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Uneasy Allies: Fifty Years of China-North Korea Relations

Samuel S. Kim, Columbia University; Jian Chen,University of Virginia; Hazel Smith, University of WarwickDownload Special Report #115

Date & Time

Jul. 29, 2003
3:00pm – 5:00pm ET


Uneasy Allies: Fifty Years of China-North Korea Relations
July 29, 2003

Chen Jian, University of Virginia; Samuel S. Kim, Columbia University; Hazel Smith, University of Warwick.

Sunday, July 27, marked the 50th anniversary of the armistice agreement that put a halt to fighting in the Korean War. With the unsurprising exception of a lavish parade in Pyongyang, commemorations of the anniversary were quite muted across Asia and in the United States. Given recent events, there is little reason to celebrate; the temporary peace on the Korean peninsula is in greater jeopardy today than any other time in the past half century. Although all countries with an interest in the region have expressed concern for preserving peace in Northeast Asia, perhaps no relationship will be more central in achieving this goal than that between North Korea and its only remaining ally in the region: China.

As a sign of the dire state of affairs on the peninsula, countries traditionally wary of an increased role for China in regional politics—namely the United States—have welcomed Beijing's efforts to maintain stability and assure a peaceful resolution to the most recent nuclear crisis. Yet China's task is made all the more difficult by a strained relationship with North Korea. Though in the beginning ideological partners, China and North Korea are no longer "closer than lips and teeth." This Asia Program meeting analyzed what has long been an uneasy alliance—looking back to historical instances of conflict and cooperation, recent political events and the relatively unexplored border relations between China and North Korea—in an effort to better understand the nature of the current crisis.

The PRC-DPRK relationship started off on the right foot: North Korean communists provided support and a strategic base for the Chinese communists in 1949 and China reciprocated with massive military intervention saving Kim Jung Il's regime from collapse during its war with the South. Yet the honeymoon was short and problems soon arose. Chen Jian argued that history is littered with instances of tension and stress in the relationship; he contended, "there is no more proper adjective to describe China-North Korea relations than uneasy." As early as the Korean War, China grew upset with Kim when he was closemouthed on his plans for war and did not share his offensive plans with Beijing until three days after the war began. A 1956 argument over North Korean political dissidents seeking refuge in China exploded into a crisis that has implications even today. What began as a relationship of "big brother" China and "little brother" North Korea more closely resembled sibling rivalry. Beijing lost much of its influence over Pyongyang as China abandoned its revolutionary state in favor of economic development while North Korea chose to languish in the past. Therefore, in today's crisis, Dr. Chen suggested that Beijing no longer has ideological leverage and can only rely on its economic influence.

Samuel Kim agreed with Chen, noting that the current nuclear crisis has arrived at the same time as an unprecedented crisis of alliance preservation between China and North Korea. Interestingly, both China and South Korea are drifting away from their traditional allies: Beijing is moving closer to Seoul than Pyongyang, while Seoul appears more comfortable with Beijing than Washington. Nonetheless, China knows that conflict on the peninsula is problematic for its economic growth. Beijing thus wants desperately to maintain stability in North Korea, and has adopted a proactive posture with a foreign policy wish list of five "no's": No instability, no collapse, no nuclear weapons, no refugees, and no conflict escalation. Because China remains an important North Korean ally, observers speculate that Beijing has great leverage over Pyongyang. Kim contended, however, that this leverage is very modest compared to the power that the United States wields in the region. Additionally, it is difficult for China to convince North Korea to stay off the nuclear path in light of its own nuclear weapons program. China's economic leverage is also very much constrained—though cutting off massive Chinese aid could be used as a disincentive, the strategy could potentially backfire and provoke Pyongyang into a military confrontation.

The issue of refugees and immigration along the China-North Korea border is an important element in the discussion of instability on the peninsula. Many analysts feel that China's motivation to keep North Korea from collapse rises from the fear of a flood of refugees into the country. Hazel Smith contended, however, that the issue of cross border relations is not so easily understood. The threat and existence of immigration is not relevant to the whole of the border. Profiling each of the North Korean border provinces, Smith noted that in areas with more economic stability and those near non-Korean speaking Chinese provinces, for instance, immigration is not strikingly high. Immigration is not as crucial to the current geopolitical situation as was once thought—it is less an issue of conflict and more a subject of irritation for China. Beijing's motivation to put an end to the crisis cannot, therefore, be explained solely as a means to protect itself from a humanitarian disaster in its northeastern provinces.

A smaller meeting on this same topic, featuring Kim and Smith, was held on Capitol Hill on July 30.

Robert M. Hathaway, Asia Program director 202-691-4012
Drafted by Timothy Hildebrandt, Asia Program assistant


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Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

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