Beijing began supplying Pyongyang with approximately 1 million tons of oil a year. This subsidized supply of fuel was and is delivered via an oil pipeline between the two countries completed in January 1976. With the oil shipments China's leadership was making a very tangible note of its obligation to a fellow member of the United Army.

These gestures, however, did not resolve Beijing and Pyongyang's differences concerning the political situation on the Korean Peninsula. As Chae-Jin Lee so aptly notes in China and Korea: Dynamic Relations, "A persistent source of cleavage (between Beijing and Pyongyang) concerned the relative priorities of peace and unification in Korea. Whereas the Chinese, preoccupied with their own policy preferences, attached a higher priority to Korea's stable peace and military balance than to its unification, Kim Il-sung sought Korea's territorial reintegration as his primary policy goal...."

The fall of the Berlin Wall and disintegration of the Soviet Union brought new surprises from Beijing. While the Chinese attempted to assuage Pyongyang's growing sense of isolation it was becoming very obvious the two states were operating on different agendas.

Kim Il-sung traveled to China in October 1991, and held a sequence of meetings with Deng Xiaoping. During these talks Deng reportedly offered Kim a package of economic and military assistance to make up for the lost Soviet aid, and vowed that "no matter how the international situation might change in the future, China would, as always, do its utmost to further strengthen the friendship between the two countries." Despite these socialist ties and promise of eternal friendship, Kim Il-sung probably departed China a dispirited man. While there is no evidence to substantiate the claim, Deng likely also told Kim during their talks that Beijing was preparing to normalize relations with Seoul. Quite simply, Pyongyang's only remaining ally was preparing to conduct business with Kim's chief enemy.

But was China actually risking a great deal in this decision to establish ties with Seoul? Not really. Certainly North Korea was bitter about China's apparent betrayal. We know that for a short period Pyongyang curtailed cultural ties between the two nations. We also know Chinese-North Korean border crossings were restricted for several months and the 42nd anniversary of China's entrance into the Korean War was a very muted affair. It is also very likely Kim realized he was in no position to criticize the Chinese, as Beijing was his only tangible ally and benefactor. In short, Kim had no choice but to accept Beijing's recognition of Seoul.

The death of North Korea's first and only president on 8 July, 1994, put an abrupt end to the Chinese-North Korean politics of personality. While China's transition to the politics of pragmatism had certainly been evident since the late-1970s, a sense of personal obligation had resulted in continuation of an old-fashioned relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang. In fact, by 1994 North Korea had become something of a backwater subject in Beijing. According to Chinese scholars, the North was not a popular subject of study nor a high priority for the government. Apparently Beijing only focused on Pyongyang when North Korea affected other critical relationships or presents a potential threat to China's security interests -- a state of affairs still very much in play.

By the mid 1990s, Western scholars discovered Beijing "was less and less concerned about any obligations to the Korean Workers Party or the Pyongyang government based on history or ideology." More specifically Chinese experts characterized Sino-North Korean ties as transitioning from party-to-party to state-to-state relations. In that format, the focus is increasingly on economics, national interests, and realpolitik. Chinese pragmatism at its practiced best.

Events in 1999 and 2000 reflect the validity of these Chinese analysts' observations. During his March 2000 trip to China, North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun was repeatedly shown economic development projects and offered insight on how to revive the North's moribund economy. Chinese officials went so far as to declare Paek's trip as "...significant for increasing exchanges with all nations and nurturing a peaceful and stable environment on the Korean Peninsula [so as to] open up foreign economic and trade cooperation and speed up the pace of [Pyongyang's] domestic economic construction."

What about the issue of military assistance? According to an analyst at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, Beijing would stay out of another conflict on the Korean Peninsula regardless of which side started it. The analyst went on to say that "when the Korean War ended Mao and Zhou said China would never again send troops to a foreign country." This comment is borne out by research presently being conducted by a joint project of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Monterey and the Center for Contemporary International Problems in Moscow.

In July 1996, Russian scholars asked Chinese analysts what would happen if war broke out on the Korean Peninsula. The Chinese response was unanimous: "We'll stay away from that war." The Russians then asked "suppose the Americans participate in the conflict and overrun the North Korean positions and advance to the border of the PRC?" The Chinese response was stunning, "so what? The United States would never dare to attack China....why would the Americans want to attack us?"

These unofficial observations on China's role in a second Korean war are reflected in official attempts to revise the now 40 year old Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance. In March 1997, then-Vice Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan said the "treaty... exists ostensibly because of the friendship with North Korea, and that the PRC's automatic intervention in a war on the Korean Peninsula is a cold war way of thinking, which is now inconceivable." Many observers took this statement to mean China would not honor the "automatic intervention clause" in the 1961 treaty -- an interpretation of Tang's remarks which were validated by further press reports in 1998.

According to a report published in Japan on 3 December, 1998, China had informally attempted to delete the "automatic intervention clause" from the treaty. However, because revisions of the treaty require agreement by both signatories, the clause remains -- a diplomatic anachronism that Beijing would likely ignore in the event hostilities again erupted on the Peninsula.

If there is any one issue which might finally drive a permanent wedge between Beijing and Pyongyang, it is North Korea's ongoing nuclear weapons program. While Chinese diplomatic activity during the 1992-1993 North Korean nuclear crisis likely did much to redeem Beijing's reputation in Pyongyang, the same is not true today. On 25 May 2009 the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement expressing "resolute opposition" to the North's nuclear tests.

The situation was different in November 1991. China rebuffed US efforts to create an international coalition for the purpose of halting the North Korean nuclear program. In a carefully worded statement intended to appear respectful of international concerns about nuclear proliferation and still support its Korean partner, China stipulated that "...as a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, [Beijing] has all along opposed nuclear proliferation and supported denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. China does not wish to see nuclear weapons on the Peninsula, whether in the North or in the South, or to have them introduced there by a third party. In our view, the nuclear issue concerning the DPRK is mainly a matter of the DPRK and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), between the DPRK and the United States, and between the DPRK and the ROK. It should therefore be settled properly through direct dialogue and consultation between the DPRK and the three other parties concerned....In this connection, China opposes the practice of imposing pressure."

This diplomatic maneuvering won Beijing few friends in the United Nations or in Washington DC, but did likely warm unhappy hearts in Pyongyang. China would continue its attempts to ward off outside intervention in the North Korean nuclear program right up to signing of the 21 October, 1994, Agreed Framework. The final document -- which provided North Korea with oil shipments and two light-water reactors -- met with Beijing's approval.

North Korea's current behavior is not winning this type of support. In early May 2009, a prominent Chinese North Korean expert published an article in a Foreign Ministry Journal declaring Beijing "cannot tolerate or accommodate" Pyongyang's "extreme adventurist policy." Why? According to the scholar, China's "core interests" in regional stability include "denuclearization of the [Korean] Peninsula." The scholar went on to state that if China wants to become a "world power," Beijing will have to "put its responsibilities and duties" to the international community above those to Pyongyang.

All of which returns us to the current state of Sino-North Korean relations. The Chinese have clearly parted from North Korea over economic, ideological, and international issues. In fact, it is more appropriate to argue the two sides have not simply parted ways; the North Koreans have become a thorn in China's side -- a perpetual economic basket case that requires attention only to prevent instability on the Korean Peninsula.

While China pursues economic development and realpolitik, Pyongyang preaches socialist purity and shouts cold war rhetoric. What does China want from North Korea? In one word, stability. Beijing is apparently quite content with the present status quo on the Peninsula -- to include having US forces stationed in South Korea.

So long as American forces remain in South Korea, and no one threatens to unleash a refugee flood by invading or imploding North Korea, China can return to its ancient practice of "benign neglect." The two Koreas will thus be allowed to pursue reconciliation efforts, to explore economic cooperation, and even reconnect rail links. But woe unto the first outsider who tries to interfere in this process. In many ways China is thus poised to resume its role as the "elder brother." A suzerain who only participates in its vassal's affairs when its strategic interests are threatened. Korean reconciliation or reunification does not meet this threshold -- North Korean nuclear weapons testing might.