We all know by now that North Korea is economically sapped, has conducted five nuclear tests, possesses intermediate range Nodong (1,300-km) and Musudan (3,000-km) missiles under its belt, and is conjoined at the hip with China sharing a 1,400-km-long border. Much is made of the Sino-North Korean socialist camaraderie, “closer than lips are to teeth.” The general impression is that North Korea handcuffs China not just by virtue of socialist solidarity, but also its critical geostrategic location in the Northeast Asian peninsula. But just how true is this?
Certainly, North Korea tests the powers that meet here-China, the US, Russia, Japan and South Korea-and holds the card in the precarious status quo. On one hand, North Korea’s nuclear weapons or possibility of a sudden leadership crisis, a so-called “implosion” scenario, has the potential of upheaval: In the first case, trigger a disaster worse in magnitude than Fukushima (Japan, 2011) for China and the neighbourhood (South Korean capital Seoul is 55-km away from the North Korean border). In the second case, if North Korea collapses, the enormity of a refugee crisis, absorption costs of a failed state or costs of ‘limited retaliation’ by North Korea could be high. On the other hand, North Korea’s peaceful reunification with South Korea or armistice with the US-after all, President Donald Trump has indicated that he would be “honoured” to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un-has the possibility of bringing the US to China’s doorstep, wildly realising ex-US President Barack Obama’s American “pivot to Asia.”
Simply understood, North Korea is to China what Nepal is to India-traditionally an indispensable buffer. Just as Nepal does for India, North Korea does for China-as a precious shield on the Northeast Asian Korean peninsula, what with a dynamic US presence in the South Korean backyard engaging its THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile system months ahead of schedule. Japan is just across the Sea of Japan, and an equally powerful Russia, who not only meets China and North Korea at the borders but whose aircraft carrier Minsk has docked at the North Korean port of Nampo, mere miles away from the Chinese port of Dandong which is in close proximity with Sinuiju, North Korea.
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Though walls have fallen-the Soviet Union has dismembered, China has embraced an uptick of socialism (socialism with Chinese characteristics) and East and West Germany are one-it is here in Northeast Asia that North Korea is the last bastion of Cold War that hasn’t fallen.
If history is recalled, the Korean peninsula has the unfortunate distinction of being China’s Achilles’ heel. In the early 1930s, Korea, then a Japanese colony, became the conduit for Japanese ambitions in China. Korea served as the base, as the Japanese came, saw and conquered Manchuria (China’s Northeast), briefly setting up the Manchukuo (1932-45). In the aftermath of the Second World War, Japan left a devastating trail of war, widows and graveyards in China’s northeast. Old-timers may recall that the notorious Japanese biological warfare unit, Unit 731, was based in the city Harbin (capital of Heilongjiang province, China’s northeast).
When WWII ended, Korea came to be fractured along the 38th parallel, with the US backing the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) under President Syngman Rhee and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) under current President Kim Jong-un’s grandfather Premier Kim Il-sung (1948-94) at the helm.
What is uncharacteristically un-communist about North Korea is the unbroken hereditary dynastic chain unparalleled in history-Kim Il-sung at the helm for 44 years, followed by his son Kim Jong-il (1994-2011) for 17 years and now grandson Kim Jong-un at the helm for five.
In the 1950s, China-Korea relations began to solidify on the battle cry of anti-imperialism and more solidly on the Korean War (1950-53), which started as Kim Il-sung sought a reunification with the recalcitrant South in June 1950. China joined in the North Korean blitzkrieg in October 1950, sending a brigand of Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPV). Many Indian readers may know that Chairman Mao Zedong’s eldest son Mao Anying was dispatched to North Korea and died on the battlefield.
Despite the personal setback to Mao, China did not backtrack from the intervention. American General Douglas MacArthur, who had promised a resounding victory for America by Christmas in 1950, had to eat humble pie. The Chinese (indirectly) succeeded in the decorated General’s dismissal and in bringing the Americans to the negotiating table. Despite the fact, as Sinologist John Garver says, China “conceded far more of its demands than the US side,” China’s feat was of no mean significance. Soon after, the Line of Actual Control (north of the 38th Parallel) became the boundary.
China and North Korea sealed their friendship with the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance signed on July 11, 1961, and followed it up with a secret pact on the shared boundary in 1963-the golden years of communist camaraderie.
But thereafter, scholars question the nature of Sino-North Korean friendship. True, North Korea’s nuclear prowess/proliferation despite denuclearisation agreements in 1994, 2005 and 2007 has not stopped, which makes us all guess who the possible benefactor could be. China is the only ally that North Korea has.
But it’s also true that the Sino-North Korea relationship has seen more falling out than in, with scholar You Ji calling it “more myth, less fact.” Hereditary succession rankled Mao, as Kim Il-sung had broached Kim Jong-il’s succession with Mao in the 1970s. Surprisingly, too, a substantial number of North Korean defectors live in China.
Some lows in the Sino-North Korean relationship have been during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when the Red Guards lampooned Kim Il-sung as bourgeois; in the 1980s, North Korean scepticism on China’s glasnost “gaige and kaifang” (reform and open door); and in the 1990s, China doing away with “friendship price” of oil (exported to North Korea). The establishment of China’s diplomatic relations with South Korea in response to South Korea’s “Northern Diplomacy” in 1992 was, well, touché.
China assiduously supports “One China” policy (in other words, disputes Taiwan’s existence and maintains that there is only one China), and yet turned a blind eye to North Korean aspirations.
China’s pragmatism has dictated relations with South Korea, which now exports $137 billion in goods and services to China. South Korean presence by way of entrepreneurs and conglomerates (chaebol) such as Daewoo and Samsung, particularly in China’s northeast and in the Bohai Sea region (Tianjin, Beijing municipalities and Shandong province), is noteworthy. About 40% of tourists come to South Korea from China.
China is no doubt North Korea’s economic lifeline-biggest trade partner with bilateral trade estimated at $6.8 billion in 2014, and favourable loans and aid. The Rajin port (easternmost end of North Korea bordering Russia) and Pyongyang Department Store No. 1 have been backed by China. China is the only channel of North Korea communicating with the external world that has largely shunned it as a pariah state.
But many scholars say the North Korean thinking is that China needs North Korea more than North Korea needs China-and hence pays for the upkeep. After all, North Korea keeps the “pivot” at bay.
China can’t wish away geography-the distance between Pyongyang and Beijing is more or less the distance between Delhi and Varanasi, and the long border along the Tumen and Yalu rivers separating the two countries is porous.
If you go to China’s Dandong (port city), it is possible to sit in the balcony of a high-rise and see the sleepy expanse of Sinuiju, North Korea, on the other side across the Yalu river manned by the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge. Much of the Sino-North Korean trade (coal imports from North Korea) takes place through Dandong, which also hosts a token of friendship-the Memorial Hall for the Resist America and Aid Korea War (1993).
China has a discernible Korean presence in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture (administrative unit below the province)-ethnic Korean population, Korean schools, Korean restaurants and Korean signboards and notices, with Korean recognised as an official language. From Tumen city, in Yanbian, China, one can see Namyang, North Korea, across the Tumen River Bridge. These reality bites are often overlooked.
China’s proximity has its upside and its downside-one particular North Korean nuclear facility is only 20-km away from the China-North Korea border.
Thus, China straddles a tangled dilemma-a needed North Korean buffer with a strong economic/military liability. While China has stalled coal exports from North Korea in 2017, China stops short of ruffling the feathers of the ally-cum-liability too hard.
As for North Korea, still a time-traveller’s delight caught in a socialist utopia of its own making, in poverty and isolation, it is as Japanese scholar Narushige Michishita opines adept at “playing the game.” So while North Korea does handcuff China, the strength to “play the hand” comes from only from one source.
Perhaps China, too, is leveraging North Korea to show Japan, the US and the world that it is only China that can keep North Korea in check. For President Trump who badgered China on South China Sea and as a “currency manipulator” no US navy ship has gone within 12 nautical miles of any of the disputed islands in the South China Sea in his first 100 days-quid pro quo with China to reign in North Korea?
Reports suggest that North Korea is now pivoting to Russia, indicating the complexity of the situation. As for China, which has been riding the North Korean tiger, getting off isn’t easy or getting easier.