This is a slightly edited version of a lengthy research paper I wrote for a class last spring called "Politics and Foreign Policy of China". A word of warning, this is a LONG post-the assignment called for 20 pages.
Coming up next are Sochi Hockey Quarterfinal Predictions-probably Wednesday-and a review of the toughest stretch of the season for GW basketball-expect it early next week. Cheers! -KM
Many nations are characterized as animals in political literature. The bald eagle represents the United States, the bulldog stands for Great Britain, the Great Bear symbolizes Russia, and so on. The western world has long associated China with the dragon. Today, the Chinese dragon roars with vigor as China rides its soaring economy into unprecedented global influence and wealth.
Near the dragon stands a wolf in the shadows. It angrily gnashes its teeth, loudly barking and howling, ready to pounce on its enemies. A proud animal, it stands tall, fearless, and formidable. However, upon closer look, the wolf is not the powerful beast it thinks it is. Its teeth are decaying, chipped, and falling out. Its fur is mangy. It looks frail and sickly, like it hasn’t eaten a proper meal in days. Many basic tasks it must do to stay alive and healthy it cannot do on its own, or at all. But despite all that, it angrily snarls on. This wolf represents the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Colloquially known as North Korea, the DPRK has been scowling venomously at most of its neighbors from across the 38th parallel and beyond since it emerged from the Korean War. The “Fatherland Liberation War”
, as it is called in the North, never really ended from a rhetorical standpoint, despite combat yielding to an armistice in the summer of 1953.
China is the exception to the rule. The DPRK has, for the most part, maintained cordial and polite relations with their ideological counterpart China. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army was an ally to North Korea in the Korean War. China Radio International and other state run media outlets officially refer to this conflict as the “War to Resist U. S. Aggression and Aid Korea”.
After the Korean War ended, the DPRK successfully walked the diplomatic tightrope between Moscow and Beijing in what is known as the Sino-Soviet Split.
Recently, however, North Korea has been in both the Chinese and international spotlight for the wrong reasons. “North Korea’s history of regional military provocations; proliferation of military-related items; long range missile development; WMD programs including tests of nuclear devices in 2006, 2009, and 2013, and massive conventional armed forces are of major concern to the international community.”
Judging by state-run media outlets’ publications such as Xinhua, the Chinese government finds the North Koreans’ chest-thumping irritating, and the Chinese people are not always keen to take their totalitarian neighbor completely seriously.
““China’s social media sites have unleashed waves of satirical jokes, images and names aimed at Mr. Kim [Kim Jong Un], who is often described in disparaging terms by ordinary Chinese. A common description of Mr. Kim on social media sites is “The Kid.” Another favorite: “Fatty, the Third.” (NYT)
Unless Kim Jong Un decides to tone down his aggressive policy (or lose weight, apparently), that sentiment does not look likely to change and the Chinese will likely continue to criticize and mock the Korean leader’s policy and appearance.
This is not the first time North Korea has caught the attention of the international community with aggressive nuclear ambition. A left-leaning newspaper in South Korea known as The Hankoryeh (“One Nation”), claims that “The belligerent conditions date back to March 12, 1993, when North Korea responded to International Atomic Energy Agency demands for special inspections by pulling out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).”
The North Koreans didn’t stop there. Five years later, in August 1998, North Korea announced the launch of "light star No. 1" satellite, “...but the U.S. and South Korea and other countries [contested] that North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile "Taepodong". Recently, the US [and] South Korean media have been reporting that North Korea test-fired the Taepodong-2 intercontinental ballistic missile. U.S. officials have repeatedly warned North Korea not [to conduct a] ballistic missile test.”
These tests strain relations with both China and Japan, especially as “China was being asked to play an active role as diplomatic liaison for messages from Seoul and Washington related to North Korea’s nuclear program.”
Beijing has denied responsibility for North Korea’s actions, but they were praised for their actions as effective behind-the-scenes negotiators. The Clinton Administration even lauded them as the “key to solving the North Korean crisis”.
Unfortunately, progress has not yet yielded a solution.
North Korea is perhaps the most repressive and isolated country in the world. With China’s increasing global influence and North Korea’s erratic threats of nuclear war, this diplomatic relationship has been thrust into the global spotlight, and the relationship’s strength is being called into question. This conflict does not have an easy resolution, but China’s alliance with North Korea does not necessarily mean agreement. China has spoken of the DPRK recently in a very critical manner. “The DPRK will only create more insecurity for itself by insisting on forcing the international community to accept its nuclear weapons through nuclear confrontation.”
But at the same time, China seems to be in its own way. If the Chinese take a stronger, more tangible stance against the DPRK’s nuclear threats, they could provoke instability at home or provoke the already volatile DPRK government into mutiny.
While risky, it may be in China’s best interest to take a more assertive and critical stance in its relationship with the DPRK. The Chinese press has recently spoken frankly and decisively against the North Korean nuclear program, even venturing to tout the possible benefits of North Korea reversing their policy. “The other possibility is that the DPRK, in the process of negotiating for denuclearization will improve the international environment, speed up institutional reform and opening-up and bring about security and development.”
For too long have the North Koreans have been threatening the United States, South Korea, and Japan with nuclear destruction. If the Chinese continue down their seemingly reluctant path of speaking out without decisively acting against the DPRK, the cycle of threatening rhetoric will continue to repeat itself and the North Korean government will continue to pursue their useless and absurd policy of militarization while its people starve. As of 2011, North Korea, according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies' annual global "Military Balance" report, 2011, spent around 22-24 percent of its GDP on defense.
History reminds us that nuclear aggression rarely yields positive results for the aggressor. The Soviet Union realized they’d gone too far in 1962 by installing missiles in Cuba and they prudently backed down from a potential war with the United States. The Islamic Republic of Iran has drawn considerable ire both domestically and internationally for pursuing their nuclear ambitions while the economy continues to suffer. It’s true that China has various problems and scores to settle with its neighbors and close trade partners. Anti-imperialist rhetoric, which continues to impede relations with the United States, Japan, and the Republic of Korea, still pervades Chinese society. It is much more important for China, however, to maintain trade and diplomatic relations with these countries than to keep the North Koreans as their ideological allies. There’s ample reason to believe that North Korea’s not aggressive enough to actively stand up to China in a militaristic setting because China is a large and much more tangible military threat.
North Korea is casting a negative shadow on China. It’s true that China is plenty repressive on its own, as the 2013 Freedom House “Freedom in the World” report graded China’s civil liberties a 6 (very repressive) and political freedoms a 7 (extremely repressive).
Being allied with a country like the DPRK only amplifies their own injustices. If China really wants to continue on its path of improving its image abroad, vanquishing the North Korean nuclear nuisance would likely be counted as a major step forward. Neither the United States or South Korea have come forth with a solution to this problem. It is unlikely that the DPRK’s government could be replaced with a fluid democracy in the short term, but if China is able to help the DPRK reform its government a la Deng Xiaoping, abandon its nuclear ambitions, and become more economically independent, it would represent an enormous diplomatic victory for the PRC.
Would China be willing to do something like this? It may help to examine the history of the two countries’ relations. The Chinese and Korean civilizations have coexisted for thousands of years, but the modern relationship between China and North Korea is still relatively young. The Korean peninsula was freed from Japanese annexation at the end of World War II. North Korea, under close supervision by the USSR, was formally established as a sovereign nation on 9 September 1948 when the United Nations supervised an election to establish two separate governments for North and South. The 9th of September has been celebrated as the DPRK’s national holiday ever since.
A year later, the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed, ending a lengthy Civil War against Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuomintang Nationalists. The two young nations had barely enough time to breathe when “On June 25, 1950, less than 5 months after the signing of the Sino-Soviet Treaty, war shattered the uneasy peace in Korea.”
As stated before, this conflict is still referred to as the “War to Resist U. S. Aggression and Aid Korea”, and “...senior leaders in both Moscow and Beijing knew at least as early as the end of 1949 that the North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung was aiming to attack the South.”
Why did China decide to deploy its forces to defend the DPRK? Mao and the Communists had long believed that the United States and other western powers, were intruding into the Chinese sphere of influence. The United States was (and still is, to a certain extent) an ideological adversary of the People’s Republic. If the North was allowed to remain communist, the young People’s Republic would have an ally to rely on as they consolidated their power. But the war did not have unanimous support. “Even as the Kremlin and North Korea kept pushing Mao toward war, the CCP Politburo kept tugging him back...That there was considerable opposition to entering the war became evident as the PRC leaders huddled together in conclave.”
China finally decided to march to war on October 13, because “The conquest of Korea would release US troops for action against China from two directions-Taiwan to the east and Vietnam to the south. Because the situation then would still be more precarious, the Chinese should accept the US challenge on a field of battle chosen by themselves. Korea would be the best place to make a stand.”
The Korean War lasted slightly longer than three years, and more than a million Chinese troops lay dead before the armistice. The war was a stalemate, but China made an important statement to the United States: “The officers took considerable pride in the fact that for all the army’s terrible losses, China had nevertheless been able to fight the American army to a standstill.”
China and the DPRK, for the most part, have been close allies since both Communist governments consolidated their power. Since North Korea was able to push the South Koreans back to the 38th parallel in the Korean War, “North Korea emerged a proud and militantly nationalistic country.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, the fluid relationship came from perceived necessity. With American help, Japan had started to emerge as an influential, albeit pacifist country with a rapidly growing economy. To the north, cracks were appearing in the relationship between the PRC and USSR. As the relationship with the Soviets soured, China looked to the DPRK “...for her support in Sino-Soviet disputes [and] as an ally against an emerging Japan. Japan had annexed North Korea before World War II broke out, and while post-war Japan did not pose a direct military threat to either the Chinese or North Koreans, bad blood prevented the countries from becoming allies. In July of 1961, China and the DPRK signed the “Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance between China and Korea”.
In this treaty, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and North Korean Presidium Kim Il Sung had “examined each other’s full powers and found them in good and due form” and pledged to “make every effort to safeguard the peace of Asia and the world and the security of all peoples.” Both parties pledged to stand up for the other in times of military conflict, keep up dialogue on “important international questions of common interests”
, and acknowledged the eventual unification of the Korean peninsula as a goal to be recognized on behalf of lasting peace in the Far East. North Korea, seen by China as an ally against the “phony communism”
of the USSR, was nevertheless able to keep relations with both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China during the Sino-Soviet Split.
While the treaty of friendship remained intact, a roadblock appeared in the late 1960s when Chairman Mao implemented the chaotic, whirlwind purges known as the Cultural Revolution. Many of China’s relations with its allies became strained in the 1960s as the Chinese government started supporting communist insurgencies against the governments in neighboring countries. Surprisingly, Kim Il Sung , in a private conversation with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, called the Cultural Revolution a “massive idiocy.”
Why, though? As a dictatorial communist state similar to China, what business did the North Koreans have condemning their neighbor when they were surely guilty of the same sins? Was this a move of extreme hypocrisy on the part of the North Korean government or do they have a valid criticism of this horrid event? Whatever the motive for Kim’s words (It may have been a ploy to appease the Soviets), it did not sit well with the Chinese, and Kim decided soon after that the DPRK had to lay low until after the Cultural Revolution ended. North Korea was able to maintain her shrewd diplomacy through the late 1960s by playing the role of moderate. In order to prevent damaging the relationship with China, the DPRK government stated that the Soviets had gone too far right after they realized Mao had not taken kindly to their denouncing of the Cultural Revolution. While no party satisfactorily from this, the North Koreans were able to appease the Chinese by promoting Juche, a policy of self-reliance and improvement. And speaking of Juche...
If you look at a satellite picture of Asia at night, you’ll notice something peculiar. The cities of eastern and central China are brightly lit up, as is most of Japan, and nearly all of South Korea. The DPRK, however, is almost pitch black save for the small blip that is Pyongyang. A sharp contrast between the two countries-but like the two countries’ political relationship, economic relations between China and the DPRK got off to a positive start. “When Kim Il Sung led an eight member delegation to Beijing in November 1953, the two governments signed an agreement on economic and cultural cooperation.” The agreement called on both countries to aid each other economically and technologically in order to carry out and promote cultural exchange. China granted the DPRK 800 million yuan after the Korean War to help the war-torn nation recover. Kim Il Sung praised the People’s Republic, calling the Great Leap Forward “the creative power of the 650 million Chinese people”, claiming the people’s communes were an important step in China’s transition into a communist society. “Some suggested that North Korea was emulating China’s Great Leap Forward...when it launched the Chollima Undong and agricultural cooperatives in 1958.”
The Sino-Soviet Split represented a new chapter in Sino-North Korean economic relations. Both the Soviets and Chinese wanted to get North Korea to-in Mao’s words-lean to one side. “The Chinese used financial assistance and trade to try to woo Kim Il Sung away from the Soviet camp but often found it difficult to compete with the Soviet Union’s superior financial and technological capabilities.”
Money flowed into North Korea from both of their fellow communist allies, as Kim Il Sung was able to “capitalize” on the Sino-Soviet rivalry. “By 1976, he [Kim] had received an estimated $967 million in grants and loans from China and $1,534 million from the Soviet Union.” As China opened relations with its neighbors and eventually the world economy, North Korea’s trade became a progressively smaller component of foreign trade. From 1970 to 1989, trade with North Korea dropped from 2.5 percent of total foreign trade to 0.6 percent. North Korea relied heavily on China, especially for raw materials such as crude oil, as shown by the building of the China-Korea Friendship pipeline in 1976. “China shared about 20 percent of North Korea’s total foreign trade throughout the 1970s and 1980s.”
In other words, China reformed on a much grander scale than North Korea. Nevertheless, relations stayed sound between the PRC and DPRK, with China sending engineers and technicians over to their neighbors. The geographic proximity of the two nations also contributed to border trade, “especially between Dandong and Sinuiju, and between Tumen City and Namyang and Onsong. Along the Yalu River both sides have long benefited from hydroelectric power stations at Shuifeng, Unbong, Weiyuan, and Taepyongman.”
North Korea continued to sign trade agreements with the Chinese in the 1980s and planed out extensive and ambitious goals for the future through policy such as the Third Seven-Year Economic Plan.
In the late 1980s, however, problems began to arise. China had opened its doors to the world and made enormous strides economically under paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. North Korea, on the other hand, was starting to stick out like a sore thumb. Their rival to the south, the newly democratic Republic of Korea, was trading and making exponentially larger sums of money from trade with China and the world, and the two countries were only growing farther apart. In 1985, South Korea’s total trade with China totaled $1.161 billion, while North Korea stood at $488 million. Nine years later, in 1994, North Korea had slowly grown to $623 million, while South Korea’s trade with China had ballooned to $11.7 billion.
Unfortunately for the North Koreans and the Chinese, the problem was institutionalized in Kim Il Sung’s Juche ideology. “Despite the inclusion of some worthy moral and political ideals in Kim Il Sung’s Juche ideology, it nonetheless stifled North Korea’s ability to promote technological innovation and managerial adaptation. Heavy defense expenditures and counterproductive political campaigns exhausted North Korea’s financial resources.”
Even the Soviet Union had given up on the North Koreans. Of course, it’s important to note that at this time, Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms of glasnost and perestroika had started to spiral out of control, and the Soviet economy was not faring much better than North Korea’s, but this, of course, does not take away the fact that it is a very bad sign when an economic powerhouse superpower that has supported you for the last thirty-five years has given up on your economic model and has withdrawn the piles of dough it used to pump into your treasury. Vasily Mikheev, a scholar at the Institute for International Economic and Political Studies, referred to the situation in the DPRK as “profound stagnation...deprives us of any hopes for large scale achievements through cooperation with the DPRK.” (136).
Things continued to accelerate downhill in the 1990s for North Korea. The Soviet Union fell in on itself, meaning a significant drop in money flowing into the country. The economy, already falling behind its neighbors at an alarmingly high rate, would suffer even more, and what was a bad economic situation in the late 1980s turned into a full-blown disaster in the mid-1990s. Famine struck, and stuck around. Floods ravaged the country in 1995. The government was unsympathetic. “Since the floods of 1995, the quantity of cereals that farmers are permitted to retain for consumption (set by official quotas) has declined. This is, of course...a familiar warning signal from earlier famines in communist nations...During the famines, the populations of key urban areas were deliberately decreased to maintain a strong and loyal base of support...Lastly, in order to ensure social order and national security, military units were least affected by the famines.”
Sound familiar? It is. This is eerily similar to the atrocious policy known as the “Holodomor”, or “extermination by hunger” that was implemented by Josef Stalin against Ukrainian peasants and farmers in the 1930s. It is also reminiscent of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the massive famine that followed. It became such a severe problem that whispers of cannibalism in some parts of the country surfaced. To this day the CIA World Factbook reports that famine is still a huge problem-one that causes tens of thousands to leave the country every year for China.
North Korea, who has clearly grown desperate, recently asked Mongolia for food aid.
(This may not seem strange, until one considers that Mongolia has around an eighth of the DPRK’s population, is grappling with hunger and poverty within their own borders, and a largely nomadic population. In other words, Mongolia’s demographics make it one of the last countries to logically ask for aid from.) North Korea has tumbled into oblivion since the Soviet Union started to sputter in the 1980s, and Chinese aid is evidently not extensive enough to fix their problems at the present figures.
There are two glaring obstacles in the Chinese-North Korean relationship today: North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and North Korea’s woeful inability to modernize its economy. China isn’t shy about its desire for the North Koreans to abandon their nuclear program, and for good reason. China continues to see their aid money flow into the DPRK, and finds the North Korean nuclear program entirely unproductive. The April 2013 issue of the magazine “China Today” published an article called “Nuclear Test Fallout” by Zhu Feng, a professor of International Studies at Peking (Beijing) University. Zhu clearly outlines the position of the PRC, bluntly stating “In addition to putting the DPRK at risk, nor will these aims and actions bring any real benefit to the country. As a northeast Asian country, China steadfastly opposes the DPRK’s nuclear weapons programs.”
The article does not cast a positive light on the current situation, as Zhu criticizes the UN Security Council’s sanctions “It is nevertheless doubtful that sanctions or pressure will effectively or rapidly resolve the North Korea nuclear issue.”
Another problem was called into the international spotlight when Kim Jong Il died in 2012. When his young successor Kim Jong Un took up the new position of “First Secretary”
the speculators of the world went into a frenzy. Little was known about this new leader, and the question on everyone’s mind was: Will the status quo stick around or will he start to reform the DPRK? While few expected full-fledged democracy to come from Jong-Un, many Western publications, including the UK’s “Guardian” wondered, a hint of optimism in their writing, if Jong Un would follow in the footsteps of Chinese reformer Deng Xiaoping. “With a million-man army and nuclear weapons program, North Korea remains a source of uncertainty and instability, with many questions about whether Kim Jong Un can bring the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea peaceably into the 21st century. But the example of Deng Xiaoping’s early efforts to modernize and moderate a deeply ideological China suggests promising parallels.”
The optimism was not without reason. After Deng successfully ousted Hua Guofeng, he instituted extremely important reforms in China. Mao Zedong’s massive cult of personality was done away with, and the CCP admitted the horrid excesses of both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese economy and trade relations saw unprecedented global opening. The tough repression of the Mao days was relaxed somewhat. Chinese state-run media speaks glowingly of Deng.“...rendered outstanding service to the Chinese people...especially in recent years when, after the disastrous Cultural Revolution, he succeeded in setting the country on the road to socialist modernization.”
A leader emulating Deng Xiaoping in North Korea would have a plethora of possible consequences for China and North Korea, many of them positive. It is important to remember, however, that Deng was not without guilt. He commended the military on a job well done after PLA tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square and killed thousands. “I express my profound condolences to the commanders and fighters of the People's Liberation Army, commanders and fighters of the armed police force, and public security officers and men who died a heroic death.”
Reform would represent a massive shift in lifestyle for the people of North Korea. While the people of the DPRK and PRC are both governed repressively, China has shown some degree of change over the years, notably the greater mobility of her citizens and substantially easier and wider access to albeit censored information.
North Korea, unfortunately, has not done the same. All three leaders of the DPRK-Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un are worshiped as superhuman. During the 1960s, while China and Russia bickered and Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution, Kim Il Sung pushed his own ideology of Juche (self-reliance) in an effort to emphasize North Korea’s independence from both the Soviets and the Chinese. Juche, as stated by the North Korean government itself, is “...based on the philosophical principle that man is the master of everything and decides everything. The Government of the DPRK steadfastly maintains Juche in all realms of the revolution and construction.”
Kim Il Sung ruled Korea for over 40 years, a reign he inaugurated with a massive purge of his enemies. His birthday is a national holiday in North Korea and he is still considered the “Eternal President”. of North Korea, a by-product of his personality cult. When he died in 1994, North Korean television looked (even more) like something out of Orwell’s 1984: A plainly dressed female news anchor, visibly trying to restrain herself from bursting into tears, touted Kim’s accomplishments before cutting to an on-scene reporter in central Pyongyang. The reporter, a man in a nondescript black suit, was in tears, and everyone he interviewed proceeded to bawl hysterically as they grieved the death of Kim.
History nearly repeated itself in late 2011 when Kim Jong Il died-the only visible differences in that report being the name of the deceased and the fact that the quality of North Korean video recording equipment had improved. This massive brainwashing has carried over to Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un without question. Added together, North Korea has gone through sixty years of brainwashing. In contrast, Mao’s massive personality cult started in the 1960s, was called into question in the late 1970s, and was admitted to be a mistake by the 1980s. Chinese society has been allowed to evolve for nearly 30 years without dealing with a personality cult, whereas North Korean politics have not. Since North Korea has dealt with this problem for much longer than China has, it could be much harder for the Koreans north of the 38th parallel to adapt to what would inevitably be a hugely significant shock to North Korean culture.
This culture shock could cause confusion, hysteria, and stability problems. Under Deng Xiaoping, some Chinese students took advantage of the newly relaxed political culture and started to dream of democracy. When Hu Yaobang died in 1989, mourners poured into Tiananmen Square. Before long, the mourners became protestors, hoisted their Goddess of Democracy statue and demanded extensive reform to the regime. Some even asked Deng to step down. They were brutally repressed, and the Chinese government maintains to this day that they did the right thing to keep the communist regime in power. China remains a land of censorship and political imprisonment, but the government admits to some of the atrocities of the past, notably the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
Would this happen in North Korea? It’s possible, but certainly not guaranteed. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were well-coordinated and seemed to follow a “step-by-step” format. It took the death of an important Communist Party figure for the people of China to be inspired to protest against the government. If protests broke out against the newly reforming DPRK government there is certainly the possibility that the North Korean government would not have the ability to stop a mass uprising.
Not so fast, however. When the June 4th Incident happened in China, the People’s Republic was still much more open to foreigners than the DPRK is today. Relations with the United States had been made with Mao and had grown considerably under Deng. The North Koreans today, while part of the United Nations, do not have any relations with two of their important neighbors: the ROK and Japan. The country has always been isolationist, while China has made an effort to open itself to the world. Very few Westerners get to see the inside of Pyongyang, and the ones that do are placed under very strict control so the government can keep an eye on them. What does this mean? Well, it means that the culture shock, and possible uprising and rebellion, may lack direction and focus if it does happen. The North Korean people are so isolated that it may not happen at all, if for no other reason that the people wouldn’t know what to do even if they wanted to rise up. By contrast, the Chinese people have had much more mobility and have been able, even encouraged, by their government to travel to other countries, and therefore have a more extensive world view.
On the positive side, a North Korean Deng could do a lot of good for his country outside of politics. The country could gradually become more worldly, and if this speculated leader paid the same attention to economics as Deng did (presumably staying with the old communist rhetoric, like Deng wisely chose to do) could establish some economic independence for the country. Famine could be reduced considerably. Infrastructure could become more functional, possibly even innovative in the future. Relations with the Chinese would most certainly improve and widen in scope, and much-needed money would flow into the country.
This may pose a problem to the Chinese government, however. If the Chinese try to promote reform and change in North Korea, they will likely attract the attention of countries they have historically wanted to stay out of their own affairs, including the Republic of Korea, Japan, possibly even the United States. Promoting openness and economic restructuring in North Korea could lead to protests or domestic uprising at home as well as in the DPRK. It already happened once in Tiananmen as a result of Deng’s reforms in the 1980s, and while the Chinese government retains that they did nothing wrong on June 4, 1989, they do not want the negative press to come back and throw a wrench into their plan to become a global power. It’s also possible that with Taiwan still in sovereignty limbo, the Taiwanese could see this as their opportunity to finally break free of the mainland and declare full independence. Of course, the last thing the Taiwanese people want is a PLA invasion, but the possibility of that happening is probably not a risk that the Mainland government is willing to deal with. While it would represent a considerable victory for diplomacy if the Chinese, South Koreans, and Japanese were able to put their differences aside to fix the North Korean problem, it may be too much to ask those three countries to put aside their differences in such an important situation. If the North Koreans open up, the South Koreans may jump into their goal of reunification too quickly and cause a violent and chaotic war against Kim loyalists, and they’d run the risk of repeating the same perceived imperialism that contributed to the first Korean War. The Chinese have had problematic experiences with foreign intrusion into their own affairs in the past, and they went into the Korean War to resist imperialism, something they still accuse the US and her allies of doing.
The Chinese are stuck between a rock and a hard place, and it’s not hard to see why they have not acted very decisively in their relations with North Korea. If the Chinese back down, Kim Jong Un and his armies are given a pass to ramp up their nuclear rhetoric against their enemies in Asia and beyond whenever they feel like it. This doesn’t mean North Korea will fly off the handle completely, hit the big red button, and start World War III, but it’s hard to further global influence and promote modernity while allied with a neighbor and ideological ally who threatens nuclear winter on a regular basis. This is also the same country whose infrastructure is so dysfunctional that they left the Ryugyong hotel, a 100-story gargantuan steel pyramid in the middle of their capital, unfinished and without windows for almost 20 years.
If China extinguishes the nuclear threat of North Korea, they will almost immediately gain the adoration of the international community and the influence that comes with it. An opening of North Korean society could help address the problems of vastly underdeveloped infrastructure, famine, and a severe lack of economic development, even if the state was to remain repressive and authoritarian. Of course, this reform could also result in a confused nation with no focus or direction, and North Korea could become anarchical or revert back to the government it has today.
Despite all that, however, there is a potentially enormous return for China if they are able to keep their own people from rebelling, both on the mainland and in Taiwan. A reformed DPRK would mean an outpouring of thanks from the Western world, especially the South Koreans, Japanese, and Americans. It would most certainly improve relations with those countries both politically and economically, a goal China has had since the 1980s. It’s a risky decision, but China has been able to keep their own government in power while instituting reform, and they are one of very few countries able to exercise influence over the DPRK. This would be a difficult task, but it is achievable. There are risks involved with a more aggressive policy, but the reward is far higher if the Chinese go about fixing the North Korean problem peacefully than if they leave their ally alone.
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18 Winberg Chai, ed., The Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China. (New York, Capricorn Books, 1972). pg. 178-179.
20 China Today., Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance between China and Korea. July 1961. Volume 6, No. 29, pg. 3.
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40 “North Koreans mourn death of Kim Il Sung”. July 1994 broadcast on DPRK State Television. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7P8mP5uuPw
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