North Korea's relations with China are complex and frequently misunderstood. Despite their 60-year alliance, a shared ideology, and an 800-mile border, relations between the Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Peoples' Republic of China (PRC) can at best be described as uneasy. The history of the Sino-DPRK alliance, once described by Mao Zedong as being as close as 'lips and teeth,' is littered with instances of tension and conflict, ultimately limiting the PRC's present-day influence over North Korea.
On April 6, 2009, the North Korea International Documentation Project held an event co-sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace and the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States to discuss the history of the Sino-DPRK alliance and contemporary difficulties in their bi-lateral relations. The discussion was moderated by J. Stapleton Roy, director of the Kissinger Institute and former U.S. ambassador to China.
NKIDP Document Reader No. 2, "Limits of the Lips and Teeth Alliance: New Evidence on Sino-DPRK Relations, 1955-1984" informed the discussions and is available for download from www.wilsoncenter.org/NKIDP.
James Person, coordinator of the Wilson Center's North Korea International Documentation Project explained that a profound sense of distrust is at the root of the alliance. North Korea's Juche ideology, often translated as "self-reliance," is in its simplest form a rejection of Korea's subservient role in the Sino-centric tributary system that for nearly 2,000 years persisted as the core organizing principle of East Asian international politics. North Korea's founding leader Kim Il Sung perceived any attempt by China to influence North Korea's political system as an attempt to re-affirm its hegemony and make clear the hierarchy of relations in the region.
The Korean War, the event that most consider the quintessence of Sino-North Korean solidarity, was the first major source of tension between North Korea and China. Although the Chinese Peoples' Volunteers saved North Korea from certain defeat, the North Korean leadership balked at having in its midst a foreign military apparatus with control over field operations. Tensions were exacerbated by personal animosities between Kim Il Sung and CPV commander, Peng Dehuai, who Mao later berated for exercising "big-power chauvinism" over the North Korean leader. A Sino-Soviet joint party intervention in an internal Korean Workers' Party debate in 1956 further fueled Kim Il Sung's distrust of China. Perhaps the greatest perceived violation of North Korea's sovereignty, however, came when the PRC attempted to force the DPRK to replicate its Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1969. Chinese Red Guards denounced Kim as a "fat revisionist," broadcast anti-government propaganda through loudspeakers along the Sino-DPRK border, and published reports that the North Korean leader had been overthrown in a coup d'état by pro-Chinese forces. Tensions escalated to such heights that armed clashes broke out along the Sino-DPRK border in 1969. In 1970, however, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai traveled to Pyongyang to apologize for China's misdeeds. As Kim Il Sung's conversations with communist leaders decades later attest, propaganda aside, the alliance never fully recovered.
Bernd Schaefer, a senior scholar with the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars examined the shifting dynamics of Sino-DPRK relations over three decades. During the 1960s, the alliance moved from one of "subservience" to "defiance" as Chinese leaders grew frustrated with the North Koreans for never giving them the gratitude Mao had expected. One primary example of this, despite Chinese efforts to create a "spill over effect," was the failure to carry out a North Korean Cultural Revolution. Eventually, North Korean defiance paid off. By 1970, China backed down following the border clashes, apologized to North Korea, and actually came across as the weaker party. Since that time, as Schaefer explained, North Korea has actually gained leverage over China.
During the 1970s, North Korea sought to take advantage of China by using the Sino-U.S. rapprochement to achieve its goal of unifying the Korean peninsula. North Korea expected that through negotiations, China would be able to "kick" the United States out of South Korea. Later, the North Koreans got the impression that the PRC had moved towards a rapprochement with the United States in order to gain Taiwan in exchange for not re-affirming its hegemony over the rest of East Asia.
Schaefer explained that during the 1980s, Sino-DPRK relations "contracted" as North Korea became uneasy as to what China's economic reforms would bring. Ultimately, North Korea chose not to follow China's example and abandon its autarkic economic model. The North Korean political elite saw economic reforms as a source of political instability and social unrest, especially in the wake of the events of 1988-1989. Indeed, the North Korean leadership felt vindicated by the Tiananmen Square incident.
According to Schaefer, Sino-DPRK relations today are characterized by a dynamic that transcends past animosities and differing economic systems. The collapse of the one-party system in either neighboring country would have disastrous results for the other.
Picking up on a theme of increased DPRK leverage over China, John Park, senior research Associate for Northeast Asia with the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the United States Institute of Peace, explained that because China's dominant focus is on its economic development, North Korea has become adept at maximizing opportunities to capitalize on the PRC's constrained diplomacy. For example, North Korea applied pressure on the PRC in 2006 after Beijing "assured" Washington that Pyongyang would "listen" to Chinese advice and not test fire a Taepodong-2 missile or test a nuclear device. Since 2006, as Park explained, Beijing has become more proactive and multilateralist in its behavior toward North Korea as it attempts to secure a stable external environment so it can continue to focus on internal economic development and secure much needed inflows of Foreign Direct Investment.
China's leverage over North Korea is not only constrained by its focus on economic development. Beijing is also fearful of an influx of North Korean refugees in the event of regime collapse, and the effects of this on internal development. Moreover, Beijing has greatly benefited from its high profile diplomatic efforts as host of the Six-Party Talks, a public relations windfall for the PRC, as they promote the "peaceful development" thesis.
Discussant Jin Linbo, visiting fellow with the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution explained that even when the East Asian interstate system experienced the peak of its stability in the 18th and 19th centuries, Korea did not always play by the rules set by China. China's relations with North Korea during the Cold War were just as unsuccessful, according to Jin, and became even more complicated after the opening of China. Yet, because China understands the North Koreans better than others, it can still play a useful role in trying to resolve the differences between the DPRK and the rest of the world as host of the Six-Party Talks.
Drafted by James F. Person, coordinator, North Korea International Documentation Project
Christian F. Ostermann, Director, History and Public Policy Program.