US analysts and officials often refer to North Korea as China’s ally, as if it were a diplomatic or military asset. History suggests it’s more like a rock around China’s neck. Chinese President Xi Jinping may find it too heavy to bear.
Or, he may succeed in solving one of the most intractable security problems in East Asia. The denuclearization of North Korea is the UN benchmark both Xi and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to meet. They reiterated that promise in their most recent get together in Beijing earlier this month.
Keeping it will require the two of them to untangle the mess that started when Kim’s grandfather, defying the unequivocally expressed wishes of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chairman Mao Zedong, crossed the 38th parallel—the dividing line between North and South Korea—and tried to reunify his country by force. Getting rid of the weapons will require eliminating the insecurities, and ambitions, that drove North Korea to build them in the first place.
One of the weaknesses of a political regime that punishes scholars who look into sensitive subjects is that it becomes much harder for decision-makers to distinguish fact from fiction. Fortunately, the 1950s are far enough in the past that, for the moment, inquiring Chinese minds have more freedom to investigate the origins of the relationship between communist China and North Korea.
Based on the content of an October 2010 exposition from then Vice-Chairman Xi on the 60th anniversary of what the CCP calls the “War to Resist America and Help Korea,” he’s got a lot to learn.
The anniversary speech was Xi’s coming out party and it contains some whoppers. The most important, by far, is that North Korea asked Communist China to enter the war. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Thanks to a marvelously detailed exploration of Chinese and Soviet archives by China’s preeminent chronicler of the period, we now know that Kim’s grandfather did everything he could to keep China behind the front lines and that Mao sent in Chinese forces to take over the fight without Kim’s consent.
We also know that Mao did not want his North Korean comrade to attack the south in the first place. He thought Kim was impatient, over confident and that he would fail. Mao was right, and China paid an enormous military and diplomatic cost to save Kim’s government and restore the status quo ante.
Xi’s speech was all bluster and glory: an ode to pyrrhic victory over the Americans. It glossed over China’s losses and failed to consider the lessons that might be learned from an unnecessary war that solved nothing. Korea is still divided and that remains the root cause of the North’s suffering and the South’s anxiety.
Technically, China can say it won the war. It entered after the United States ignored repeated Chinese warnings not to cross the 38th parallel. General MacArthur convinced President Truman the warnings were a bluff. China eventually left after the original dividing line was firmly secured. But it is hard to see what good can come from remembering the war that way.
Perhaps the speech was catering to the old Chinese soldiers who had yet to fade away. My father-in-law was one of them and I am certain he deeply appreciated the Party’s recognition of the risks he took in Korea on behalf of his country. Maybe it wasn’t an appropriate moment for Xi to admit it was all for nothing and a consequence of reckless North Korean ambition.
Xi prohibited the publication of a book that discussed those mistakes. But he also had the authors, who published it in Hong Kong and New York instead, send multiple copies of the original manuscript to the senior leadership.
That’s an encouraging sign.
State of Play
After Mao died and his successors championed pragmatism over ideology, establishing relations with a prosperous South Korea became more important than preserving fidelity with the North. Peking University was flooded with South Korean students, and South Korean money, when I was running educational exchange programs there in the 1990s. South Korean pop culture spread through Chinese youth like a wildfire. The impact remains substantial today.
North Korea became an afterthought. To the extent ordinary Chinese thought about it at all the North was an embarrassing reminder of what communist China used to be. The CCP leadership maintained a perfunctory courtesy towards the North Korean regime, but left the management of its ill behavior, including its pursuit of nuclear weapons, to the United States.
Successive Chinese governments sought to assist US efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as long as they did not destabilize the regime. China tempered US-led efforts to put pressure on North Korea through international sanctions by insisting a baseline level of aid and trade remain open. It hosted formal negotiations and served as a conduit for dialog. But there was never the same sense of urgency about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as there was in the United States.
US analysts and officials routinely accuse their Chinese counterparts of acting in bad faith for not putting more pressure on North Korea with tighter restrictions on the substantial aid and trade that flowed through China. Bad faith implies malign intent. The accusations are understandable given the long and bitter legacy of the Korean War. But there’s another less ominous way to look at China’s approach to the problem.
A team of Japanese defense analysts put their finger on it in a secret report on Japan’s nuclear weapons options submitted prior to Japan’s accession to the permanent extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995.
“Although North Korea’s nuclear development is like a dagger stuck to China’s throat, it has the same logical justification of China’s own nuclear development. China cannot condemn it.”
The justification was self-defense, which the authors did not accept as legitimate. Neither does the NPT, which requires all nations to denuclearize, including the United States.
Moreover, when China tested its first nuclear device in 1964 it was as much of an international pariah as North Korea is today. Mao, like Kim Jong-un, was described as a sadistic madman. Isolation, sanctions and pressure made China even more determined to develop nuclear weapons. Why would North Korea respond differently?
China’s own experience suggested the US effort to keep tightening sanctions and ratcheting up pressure would only make things worse. China’s approach for most of the last several decades could be seen as an effort to muddle through while trying to prevent a crisis that could lead to war.
Enter Xi Jinping
Economic data on North Korea is notoriously unreliable but Xi’s anniversary speech on the Korean War appears to have capped a year of explosive growth in trade between China and the North. The increase may have been meant to compensate for new sanctions imposed after North Korea sank a South Korean warship and shelled a South Korean island. Chinese colleagues consistently argue that a reformed and developing North Korean economy would make the security problem less acute. Holding out that possibility may be key to Xi’s approach to managing North Korea.
But is that enough to satisfy its leaders? The uptick in trade was followed by an uptick in diplomacy. But in 2014 North Korea accelerated its efforts to demonstrate a plausible capability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon. Severe UN sanctions and flamboyant US military threats failed to slow them down.
In his 2018 New Year’s address Kim Jong-un told the world he believed North Korea finally succeeded, and that he was shifting his focus to economic development. He froze testing, embraced South Korea’s effort to take the lead in a new round of diplomacy and, for the first time, met with the leaders of the United States and China.
Kim met with President Trump once. He met with Xi Jinping four times in one year after a long hiatus in contact between the leaders of the two communist nations. Some observers opined that Xi wants to make sure Kim doesn’t cut a deal with South Korea and the United States that closes China out. Others think Xi is pushing a recalcitrant Kim to negotiate in good faith.
Sadly, since it took us almost sixty years to learn what really happened between Mao Zedong and Kim Il-sung, it will probably take us just as long to learn what’s happening now between Xi Jinping and Kim’s grandson.
What to Look for in the Months Ahead
US experts are searching for a magic package of security assurances that will entice Kim to give up, within a relatively short period of time, a nuclear capability North Korea spent decades working to acquire, at great cost and great risk. At the same time these experts want to preserve indefinitely an overwhelming allied military superiority that can annihilate North Korea with minimal risk to South Korea, Japan and the United States. It is hard to imagine how a conversation premised on achieving those two contradictory objectives does anything other than aggravate mutual mistrust.
Chinese experts seem to be encouraging the United States to take a longer view that does not insist on the immediate denuclearization of North Korea and allows it to develop its economy to a point where the regime no longer appears as threatening to its neighbors as it does now. They believe this is the trajectory China followed and that North Korea can reform itself in the same way. It is hard to imagine how the United States, Japan and South Korea would be willing to be so patient, especially as they watch with concern how economic development improves Chinese military capabilities that are now being wielded by an ambitious Chinese ideologue.
Korean experts are hopeful they can finally settle things themselves. The root of the problem is a divided Korea. If Kim Jong-un is as impatient as his grandfather, and the North still imagines it can compel unification on its terms because it now has nuclear weapons, it is hard to see how the South can continue to engage the North constructively. But if the grandson’s ambitions are more reasonable, if he’s just looking for an honorable way out of this decades-old dilemma, then why not give the two Koreas enough time and negotiating room to find it?
The Trump administration, because of what can charitably be called a lack of sufficient resources, may provide that time and space by default.
The generally healthy relationship China has cultivated with South Korea since the 1990s suggests Xi may let President Moon Jae-in remain in the driver’s seat. But a dramatic turn of events in Korea, for good or ill, could create some drama inside China as well.
The Xi administration elevates above all else the mercurial persona of its leader, who has re-emphasized communist orthodoxy to the point where domestic critics (and there are many) lament that as North Korea is becoming more like China, China is becoming more like North Korea. The pomp, pageantry and propaganda attending the summits between the two are an unflattering reminder of Xi’s oppressive dogmatism.
The upcoming year could be an inconvenient time for unpleasant political memories. 2019 marks the hundredth anniversary of the May 4th Movement, the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre and the seventieth anniversary of communist liberation in 1949. Any one of them could give rise to uncomfortable questions about where Xi is taking the country.
Moon could become another Mandela or an enviable icon of Asian democracy with an appeal that rivals K-Pop. Or Xi could threaten to go to war with the United States, as he did during a tense period in August of 2017. Putting Chinese peace and prosperity on the line for the same reasons Mao did in the 1950s may not go down so well during a period pregnant with opportunities to call attention to the Chinese Communist Party’s mistakes.
For those of us watching from the cheap seats, there’s a lot of interlocking storylines to follow.