North Korea and China: A Difficult History, Part I

The U.S. and North Korea have had a difficult history. The two countries were the primary combatants during the Korean War and still have not established a peace treaty. However, in the late 1970s, the Kim regime and the Carter administration considered normalizing relations. Carter’s national security team concluded there was little value in talking directly to North Korea[1] and, ever since, the U.S. has essentially “outsourced” North Korea to China.[2]

On its face, this decision makes sense. China is critically important to North Korea’s economy; more than 80% of North Korea’s foreign trade is with China. Mao described relations between the two countries as “close as lips and teeth.” However, relations are more than just economics. A review of historical relations between China and North Korea indicates a deep animosity that inhibits China’s ability to control the policies and decisions in Pyongyang.

In Part I of this report, we will begin our study of the historical relationship between North Korea and China, including a review of the Minsaengdan Incident and a broad examination of the Korean War. Part II will complete the analysis of the war, discuss the Kim regime’s autarkic policy of Juche and outline the impact of the Cultural Revolution on North Korean/Chinese relations. 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 this history and its impact on American policy toward the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) along with market ramifications.

The Minsaengdan Incident

In the early 1930s, Korean and Chinese communists were allied against Imperial Japan, which was in the process of invading Manchuria. At the time, the border between the two countries was rather amorphous, which meant that Chinese and Korean communists were dispersed in northeastern China and what is now North Korea. Japan, conscious of the nationalistic leanings of the Koreans, tried to divide the two communist groups by offering autonomy from the Chinese in return for supporting Japan.

As the Imperial Japanese Army steadily took control of the Korean Peninsula, they became less interested in Korean nationalism. However, Chinese communists became convinced that Korean communists were traitors and could not be trusted. Chinese Communist Party (CPC) leaders in the area implemented a vicious purge, summarily executing somewhere between 500 and 2,000 Korean Communist Party (KPC) members. Kim Il-sung narrowly missed the fate of his fellow communist members; the CPC’s selection criteria for punishment appeared to be mostly driven by ethnicity. The young Kim Il-sung had to have been shaken by these events and it would not be a huge stretch to suggest that the Minsaengdan Incident fostered a mistrust of Chinese motives.[3]

The Korean War: The Invasion

After WWII, the allies had divided Korea into the north and south around the 38° parallel. Kim Il-sung’s goal was to unite the Korean Peninsula under his leadership. Kim petitioned Soviet leader Stalin for support in an invasion. Stalin gave conditional approval; he would support action if (a) the U.S. did not get involved in defending South Korea, and (b) China was willing to support the invasion.[4]

Kim convinced Stalin that the U.S. would not become involved.[5] Kim also told Stalin that Mao had always supported liberating the Korean Peninsula.[6] At the same time, Kim assured Stalin that the DPRK’s forces were sufficient to unify the country. As part of war preparations, Kim visited Mao in May 1950 to discuss his invasion plans. Mao offered his support after receiving a telegram from Stalin and also offered his advice on Kim’s invasion plans.[7] Mao had planned to offer the DPRK military support after the People’s Republic of China (PRC) invaded Taiwan to eliminate Chiang Kai-Shek’s Republic of China (ROK), which had escaped the mainland during the Chinese Communist Revolution. Since Kim was moving first, Mao offered his support and military forces; Kim demurred, but Mao did indicate that China would send troops if the U.S. became involved.[8]