Earlier this summer US President Trump lambasted China in a tweet: ‘They do nothing for us,’ he wrote, but ‘just talk’. China, Trump indicated, had been too soft on North Korea’s nuclear adventurism. Yet China’s public actions suggest a more complicated story. President Xi Jinping has hardly welcomed Pyongyang’s course, and has backed sanctions on its long-standing ally.
As a result, Chinese exports to North Korea, which constitute the bulk of China’s foreign trade, have dropped off significantly. All is not well among these Far Eastern remnants of the ‘communist bloc’.
Given Trump’s limited grasp of world history – and scant patience for advice from aides – he probably isn’t aware of just how interwoven the fates of the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) have been since their founding in 1948-9. China has long been a ‘big brother’ to the DPRK: it intervened on the Communist side in the Korean War (1950-1953) and provided significant economic support (3.4% of China’s national budget) to aid in the North’s reconstruction. The lifeline continues to this day.
The pictured North Korean postage stamp featuring Kim Il-sung (left) and Mao Zedong (right) demonstrates the allyship between China and North Korea. The Chinese text at the top of the stamp says ‘China and Korea are close friends’, and the Chinese text at the bottom says, ‘China and Korea, Friendship Everlasting’.
These links go back to the early 1900s, when both China and Korea found themselves under an imperial cosh. Communism found followers after World War I partly as an anti-colonial movement that challenged Western incursions into China and Japanese rule over the Korean peninsula.
Korean communists were among the newly-formed Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the 1920s and members of the future North Korean government participated in China’s War of Resistance against Japan between 1937 and 1945. Later, when the Chinese civil war pitted the ruling Nationalist Party against Mao’s peasant army, North Korea not only served as the strategic rear guard for the CCP, but supplied 100,000 Koreans to fight in ‘red’ battalions. Kim Il-sung, the founder of the DPRK—and grandfather to current leader Kim Jong-un—had been a member of the CCP himself and spoke fluent Chinese.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) soon returned the favour. When war broke out on the Korean peninsula in 1950, the PRC supported its little brother. China suffered half a million casualties. Even Chairman Mao lost his son Anqing in the conflict.
Beneath the veneer of communist solidarity lay some longstanding tensions: China and Korea only signed a Treaty of Friendship in 1961. China’s outlook towards Korea was not based entirely on fraternal benevolence, but rather on a geopolitical game with long historical roots.
China’s rationale for intervention in the Korean War, in fact, was similar to that of Japanese leaders in the late nineteenth century, who saw a weak and uncolonised Korea as a ‘dagger pointing to the heart’ of their country. A united Korea under US influence in 1950 posed a threat to China’s new regime, especially when American forces seemed poised to cross the border into China in October 1950.
Assisting Kim Il-sung offered other political benefits for Mao as well: the war would help the fledging Chinese government to consolidate power, not only in unifying the population against a common external enemy, but also in eradicating internal ones. The high point of the CCP’s campaign to suppress counterrevolutionaries coincided with China’s entry into the conflict. Mao’s internationalism helpfully served his brand of Chinese nationalism.
For North Korea, too, China represented both an opportunity and a threat. As an ardent nationalist himself, Kim Il-sung sought to maintain Korean independence by limiting the influence of China. Kim’s suspicion of the Chinese had much to with early conflicts in the North Korean leadership.
In 1956 Kim purged the pro-Beijing faction in order to solidify his position. Moreover, Kim’s rise to power and the formation of the DPRK was largely the result of his Russian connections, rather than his ties to the CCP. Kim only told Mao of his military plans at the insistence of the Soviet Union.
When Mao eventually began to lead China away from the Soviet bloc – a course that nearly led to nuclear war between the two powers in 1969 – relations with the DPRK became especially strained. Over the course of the Sino-Soviet split, Kim often sided with the Soviet Union rather than the PRC, particularly when Mao pivoted to the United States in the early 1970s.
North Korea did not take this lightly, as Washington (with its troops stationed at the border between North and South Korea) not only threatened North Korean dreams of unification but also its very existence. After the fall of the USSR, though, China found itself the DPRK’s only feasible sponsor.
Since then China and the DPRK have been in a difficult relationship that both have been too afraid to dissolve. North Korea remains a buffer state that keeps U.S. troops away from the PRC’s border—Mao called the DPRK the ‘lip to the teeth’ of China. Still, North Korea’s unpredictable behaviour and economic dependence has hardly endeared it to its wealthier neighbour.
China’s leaders tend to take a longer view than Trump when it comes to foreign affairs, and so find themselves in a bind. Angry tweets from the Oval Office are unlikely to help them find a clean way through this long and historically complex bind.
Dr Tehyun Ma is a Lecturer in International History at The University of Sheffield. Tehyun’s main research interest is in the history of state- and nation-building in twenieth-century China and Taiwan, particularly under the Chinese Nationalist (Guomindang) government. She is also interested in the transnational exchange of social policy in wartime East Asia.
Header Image: President Xi Jinping at the St Andrew Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace, July 2017 [via Kremlin].
Image: A North Korean postage stamp demonstrating the allyship between China and North Korea [Via North Korean Economy Watch, under Fair Use].