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DPRK - Relations with China - Kim Il-sung

North Korea owes its survival as a separate political entity to China and the Soviet Union. Both countries provided critical military assistance personnel and matriel during the Korean War. From then until the early 1990s, China and the Soviet Union both were North Koreas most important markets and its major suppliers of oil and other basic necessities. Similarly, China and the Soviet Union were reliable pillars of diplomatic support.

On September 3, 1949, the leader of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK), Kim Il-sung, sought Soviet permission to begin military operations against the south.1 The request was brought before the Soviet Politburo and their response to Kim left no room for interpretation: It is impossible, the Politburo declared, to view this operation other than as the beginning of a war between North and South Korea, for which North Korea is not prepared either militarily or politically. Thus, it is apparent that in September 1949, Joseph Stalin believed war in Korea would result in a communist defeat.

Even before the success of the CCP in its civil war with Chiang Kai-sheks KMT, in his 30 June 1949 lean to one side speech, Mao announced that the CCP would ally with the Soviet Union. The Sino-Soviet alliance on February 14, 1950 was quite explicit regarding mutual support for combat operations.

In a May 1950 telegram to Chinas leadership, it appeared that Stalin had changed his mind: The present situation, he declared, has changed from the situation in the past [so] that North Korea can move towards actions. Stalin's decision to allow Kim to move forward with military operations in 1950 was designed to forestall the diplomatic normalization of China with the West.

But Stalin also insisted that Kim receive Maos approval for operations, and warned that if he ran into difficulty with the United States, he would have to depend on China, not the Soviet Union, to bail him out. Many authors attribute Stalins strategic shift in favor of combat operations in Korea to his acceptance of Mao and Kims guarantee of swift victory. Kims was assurance based largely on Secretary of State Achesons January 1950 defense perimeter speech, the North Koreans would launch a decisive surprise attack and the United States would not have sufficient time to intervene.

Maos approval as reluctant, because his focus was on taking Taiwan and not coming to the aid of the Korean Peoples Army (KPA). But Mao, and not Stalin, would be held responsible both politically and strategically if Kims overly ambitious plan failed. There is debate among historians as to how much Mao opposed Kims plans for invasion.

The brother-in-arms relationship between China and North Korea was solidified early during the Korean War. Beijings decision to enter the war in late 1950 was not taken lightly. While Chinas paramount leader Mao Zedong clearly was predisposed to intervene on the Korean Peninsula, many leaders had serious reservations, and others strongly opposed intervention. The consensus of several careful scholarly accounts is that a high-level policy debate took place in Beijing.

Maos forceful personality won out, and the first units of the Chinese Peoples Volunteers (CPV) crossed the Yalu River on the night of October 19, 1950. China paid a tremendous cost as the result of this decision in terms of casualties and war-related expenses. By one official Chinese estimate, the CPVs combat losses were more than 360,000 (including 130,000 wounded) and noncombat losses were more than 380,000.

After Mao Zedongs death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping instigated unprecedented reform in China, bringing hundreds of millions out of poverty. China also built ties with Japan as part of this process. In 1989, the Sino-Soviet split came to an end.

SinoAmerican relations warmed considerably in 1983, and for the first time China said publicly that it wished to play a role in reducing tension on the Korean Peninsula; this announcement was followed by a major North Korean initiative in January 1984, which called for the first time for three-way talks among the United States, South Korea, and North Korea. Previously, North Korea had never been willing to sit down with both nations at the same time. (The Carter administration had made a similar proposal for three-way talks in 1979.)

Through most of the 1980s, China sought to sponsor talks between Washington and Pyongyang (talks that occasionally took place in Beijing between low-level diplomats) and encouraged Kim Il Sung to take the path of diplomacy. By the early 1990s, China had a much larger trade with South Korea than with North Korea, with freighters going back and forth directly across the Yellow Sea, and in 1992 China and South Korea normalized diplomatic relations.

Moscow and Beijings normalization of diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1990 and 1992, respectively, presaged a sea change in North Koreas foreign policy. Despite the professed chuche ideology, Soviet and Chinese patronage to the North constituted mainstays of the economy. When both Cold War patrons terminated this support on normalization of relations with Seoul, the Norths economy began to register negative growth rates for much of the rest of the decade. Famine conditions in the mid-1990s were also partially a consequence of the Norths loss of aid from its patrons.

China sought a less draconian break with the North than Russia, emphasizing the need for strong relations with both Koreas. Close North KoreaChina ties continued, but Beijing attempted to maintain a balance in its relationship with the two Koreas, a far cry from its previous four decades of dealing solely with Pyongyang. China welcomed the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, making clear its preference for a nonnuclear Korea. Beijing also urged Pyongyang to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA. Beijing clearly viewed its economic interest on the peninsula as being linked with the South; China has surpassed the United States as South Koreas largest trading partner. Yet, for strategic and historical reasons, China maintains its policy of keeping the North Korean regime afloat.

Western diplomatic sources in Hong Kong said on 11 June 1994 that China promised to send a ground army of approximately 85,000 troops to North Korea if a war breaks out on the Korean peninsula and, also, to provide credit assistance -- such as food and energy -- to the latter if UN economic sanctions are effected. The sources said: Such an agreement between China and North Korea was discussed between the key leaders of the North Korean party and government, who visited China in early June, and the relevant high-level officials of the Chinese party and Army. As a result, a final agreement was reached during the visit by Choe Kwang, chief of the General Staff of the North Korean Army, to China on 7 June 1994. Obviously, none of this could be confirmed.

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Page last modified: 24-06-2018 18:46:07 ZULU