“War on the Korean Peninsula is almost too horrible to contemplate”, wrote Robert Farley. As the socialist regime sent missiles over Japan and claimed to have developed missiles capable to hit all of the continental US. On top of that, powers in the region have yet to reach any consensual solution of a crisis that could easily lead to a World War Three.
The situation took a turn for the better by Christmas Eve 2017: with both China and Russia have agreed upon strengthened sanctions upon North Korea. Naturally, this is not the first time Russia and China had worked together to reshape the political order in the region, and it is worth revisiting the evolution of Sino-Russian diplomatic coordination with regards to North Korea since the outbreak of Korean War.
According to Shen Zhihua’s recent book ‘The Last Heavenly Dynasty’, China-North Korea Special Relations can be traced back to the 1930s: when the Communist Party of Korea fight side by side with Communist Party of China to repel Japanese forces from Manchuria. Their efforts were monumental to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). However, the expulsion of Imperial Japan from continental Asia did not secure peace within the region, as conflict broke out after the Korean People’s Army crossed the Military Demarcation Line in an attempt to reunite Korea. Despite an obvious lack preparation from the Communist Bloc, the USSR and PRC had no choice but lend their support to North Korea as a show of strength to Capitalist bloc. As such, the Korean War, as ruthless as it was unpremeditated, signaled the beginning of a series of proxy warfares between the two blocs.
With its historical focus glued to Eastern Europe and Central Asia instead of the Far East, Russia is more than happy but to embrace sanctions against North Korea.
After digging into newly declassified documents, Shen argued that, from the 50s to 60s, the Soviet Union had left the PRC with the responsibility of ‘exporting revolution’ in the Far East. While the Soviet Union remained relatively indifferent towards the Korean War (except a very limited amount of air support), the nascent People’s Republic, still in the process of forming a standing army, sent over a million troops over Yalu River. Mao Zedong’s eldest son, Mao Anying, was killed in action and his death was prominently featured in Chinese propaganda to embody the fraternity between China and DPRK.
Combing through communiques and diplomatic correspondence, Shen pointed out that Mao Zedong saw the war as a premature one. Despite a professed reluctance, Mao exploited this opportunity to exert a growing influence on the Peninsula: not only did China directly intervened in the 1956 ‘August Party Incident’, Chinese troops did not leave North Korea until 1958, 4 years after the ceasefire. North Korea, on the other hand, was not wholly subservient to the ‘Heavenly Dynasty’. After entering an alliance with China and the Soviet Union in 1958, the regime attempted to maintain equal distances with these two powers. Although their alliance was strained with whispers of mistrust, it did not fall into discord from 1950 to 60s.
The 1970s marked the end of their united front: as Sino-Soviet Relations cracked after decades of repressed hostility, China was pushed towards The United States, followed by the Nixon Shock that sent waves across the Communist Bloc. Within a decade, Nixon made his first visit to China, Mao’s death halted the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping introduced the Open-Door Policy and China shied away from exporting revolution to normalize relations with countries in the capitalist block.
Shen considered Mao’s death as the end of the Tributary between China and North Korean, but, to North Korea, subordination to Mao’s whim was a better prospect compared to neighboring a Pro-Western and ideologically transformed China. At the end of the 70s, Pyongyang’s greatest fear was a China flipping to the capitalist bloc.
Fortunately, international tension in the 1980s came in North Korea’s favor. The end of Détente reignited hostilities between the two blocs. More importantly, South Korea’s brutal suppression of its democratic activists damaged its legitimacy among the international community. As a result, the prolonged stalemate in the Korean Peninsula provided North Korea with a high degree of flexibility and abundant ammunition to contend diplomatically against major powers.
By 1990s, democratization in Eastern Europe sent shockwaves across the communist bloc and members of the Soviet Union gradually collapsed on their collective weight. In China, the Communist Party faced its most severe legitimacy crisis following the Tiananmen Crackdown in 1989. Deng Xiaoping and Boris Yeltsin had no choice but to embrace the global economic and political order whose rules were largely determined by The West. By adopting pragmaticism, they turned their back against their communist legacies. Despite being criticized as a betrayal of Communism, the two did prevent further turmoil and their efforts were crucial in maintaining global stability for the next 15 years.
A divided Korean Peninsula remained as the status quo, as neither side were interested in challenging it. Though the call for a unified Korea prevailed in the Peninsula as late leaders Kim Dae-Jung and Kim Jong-il pushed forward the Sunshine Policy, this cordial gesture was proven to be of little avail. Both Russia and China, after entertaining the American hegemony for a decade, begun to fashion themselves as global leaders and took on much more proactive roles in diplomacy. Coupled with Pyongyang resumption of its nuclear program and a series of ferocious cross-border conflict between the two Koreas, the region was once again the Balkans of Asia.
With an aligned interest in the North Korean Crisis, it may be easier for China to find common grounds with Russia than with the US.”
Geopolitics in East Asia became increasingly strained after Trump’s inauguration in early 2017. His strong stances against China on Taiwan and the Sino-American trade deficit was complicated by his expressed dissatisfaction with China’s inability to restrain North Korea. This placed China in an embarrassing position: while North Korea is a buffer state crucial to its national security, Pyongyang’s nuclear program and provocative stance have been Japan’s impetus to revise its pacifist constitution and for Korea to allow the States to deploy the THADD systems in its borders.
The securitization of East Asia has crippled China’s regional prestige as well as Beijing’s ambition to become the regional leader. Under international pressure yet in fear of losing a crucial ally, Beijing was forced to impose economic sanctions against North Korea (a relatively light-handed approach). With its historical focus glued to Eastern Europe and Central Asia instead of the Far East, Russia is more than happy but to embrace sanctions against North Korea. Embroiled in the Crimea Crisis and its prolonged campaign in the Middle East, Russia is willing to placate regional issues in other sections of its border. After all, it has softened its stance in its territorial dispute with Japan over the Kuril Islands.
Most commentaries on the North Korean crisis fixated on a Sino-American solution and seems to forget that the segregation of Korea was co-constructed and maintained by both China and Russia as a balance of power in the region. As the Chinese saying goes, ‘whoever tied the knot on the bell is the one to untie it’, it is best for China and Russia to end what they have started. It may be easier as well, after all, to Russia, sanctions against North Korea aren’t a costly token of goodwill to the west and while, to China, it is the only way to keep Pyongyang on its leash. With an aligned interest in the North Korean Crisis, it may be easier for China to find common grounds with Russia than with the US.