War of the Dragons: Why North Korea Does Not Trust China

By Franz-Stefan Gady / September 29, 2017 / The Diplomat

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-DPRK Relations

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.’” Read more…



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