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Deng’s betrayal

You will learn about why Deng decided to normalize relations with South Korea and how Beijing managed the fallout on relations with Pyongyang.
The end of the Cold War was profoundly disorienting for Socialist countries in Asia. They watched as their East European brethren went down like dominoes. Eventually, the Revolution or the counter-revolution, as they would have understood it, even engulfed the capital and the origin of Communist Revolution itself the USSR which splintered into various republics, including, of course, Russia. Now Asian Socialist countries actually fared better. Other than Mongolia, which went gradually and quietly in an East European direction, the big Asian Socialist countries China, North Korea, and Vietnam weathered the storm. Nonetheless, the 1990s was a struggle for survival a kind of existential crisis for these suddenly isolated countries.
They needed a survival strategy, and Deng’s strategy for China was to go back and move even more quickly in the direction of economic development, economic reform, and opening up. Deng’s wager was that if the party could manage to deliver on economic development, maintain control over the military, and suppress opposition in civil society, they just might be able to survive the challenges of the post-Cold War environment. However, the Chinese economy was suffering not only from a resurgence of neosocialist orthodoxy within Beijing leadership circles, but also global isolation due to a new set of sanctions after the Tiananmen massacre. And so Deng needed something big to recharge the economy.
Now one part of that solution was normalisation with one of the last big countries out there that was still recognising Taiwan instead of mainland China, and that was South Korea. From China’s perspective, South Korea was one of the rapidly growing, now major developing economies in the region, and presented the opportunity for just the kind of injection that Deng needed into the post-Tienanmen economy that would also align with his geopolitical strategy, continuing to isolate Taiwan even further and bring China back on to the international stage as a legitimate political entity and also as a viable investment opportunity. Now South Korea, of course, had its own self-interested reasons to pursue normalisation with the PRC.
The economic benefits to be gained were, of course, huge and have proven to be huge in retrospect, but there were also political reasons. South Korea’s president Roh Tae-woo, at that point, was pursuing a foreign policy called Nordpolitik. He was orienting toward the north, even before the end of the Cold War, moving to improve normalise relations with both the USSR and the PRC. This was part of an ingenious strategy, really, to initially isolate North Korea with these breakthroughs, but then leave the door open for North Korea to improve relations with the South, and thus stabilise the Korean peninsula. So this was a key piece on the chessboard for the South Korean president’s gain that he called Nordpolitik.
Now to achieve this breakthrough, of course, required really a double betrayal. On the one hand, Seoul would have to betray Taipei. And indeed, there are Taiwanese officials of that generation who can still get angry thinking about the way in which suddenly they were kicked out of their embassy in Seoul, and their desks were turned over to new officials coming from Beijing. But of course, the other betrayal was Beijing’s betrayal of Pyongyang. North Korea knew there was a possibility that China would normalise relations with South Korea. But the North Korean assumption is that sort of dramatic change would only take place in the context of cross normalisation.
That is to say China would insist that the United States would finally normalise its relations with North Korea simultaneous with China normalising its relations with South Korea. China broke that implicit promise, and moved ahead unilaterally to normalise with the South, while North Korea got nothing from the United States. This was just one other element in the new post-Cold War atmosphere that for North Korea was not just disorienting, but was devastating.
The end of the Cold War was disorienting for China, but proved devastating for North Korea. China’s ties with Pyongyang suffered a major blow, in return for opening up a brand new chapter in “lips and teeth” by opening relations with Seoul.
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Lips and Teeth: Korea and China in Modern Times

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