North Korea and China: A Difficult History, Part III

In Part I of our report, we reviewed the Minsaengdan Incident and a broad examination of the Korean War. In Part II, we completed our analysis of the war, discussed the Kim regime’s autarkic policy of Juche and outlined the impact of the Cultural Revolution on North Korean/Chinese relations.

This week, Part III will cover the controversy surrounding North Korea’s dynastic succession, the end of the Cold War and the ideological issues with Deng Xiaoping. Finally, we will recap the key insights from this history and the impact on American policy toward the DPRK. We will conclude, as always, with market ramifications.

China and Dynastic Succession

In 1980, Kim Jong-il was appointed as leader of the DPRK at the Korean Worker’s Party (KWP) central committee meeting, succeeding his father. China denounced the decision, calling hereditary succession a vestige of feudalism. For North Korea, this denigration was difficult to accept. Until China lost control of the Korean Peninsula during the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95, China conferred legitimacy on Korean royal appointments. Thus, criticism from China regarding Kim Il-sung’s decision to bestow succession on his son was seen as a violation of North Korean sovereignty.

China and Deng

Deng Xiaoping modernized China’s economy, moving away from Marxism to what is probably best described as a form of state capitalism. The evolution of the Chinese economy was seen as deviant by Kim who viewed Soviet Marxism as the standard for socialist states. China’s decisions to allow markets to flourish and engage in trade with the free world were seen as traitorous to the cause of socialism. By the end of the 1980s, the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Soviet Union had collapsed and the Chinese economy had begun a period of rapid growth. Thus, North Korea’s criticism of China’s socialist “deviancy” looked rather foolish.

Perhaps the event that made clear how irrelevant North Korea’s economy was to China occurred in 1992 when the PRC officially established diplomatic relations with South Korea. This action made it clear that the Chinese communist affiliation with North Korea didn’t trump China’s ambitions to expand its economic relationships. Overall, recognizing South Korea signaled to the Kim regime that North Korea wasn’t all that important to Beijing.

What This Means

In the past two reports, we have conducted a deep dive into the history of Chinese and North Korean relations since the late 1940s. The decision to engage in this analysis was prompted by the Person article mentioned in Part I.[1] In examining Person’s source material, we were able to access declassified reports, often from Eastern European communist officials who were visiting North Korea and reported their experiences to their superiors. The following insights emerged from our research.

China likely resents the North Korean narrative of the Korean War. North Korea has rewritten history to claim it nearly single-handedly won the Korean War. If China had not intervened in the conflict, Kim Il-sung would have gone down in a horrific defeat, due primarily to his own incompetence. As noted in Part I, Kim had overextended his supply lines in hopes of a smashing, quick victory. MacArthur’s landing at Inchon, taking advantage of Kim’s military mistakes, nearly succeeded in unifying the peninsula under the South Korean government until Chinese forces entered the war. It should be noted that Mao Anying, Mao Zedong’s oldest son, died in the conflict, killed by an airstrike in November 1950. Thus, the historical distortions by North Korea must gall Chinese leaders.[2]