When blood-brothers separateNorth Korea and China are known as blood brothers. Or they used to be. Shunji Hiraiwa, an expert on Korean affairs at Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan who published a book on Sino-North Korean ties earlier this year, wrote that four factors are behind the sustained and extraordinary relationship between the two communist states.
First, the two have a common enemy and threat to their national security - the United States. Second, both are firmly based on socialism. Third, they boast a traditional “blood” tie. Fourth, they are interlinked by a special economic relationship, where China does not mind offering support to North Korea for free.
Based on this alliance, North Korea and China form one half of the balance of power in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, with South Korea and the United States on the southern side.
But nothing lasts forever, and the blood-tight relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang has been shaken by two landmark incidents.
The first was the detente, or rapprochement, between the United States and China in the early 1970s in the middle of the Cold War after U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made secret trips to Beijing in 1971, followed by President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China the following year. Mao Zedong shook hands with the United States due to China’s clashes with the Soviet Union. Since then, the Chinese have not been able to join with North Koreans in pointing at Americans as their common enemy.
The second shock to Pyongyang was Beijing’s normalization of diplomatic ties with Seoul in 1992. Two decades after China reconciled with the United States, its leader Deng Xiaoping offered his hand to South Korea. Deng, who pushed the economic opening and reforms to modernize China, could not ignore industrialized South Korea. China chose a different socialist path than North Korea by opening up and adopting a market economy, while the latter stubbornly insisted on remaining self-sufficient and closed.
Those turning points were all done willingly by China because of its needs. The first need was security and defense and the second was its economic interests. These events rattled the nuts and bolts that connected North Korea and China, slowly loosening the bilateral relationship.
The third shock was delivered by Chinese fifth-generation leader, Xi Jinping. Xi, who will be leading China for the next decade, and who envisions an all-around powerful nation by the time the Communist Party celebrates a century of its establishment in 2021.
He vows to make China a country where none of its 1.3 billion people have to worry about putting food on their tables, and all enjoy a certain level of culture and life. To achieve such goals, Beijing needs to keep its external relations and environment stable. It most of all needs to avoid provoking Washington, which is suspicious of China’s rising status and influence.
President Xi champions “a new type of great power relations” that avoids conflict and confrontation and instead respects core interests and major concerns of each country. In short, he is telling Washington that Beijing won’t challenge U.S. global dominance, and in turns asks it to keep out of China’s “core interests.”
China is realigning its relationship with other countries under the context of this new type of power dynamic, which conforms more to international standards and rules. China’s newfound status deals a direct blow to North Korea. President Xi wants to drop all the extraordinariness of its relationship with North Korea. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman in March said China would maintain a “normal” relationship with North Korea, suggesting all the brotherhood and special bonds may no longer work their magic in maintaining bilateral ties.
Last month, China for the first time defined the 1950-53 Korean War as a “civil war” instead of its traditional description as a war to help North Korea fight the Americans. Seeking joint hegemony with the U.S., China can no longer use offensive words against its global partner.
At the same time, Beijing is warning that it will no longer provide unconditional support and aid if North Korea continues to thumb its nose at China by pursuing nuclear weapons development.
North Korea is still eager and hopeful to restore special ties with its big brother. In the celebrations commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, Pyongyang unfurled a large banner in Chinese characters, an obvious attempt to please the old guards in Beijing. It was unprecedented for North Korea to make a public display of Chinese characters and pay tribute to the Chinese role in the Korean War. But Pyongyang officials must realize it is no use trying to reignite a past relationship with China that is moving onto the future. They should instead try to mend what’s left and what can be saved, such as the Kaesong industrial park and inter-Korean ties.
*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo specialist on China.
by You Sang-chul