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Doesn't love a wall

As we learned in Week 4, the special relationship between the PRC and DPRK was rooted in the soil of anti-Japanese, pro-Communist movements dating back to the 1920s and ‘30s. Fighting the Korean War together watered that soil with the blood of Chinese People’s Volunteers soldiers who died far from home.

But the seeds of ambivalence between Chinese and North Koreans, also there from the start, did not go away. This week we looked at a series of crises that strained and nearly broke the Beijing-Pyongyang axis:

  • Kim Il Sung’s purge of China-aligned rivals within the Korean Worker’s Party in 1956
  • Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, launched in 1966, with its anti-DPRK undertow
  • “Nixon Shock” when Beijing began normalizing relations with the US in 1972
  • Kim’s hereditary succession plan, formalized at the KWP Congress in 1980
  • Divergence in economic models as China embraced marketization and globalization
  • “Roh Shock” when Beijing normalized relations with South Korea in 1992

The last on the list, China’s normalization with the ROK, was perhaps the most devastating moment of “betrayal” from Pyongyang’s perspective. The severe rupture in ties that ensued coincided with Kim Jong Il’s succession and the terrible years of famine, North Korea’s “Arduous March”.

Yet, as the new millennium commenced, it seemed yet once again the Communist neighbors had mended their fence. In May 2000, “spring mending-time”, Kim Jong Il made a three-day friendship trip to Beijing. Late that winter, he spent nearly a week in China. The Dear Leader had resumed his father’s practice of being his own emissary to the Middle Kingdom.

In September 2001, President Jiang Zemin reciprocated with a three-day visit to Pyongyang. Jiang, you will recall, had visited the DPRK in March 1990, and in the decade-long interlude, slipped in the first state visit by a PRC leader to South Korea in 1995. China’s strategy of being friends with enemies seemed to be working, aided by the newest and most significant effort by South Korea to reconcile with the North, as part of ROK President Kim Dae-jung’s “sunshine policy”.

Kim’s China trip turned out to be the first salvo in a dazzling charm offensive that brought leaders from all of North Korea’s strategic countries to Pyongyang for a summit: South Korean president Kim Dae-jung (June 2000); Russian president Vladimir Putin (July 2000); US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (October 2000); Jiang Zemin (September 2001); and Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi (September 2002). The bold moves to improve relations paralleled cautious domestic reforms to the North Korean economy—decentralizing decision-making, allowing more room for market forces, and inviting in foreign capital. Was Kim Jong Il following the Deng Xiaoping playbook of reform and opening-up?

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Lips and Teeth: Korea and China in Modern Times

Yonsei University

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