[Viewpoint] 60 years of China’s Korea strategy

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[Viewpoint] 60 years of China’s Korea strategy

It was December 1950 when Mao Anying, the eldest son of Chinese leader Mao Zedong, died during the Korean War. At the time, the South Korean military and the United Nations forces had recovered Seoul and moved north to near the Tumen River. The younger Mao, who was 28, was a Russian language interpreter for Gen. Peng Dehuai’s reinforcement troops, stationed at the mountains of Taeyudong, North Pyongan Province.

The troops working for Peng were like night owls. They could not come out from air-raid shelters during the day because the American air attacks were so severe. On Nov. 24, 1950, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung sent them a package of eggs. It was a kind of food hard to come by during the war, especially for soldiers in retreat. The next day, Mao Anying tried to make a fire in front of the shelter to make some fried rice with the eggs. An American bomber spotted him and others and he was killed by the explosion. Peng barely managed to save his own life.

While Prime Minister Zhou Enlai was immediately told of his demise, Mao Zedong was briefed about it some time later. Mao Anying’s death in the Korean War became a symbol of the blood alliance between North Korea and China.

From the Chinese perspective, the Korean War was a war of Mao Zedong. It’s not because he sent a son to the battlefield. It’s not because he had agreed with Kim’s plan to invade the South. It’s because Mao was behind the decision to ultimately send the Chinese forces into the war on Oct. 19, 1950.

The Chinese leadership began reviewing the possibility of joining the war in August of that year, and Mao was the only one who argued that China should participate. Kim had sent a letter to China asking for support on Oct. 1, and the Politburo had meetings for two days to discuss the issue. But the plan to enter the war was not approved during the meetings. On Oct. 4, an expanded Politburo meeting took place, and a grand debate began.

Mao was the only one who actively argued that China must enter the Korean War. Zhou and Peng were lukewarm, while the other seven opposed joining.

Those in opposition first argued that China, after decades of wars, had no capability to enter another. Second, they were busy suppressing millions of Kuomintang guerillas in mainland China. Third, the new Chinese regime might have collapsed if the United States expanded the war to China’s mainland. Fourth, they were also concerned that China’s Air Force and Navy were too weak to win a war. Finally, the soldiers hated war, and were in no condition to enter one.

The fear of the U.S. played a large role in the argument that China should stay out of the war. Because the Soviet Union did not promise air support, some said it would be a war where China’s Army would have to fight against the U.S. Army, Air Force and Navy.

And yet, Mao won the debate at the Politburo. After five days of discussion, China approved the resolution to enter the war. No one could counter Mao’s argument that the United States had a strategy to invade China through the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan and Indochina. Still, Mao was hesitant until the last moment as he changed the date of entering the war several times.

China’s intervention in the Korean War complicated things. Mao was relieved after he heard the news that Gen. Douglas MacArthur was relieved of his duties as Allied Commander in April of 1951. According to Zhu Jianrong’s book, “Mao Zedong’s Korean War,” a confidant of Mao recalled that the leader said he was largely satisfied.

The decision-making process over China’s participation in the Korean War sheds some light on the debate in China over North Korea policy. The debate began with North Korea’s two nuclear tests and the possibility of “sudden change” in the North.

Some argue that China should put more emphasis on cooperation with the United States and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Their voices have grown stronger after the North conducted a second nuclear test last year.

Another side is made of traditionalists who cherish the North Korea-China alliance as a priority. They see North Korea as a buffer between China and South Korea, where the U.S. forces are stationed. They treat North Korea as an asset, not a strategic burden. For them, aiding North Korea is a form of security insurance. It is the other side of Mao’s philosophy: aid the North and fight the United States.

Right now, traditionalists are in control. When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited the North last October, he paid his respect at the grave of Mao Anying and said “Now, the homeland has become a superpower.” It may be symbolic of the current situation in China.

China’s People’s Liberation Army already prepared a plan to deal with a contingency in North Korea, a U.S. think tank report said. The plan apparently includes three activities: humanitarian support to refugees, maintaining order with civilian police forces and preventing nuclear contamination.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Korean War and the 60th anniversary of China’s participation in the war, and it is time to renew our attention on China’s North Korea strategy.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is the foreign policy and security affairs editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Oh Young-hwan
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