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Fatal Attraction: China's Strengthening Partnership with North Korea

At the beginning of 2011, Beijing repeatedly denied rumors that it was planning to send troops to North Korea. “Totally groundless,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, referring to reports in South Korean media that China had been holding discussions with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea about stationing of Chinese forces in the northeastern port of Rason. “China will not send a single soldier to other countries without the approval of the UN,” the Defense Ministry said to the Global Times, a Communist Party–run paper.

The denial was necessitated by South Korea’s broadsheets, which had been carrying stories for months that Beijing was negotiating the entry of the People’s Liberation Army into the DPRK, as the Kim family regime calls itself. In the most dramatic of the articles, the Chosun Ilbo reported in mid-January that sources said Chinese forces were already in North Korea. In the east, the reports stated, some fifty armored vehicles and tanks crossed the Tumen River at night about thirty miles from Rason in the middle of December. In the west, PLA jeeps in Dandong were seen heading to the North Korean city of Sinuiju, just south of the Yalu River, at about the same moment. If true, China’s troops are back in the North for the first time since 1994, when they withdrew from Panmunjom, the truce village in the Demilitarized Zone.

And why would Chinese forces be in the North? Some think China’s soldiers are stationed in the DPRK to seize defectors and “suppress public disturbances.” An unnamed South Korean official, quoted in Chosun Ilbo, said that “they’re apparently there to protect either facilities or Chinese residents rather than for political or military reasons.”

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So far, no one has confirmed the presence of PLA elements in the DPRK. But even as Chinese security analysts were professing surprise at the Chosun Ilbo article, it is common knowledge in Beijing that China’s officials have had discussions with their North Korean counterparts about this matter for some time. For the Chinese, securing the mouth of the Tumen River has been a long-held strategic goal. By a quirk of history, it is Russia—not China—that has sovereignty over the northern shore of that vital waterway at its mouth, blocking direct Chinese access to the Sea of Japan.

To exert influence at the mouth of the Tumen, Beijing has exploited the most recent downturn in the North Korean economy, which is now more critically reliant on Chinese cash than ever. The North Koreans are struggling to avoid becoming, in the words of Korea watcher Bruce Bechtol, “a complete Chinese satellite,” but it is a losing battle. As one source told the Chosun Ilbo, “The North has apparently concluded that it is unavoidable to accept the Chinese military presence on its land to woo Chinese investment, even if it’s not happy about it.”

 

The willingness even to talk about allowing foreign troops on sacred Korean soil is an indication of just how bad things now are in Kim Jong Il’s country. After all, Kim bases the legitimacy of his rule on Juche, an ideology his father, Kim Il Sung, introduced two years after the end of the Korean War. Juche literally means “master of one’s self” or self-reliance. Nations without Juche were said to be colonies; so Kim Sr. branded South Korea, for instance, as a puppet of the United States.

By developing his own ideology, Kim Il Sung, in both appearance and reality, staked an independent path, avoiding the close embrace of either of his major big-power sponsors, Beijing and Moscow. He made North Korea dependent on aid immediately after the end of the Korean War, but never on any single donor. When either Communist giant temporarily spurned Kim—as both often did, in reaction to his notorious resistance to control—he simply turned to the other for handouts. Neither the Soviets nor the Chinese ever developed a satisfactory strategy for reining in Kim, who soon became known as Asia’s Talleyrand.

Yet his aid-dependent economy, which at first outpaced archrival South Korea, inevitably fell behind. Moscow, eager to enhance ties with an economically vibrant South, shifted sides in the zero-sum contest between Seoul and Pyongyang, ending aid in early 1991. China, although it reduced assistance in the early 1990s, never abandoned the DPRK. For more than six decades, the Chinese have stood with their North Korean compatriots in Communism.

That Beijing should continue to back this remnant of the Cold War highlights the notion that the tie-up between the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is perhaps the world’s oddest bilateral relationship. Mao Zedong said the two countries were “as close as lips and teeth,” and that description was mostly accurate for a while. Kim Il Sung sent Korean fighters to aid the Chinese revolution, and Mao returned the favor with his own “volunteers” during the “War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea.”

Kim and Mao may not have been the best of allies after the Korean War, but they had much in common, especially on a personal level. The charismatic Communist comrades were Chinese-speaking, Confucian, and chubby. No wonder diplomacy between the two countries was conducted in person by their respective leaders.

Relations, of course, have not been the same since younger generations have taken over. There are strained ties at the top and communications problems at lower levels. Neither country retains strong institutional links with the other outside the military realm even though they are each other’s only formal ally. Kim Jong Il started purging officials who had good relationships with China in the 1980s in a bid to shore up his position as his father’s successor, and since the middle of the 1990s Beijing’s dealings with Pyongyang have been handled by people who know much less about the North than their predecessors.

Ties between the two capitals may not be as close as they once were, but the two nations remain locked in a permanent embrace. The boundary line that separates them is arbitrary, drawn after conquest, and has Koreans living on both sides. It has proved impossible to patrol without extraordinary effort. In winter one can walk into China across the frozen river—and in the summer, wade. At Yibukua (which means “one step across”), the Yalu River, which forms part of the border, is so narrow that people cross without wetting their feet.

This border, although artificial in some ways, nonetheless divides two very different peoples and mentalities. The Chinese, for hundreds of years, have viewed the Koreans as inferiors, vassals to their grander kingdom and followers of their more magnificent culture. Beijing leaders, whether they articulate this or not, see the Korean peninsula as a part of their natural sphere of influence. The DPRK, if it has any purpose for Beijing, is a buffer against South Korea and its ally, the United States.

On the south side of that same boundary line, the North Koreans bitterly resent their condescending Chinese overlords. They—and especially their leaders—are contemptuous of the Chinese, upset at perceived slights, and deeply suspicious of Beijing’s designs. The Koreans, although envious of China’s newfound prosperity, do not necessarily admire its people.

As a result, Pyongyang regularly bites the hand that feeds it. The Chinese provide the DPRK with ninety percent of its oil, eighty percent of its consumer goods, and forty-five percent of its food, much of it on concessionary terms. Aid from China, in fact, may be the only reason Kim Jong Il remains in power today. And yet Kim believes, at least most of the time, he does not have to show gratitude to his Beijing benefactors.

“We have some influence, but we don’t have the kind of relationship where we can tell Kim what to do,” says one Chinese expert on Korea. “If we tell him to do something, he doesn’t listen. If we threaten him, he listens even less.”

 

Yet if Kim Jong Il doesn’t listen to Beijing’s officials at any particular moment, it’s largely because they don’t expect his obedience all the time. Beijing supports his state, whether or not Kim is cooperative, because the Chinese believe that, when they insist, he will realize his debt to them.

Sometimes the Chinese have had to make demands. In June 1994, for instance, Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper that often serves as Beijing’s mouthpiece, ran an editorial suggesting China might adhere to any embargo imposed on North Korea and cut off food and oil. Pyongyang immediately softened its position on starting talks over its production of plutonium. In February 2003, anxious to start nuclear negotiations, Beijing actually did cut off oil for three days as a warning. Pyongyang agreed to sit down for multilateral talks shortly thereafter. China apparently employed the same oil tactics after the North’s long-range missile launch in April 2009 and following Pyongyang’s shelling of an island under control of the South in November 2010.

Whether or not all this maneuvering is kabuki, as some passionately argue, it’s clear China can force Kim Jong Il to act when it sees the need. “The truth is, they have the power to bring him down,” argues North Asia specialist John Tkacik, referring to China’s leaders. Many, both in China and out, argue that Beijing should do just that: abandon the Kim family and let it fail. A unified Korea governed by Seoul, analysts argue, would naturally gravitate toward China, distance itself from Japan, and end its treaty relationship with the United States.

But in fact, ties between Beijing and Pyongyang over the last decade have become stronger. In 2010, for instance, China stood behind its North Korean ally as Kim Jong Il committed two horrific acts: the sinking of a South Korean frigate in March, killing forty-six, and the November shelling of the island, killing four, including two civilians.

As Beijing and Pyongyang have grown closer, Chinese and North Korean leaders have bound their two economies more tightly. Trade between the two nations, a vital barometer of the health of the relationship, increased from $370 million in 1999 to $3.47 billion in 2010. At this point, more than half of the North’s international commerce is with China, up from twenty-five percent in 1999.

Chinese aid almost quadrupled from $400 million in 2004 to $1.5 billion in 2009, and, from what we can tell, continued the upward trend in 2010, in part because Beijing took up the slack as Seoul cut off food assistance. More than half of China’s foreign aid now goes to Kim’s Korea.

Chinese investment has followed a similar trajectory. While Beijing put a miniscule $3.5 million into the North in 2003, China supplied $41.2 million of the $44.0 million in foreign direct investment into North Korea in 2008, according to figures reported to the United Nations. Today, its annual investment could be five times larger. Premier Wen Jiabao’s October 2009 trip to Pyongyang, ostensibly to celebrate sixty years of diplomatic ties between China and North Korea, marked the beginning of a new phase in Beijing’s support of Kim’s regime. During the visit, Wen signed commercial pacts, promised additional aid, and announced the building of “a new highway bridge over the Yalu River.”

Since that highly publicized visit, China has accelerated its plans to penetrate the North Korean economy with a series of splashy investments. In December, for instance, a “private” Chinese enterprise signed a $2 billion investment pact to build, in its first phase, three additional piers as well as a highway and railroad from neighboring Jilin Province in China to the Rajin-Sonbong economic zone in Rason. The news caps a series of disclosures about increasing Chinese investment in the strategic port, where a Chinese enterprise has already built a pier and is about to begin work on another. China also leased another port facility in that city for ten years.

Beijing’s long-term plan is to first develop and then control Rason in order to give its northeastern provinces easy access to the sea. According to the official Xinhua News Agency, China used that port for the first time on December 7, 2010, when one of its enterprises transported twenty thousand tons of coal from a mine in Jilin to Shanghai.

Furthermore, on the western side of North Korea, Chinese enterprises are eyeing the commitment of more than $800 million to build a special investment zone on two islands in the Yalu. With all these plans in various stages of implementation, it appears, as the South Koreans fear, that Chinese leaders want to make North Korea their “fourth northeast province.” As Jeremy Paltiel of Carleton University observes, the increasing interaction between China and the North is falling into “a pattern not seen since the 1950s.”

 

The integration of North Korea into China spells trouble for the international community. Beijing helped Kim Jong Il weather the uproar over his 2006 detonation of a nuclear device—and the resulting UN sanctions—by stepping up purchases of key commodities from enterprises controlled by the North Korean military. For instance, the North’s mineral exports to China, increasingly controlled by the Korean People’s Army, increased from about $15 million in 2003 to $213 million in 2008.

Similarly, Kim’s regime in 2009 ended its clumsy version of a global charm offensive because it was no longer worried about the effect of sanctions imposed by Security Council resolution 1874, passed in June of that year. Why was Pyongyang no longer concerned? Wen Jiabao’s visit to Pyongyang, a few months later, led to the announcement of new aid and commercial ties. China’s growing economic deals with the North are, undoubtedly, violations of those sanctions, which prohibit UN members from entering into most commercial contacts with Kim’s one-man state. But no one seems to want to enforce the Security Council prohibitions.

Premier Wen’s deals—and all the others since then—send a powerful signal to the United States, Japan, and South Korea that Beijing will undercut any sanctions they may put in place to bring the North Koreans back to the bargaining table or persuade them to surrender their missiles and nuclear weapons. As much as we would like to think the Chinese are trying to use their new power over the North to exercise a moderating influence—a theme relentlessly put forth by both the Bush and Obama administrations—they are in fact enabling North Korean despotism.

Why would the Chinese seek to strengthen their ties to what is called the most horrible regime on earth? At its most basic level, China’s “new” policy is essentially its old one. If it looked as if Beijing was distancing itself from Pyongyang during the last decade—that was certainly the impression Beijing gave when it voted for various Security Council sanctions on the North—it was perhaps because the Chinese thought they needed the international community.

Now, however, there is a sense among members of the Beijing elite that the United States is in swift decline and that they already own the current century. Consequently, Chinese officials have indulged their sense of power as they think they no longer have to conceal long-held objectives. Beijing’s backing for Kim Jong Il, therefore, is just another manifestation of its new assertiveness, which has troubled its neighbors—and the international community—since late 2009.

Moreover, two parallel and disturbing trends in Beijing and Pyongyang are pushing the capitals together: the militaries in both countries, which have retained links throughout the decades, are gaining influence. In Pyongyang, flag officers are accumulating even more sway as Kim Jong Il seeks their support for the hastily arranged transfer of power to his twenty-something son, Kim Jong Un. In Beijing, another political transition is strengthening the military. Chinese generals and admirals are starting to look like power brokers as the so-called Fifth Generation civilian leaders, who are scheduled to assume power late next year, seek PLA support. At the same time, central Communist Party officials are continuing to lose power as authority diffuses throughout the country, and military officers are filling the resulting void. The result is the partial remilitarization of politics and policy in the Chinese capital, something first evident in the middle of last decade.

In short, hawkish elements are gaining power in both China and North Korea while these two states work out a new relationship. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in January after his troubled trip to Beijing, there is a “disconnect” between Chinese military and civilian officials, and it often appears the top brass is running its own foreign policy. Unfortunately, China’s flag officers, who exhibited belligerence in public last year, do not seem inclined to show their growing power by restraining their North Korean counterparts. This is a special concern because generals have traditionally exerted great influence over China’s policies toward the Korean peninsula.

The result of these unwelcome trends in Beijing and Pyongyang means a newly assertive China is backing an increasingly aggressive North Korea. At this moment, we do not know if Chinese troops are in fact stationed in Rason or any other part of Kim Jong Il’s miserable domain, but there is one thing of which we can be sure. “There’s no denying these two regimes are closer together than they were two years ago,” says veteran Korea analyst Bruce Bechtol. “Everyone else needs to watch out.”

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China and Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World. He writes a weekly column at Forbes.com.

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