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China and North Korea: Comrades-in-NO-Arms

When I thought of North Korea a year ago, I pictured a dark, desolate place, where color could only be found in its flags, propaganda posters and murals. It is a hateful country led by a lunatic leader. It does not have many friends in the world but its neighbor, China, is a strong ally. I almost believed that China had the power to do more to convince Kim Jong Un to freeze his nuclear programs. Now I realized that I was wrong about Sino-North Korean relations. The history between the two countries and recent interactions between Pyongyang and Beijing have severely damaged the so-called relationship woven by blood and sweat that it now may be beyond repair.

The history of Sino-North Korean Relations is riddled with distrust and strain. Since the signing of the Sino-North Korea Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty on July 11, 1961, the alliance between China and North Korea has gradually worsened. In fact, the alliance had been rough even at the very beginning. The Kim family always bore a grudge towards China. He was fighting against the Japanese in China’s Northeast. Ethnic Korean soldiers in the Chinese Communist army was sent back to North Korea after World War II in 1945 and before the Korean War in 1950. We do not know much about what happened during this time but this was one of the reasons of Kim Il Sung’s early distrust of China and its leaders. He did purge those in his government that were believed to be pro-China. While China saved North Korea in the Korean War (1950-1953), Kim Il Sung felt belittled by the Chinese government throughout the war. Mao Zedong, and several other Chinese leaders such as Marshall Peng Dehuai, believed his leadership to be extremely childish and that his behaviors were often rash and doctrinaire.

Although North Korea and China have upheld the alliance for more than half a century, it has not been an easy alliance to maintain. China drastically cut off its assistance to North Korea after it launched its reform and opening up in the late 1970s. Beijing’s decision to establish diplomatic relationship with Seoul in the early 1990s angered North Korean leaders. It joined the U.S. in voting against China’s effort to host the 2004 summer Olympic Games. Although China has been accused either of indirectly providing North Koreans with nuclear technology or tacitly tolerating its nuclear programs, Beijing’s latter effort to denuclearize Pyongyang has made North Korean leaders feel betrayed. It has repeatedly rebuffed Chin’s advice on opening up its economy.

The relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing was already at a very low point when Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. Xi’s decision to visit South Korea first and President Park Geun-hye’s appearance at the Tiananmen Gate on September 3, 2015 further alienated the new leader Kim Jong Un. After Kim killed his uncle, who was believed to be pro-China and urge for China-like reform in North Korea, the meeting between the two leaders were postponed even more.

Both Kim Jong Un’s grandfather and father visited China numerous times when they were around. Although they were not always happy with Chin’s policies they at least treated China as a big brother state of the same ideology. Kim seems to have thrown all of that out of the window. China has certainly taken these gestures into heart and its coldness toward Pyongyang has increased. The last visit to North Korea by a high ranking Chinese official was in October 2015 when Liu Yunshan, a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, went to Pyongyang to participate in the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of North Korea.


By 2016 the bilateral relationship between North Korea and China was so broken that it appears Kim Jong Un planned his missile and nuclear tests around China’s political calendar. North Korea conducted a missile test last year during G20 in Hangzhou, in May of 2017 during the OBOR summit, and recently in September of 2017 during the BRICS summit in Xiamen. North Korean media outlets began to openly criticize China for being a running dog of the West led by the United States. Evan Osnos[1], an acclaimed reporter on East Asia from the New Yorker, recently visited North Korea and reported that North Koreans are resentful of China because they feel China is treating them like the dirt between their toes. He was also asked not to make this perception public, a promise they know Osnos cannot keep.

There is also an emerging change in the Chinese perception of North Korea. In the past, Chinese scholars were not allowed to criticize Pyongyang, and this restriction has now been lifted. Although the Global Times once editorialized that Chinese people should not use derogatory nicknames to refer to the North Korean leader, it has been the most vocal in criticizing Pyongyang’s pursuit to become a nuclear power. Shen Zhihua[2], a Chinese historian of East China Normal University, has been giving talks all over China on the historical bad behavior of North Korea. He warns that that China and North Korea are no longer brothers-in-arms, and in the short term there is no possibility of an improvement in Chinese-North Korean relations. Many in China no longer see North Korea as an important buffer zone between China and the United States. They believe a nuclearized North Korea poses the largest threat to China. Dr. Jia Qingguo, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University and a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), recently suggested that the U.S and China should begin to talk about collaboration in preparation for the possible collapse of the Pyongyang regime and Chinese troops should be ready to deploy inside North Korea to secure nuclear weapons and to stop any possible refugee exodus.

China and North Korea are no longer comrades-in-arms. North Koreans see China as a tool of imperialist Americans. Chinese see North Koreans as a mad regime in pursuit of self-security at the expense of its neighbor. China certainly cannot give Kim Jong Un marching orders to give up its nuclear program but will Pyongyang listen when China decides to isolate North Korea both politically and economically? President Xi Jinping and President Trump talked about North Korea yesterday in Beijing. The whole world is watching if the big brother will teach the small brother a few lessons in the coming months.

[1] – Evan Osnos’ statements on Sino-North Korean Relations

[2] “Excerpts from a Chinese Historian’s Speech on North Korea” – New York Times