As Donald Trump presses China to ‘de-escalate the Korean nuclear crisis’, its worsening situation naturally led to him remarking China’s apparent lack of influence over its allies. Similar to most comments from Trump, it is absurd to suggest that China holds no sway in North Korea while the former hold the latter’s economic lifeline by the throat. However, considering that the Sino-North Korean relationship is at a freezing point for almost a decade, it is equally absurd to expect Beijing to rein in the rogue regime with mere diplomacy. Fashioning himself as a true heir of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un took a few pages from his grandfather’s cutthroat politics.
At its inception, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was a branch of the Communist Party of China (CPC), much like the CPC was a branch of the Comintern; as such, poetically, just as Mao Zedong rebelled against Stalin, Kim Il-sung rose up against Mao himself. The ideal candidate of DPRK leadership was Mu Chong, an early member of the Communist Party of China and a general under Peng Dehuai. Under his banner, was a group of veterans and cadres that had spent most of their youth in the cradle of communism in China, Yan’an. Sensing a threat to his power from Mu and his “Yan’an faction”, under the pretence of losing the battle of Pyongyang, Mu was sent to labor camps with Kim’s direct order. Though Beijing interfered and send Wu to China for medical care, he passed away in 1952.
According to official history, backed by CPC and the Soviet Union, the leaderless Yan’an faction and pro-soviet elements launched a failed coup d’État. Dubbed the August Faction Incident, their objective was to remove Kim Il-sung from power and achieved the exact opposite. Lasting for just half a day, most of the conspirators were arrested and executed. Furious that their favorites were either in labor camps or under six feet of dirt, Mikoyan and Peng Dehuai (representing the Soviet Union and China respectively) rushed to the scene as special investigators. Kim agreed to limit the scale and brutality of his cleansing in fear of deposition and immediately broke his promise after the two had left. Without any real internal rivals, Kim consolidated power through a cult of personality, and openly rebel against Beijing through the affirmation of ‘Juche idea’, and the rejection of any policy along the line of ‘Sadaejuui’.
Mao was bitter about Kim’s apparent ‘ingratitude’ and has threatened to topple his regime at one point (which is partly why Kim dynasty has always been on guard against China). However, Kim Il-sung exploited the splinter between China and the Soviet Union, sowing dissent and professing alliance to both sides, and at times hinting to invite the united nations into North Korea. Bounded by the circumstances and Kim’s diplomacy, Mao was forced to watch his influence in Pyongyang waned by the day. Professor Shen Zhihua’s recent book, ‘The Last Celestial Empire’, shed light on the unwieldy Sino-Korean alliance at the height of Cold War. With letters, diaries and internal notices, Shen revealed Mao’s disgust and helplessness against Kim. In Beijing, Mao was seldom a man bounded by circumstances and he often prided himself on his triumphs over enemies within and out of the nation. Defeating even Khrushchev, Kim’s apparent invincibility may as well be the most noticeable smudge of his lifetime. If Mao Zedong could not lift a finger against a nuke-less Kim Il-sung, how could Xe Jinping rein a Kim Jong-un with nukes?
The part that deserves the most attention of the book is the origin of North Korea’s nuclear program: At the 1970s, Kim Il-sung recognized United State’s defeat at Vietnam as a rare opening to his conquest of South Korea. Not only did the Vietnam war exhausted a significant portion of the American garrison in South Korea, anti-war sentiments were at its zenith in the States. Should China lend a helping hand, Seoul would be a lowhanging fruit. At that time, however, Mao had just made peace with Nixon and agreed on a united front against the Soviet Union. Mao welcomed America’s military presence in East Asia as a balance against the soviet union and worried that a united Korea may be too strong for China’s good. As such, Kim’s ambition was not reciprocated in Beijing. Dismayed and disappointed, he realized the necessity to develop its own nuclear weaponry and his nuclear program had since become the cornerstone of the ‘Kim dynasty’.
Although Shen Zhihua’s book ended with Mao’s death, a year after his death, a crucial event marked the complete departure of North Korea from the orbit of China: Pyongyang announced that the ‘Juche idea’ would replace Marxism as the state ideology. However, even neck deep into capitalism, Beijing did not dare to put Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, three representations and scientific development, nor even Xi Jinping before Marxism. Such thoroughness in its shift of ideology meant only one thing, it is a declaration of independence from China’s influence.
The paradox behind this so-called ‘China influence’ thus became clear: Can one really expect China to ‘influence’ North Korea into giving up its nuclear program, while the aim of such program is for North Korea to escape from such influence?