UNEASY NEIGHBORS: KOREA AND CHINA IN HISTORY
by Eunsook Yang
Envoys from the Three Korean Kingdoms in a VII century Tang mural painting.
The recent escalation in the North Korean nuclear programme has once again raised questions about the nature of relations between the secretive regime led by Kim Jong-un and its Chinese neighbor, the only foreign country deemed to have leverage enough to influence the decision making process in Pyongyang.
For many commentators, this is an opportunity for the Chinese President Xi Jinping to strengthen his political stature and also for China to fill in the void in global leadership allegedly left by the Trump Administration. For others, getting more deeply entangled in the North Korean crisis is a trap that China must avoid at all costs.
Few analyses, though, take into account the lessons of the past to understand the present state of play between China and North Korea. Here we have two old countries bound by history; culture and geography that are now entangled in a complex web weaved by the vagaries of the Cold War as it unfolded in East Asia and its aftermath. But, in fact, China´s involvement in the Korean peninsula has its historical roots far earlier than the 1950-53 Korean War.
Present map of the Korean Peninsula.
In our times we are increasingly confronted with situations around the globe where the local and regional dynamics that shaped events prior to the age of Western hegemony are coming back to the forefront with a vengeance.
By looking at crisis like the one developing in the Korean peninsula exclusively through Western eyes we fail to grasp what is really going on beyond and beneath the headlines of the global media. In order to understand China’s response to Pyongyang’s actions and the rationale behind Kim Jong-un apparent provocations to his ally we have to dwell into the fascinating history narrated by the ancient Korean chronicles and visit the Three Kingdoms long before the Game of Thrones.This is the purpose of the following lines.
AN EASTERN GAME OF THRONES
The Samguk Yusa, or Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms, is a collection of legends, folktales and historical accounts compiled in the XIII century and relating to the three formative kingdoms of Korea (Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla). It describes the founding of Gojoseon as the first Korean polity by Dangun, a legendary hero descended from heaven who is considered to be the primordial ancestor of the Korean nation. According to the Samguk Yusa, Gojoseon (Old Josun: ancient name of Korea) was founded in a territory encompassing northern Korea and Manchuria in 2.333 BC. Disputed documents trace back the earliest contact with China when the sage Gija (or Jizi in Chinese) with around 5.000 followers left one of the ancient states of China, settled in or near Gojoseon, and was allegedly proclaimed king of a new polity named Gija Joseon in 1.122 BC.
Dangun, the legendary father of Korea.
In fact, the first recorded Chinese involvement in the Korean Peninsula occurred during the 2nd century BC, when the Han dynasty invaded Gojoseon and divided the first Korean kingdom into four commandries. The Chinese hegemony, though, was short-lived and soon three distinctive kingdoms emerged as successors of Gojoseon: Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla. Goguryeo in particular served either as a buffer zone or as a bulwark for the other kingdoms against China.
From its uncomfortable but strategic position bestriding Northern Korea, Manchuria and parts of Siberia, the Goguryeo kingdom successfully maneuvered to become the most powerful state in East Asia and was able to repel successive invasion attempts from China by the Sui and Tang dynasties.
Goguryeo´s victories, though, came at a high price for while it was heavily invested in bloody conflicts with its northern neighbor,the other two Korean kingdoms prospered, especially Silla, which was able to establish a centralized state in the fourth century and laid the foundations for national growth by adopting Buddhism and reforming its political system.
China’s second involvement in the Korean Peninsula occurred, precisely, when Silla asked for a coalition with the Tang dynasty to defeat Goguryeo and Baekje and then to unify the Three Kingdoms under Silla’s rule. The Tang allied with Silla and defeated Baekje in 660 and finally conquered Goguryeo in 668. Once Goguryeo and Baekje fell, China tried to defeat Silla as well. Nonetheless, Silla overthrew the ambitions of the Tang dynasty with the remnant forces of Baekje and Goguryeo and finally unified the three kingdoms under its hegemony.
In the meantime, after the fall of Goguryeo, its remaining loyal forces attempted to resuscitate their nation in Manchuria. In 698, Dae Joyeong, a former general, and a group of followers established the successor kingdom of Balhae in Jilin province, China. Its demography was composed of Korean people from Goguryeo, ethnic Chinese and a large population of Mohe, a Tungusic ethnic group. The people of Balhae considered their nation as a revived Goguryeo kingdom and they were able to establish a vast but short-lived empire extending from the Russian Maritime Territory, to the east, and bordering Silla to the south. Over the next 200 years, Balhae and Silla would compete as the two great rival powers of north-eastern Asia, always under the close scrutiny of China. Silla referred to Balhae as the “State of the North” and called the king of Balhae, “king of Goguryeo”. Balhae existed until 926, when the Khitan, a nomadic people who were later on defeated by China, invaded it. By then, part of the survivors from Balhae joined the Goryeo dynasty, a new unifying force in the Korean peninsula that emerged at the end of the X century.
The Goryeo period was brilliant on several domains, particularly in religion and the arts. Buddhism blossomed throughout the peninsula.The development of celadon pottery flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries while
two major cultural achievements now identified with Korean national identity took place at that time: the elaboration of the Tripitaka Koreana, a collection of Buddhist scriptures carved in more than 80.000 woodblocks, and the invention of the metal movable type and the printing of the first book with this innovative technology, the Jokai, in 1377, 78 years before the apparition of the Gutenberg Bible.
A Buddhist library: The Tripitaka Koreana compiled in thousands of woodblocks.
That period of splendour came to an end with the Mongol invasion in the mid- XIII century. It was a prelude to the third major Chinese intervention in Korean history. Since the Mongols were able to conquer most of China and established their rule over the Empire under the Yuan dynasty, of Kublai Khan fame, Goryeo became in fact a vassal state of a Mongol- ruled China.
The Goryeo dynasty would survive until 1392 and was then replaced by the Joseon dynasty, the longest lasting and the last one to rule Korea until its demise in 1910. It was during this extended period when Korea reached its current border with China, along the Yalu River. It was the era when Korea was most exposed in its customs and form of government to the tenets of neo-Confuncianism and also, again, to foreign invasion attempts from Japan and, during the period of the Manchu Qing dynasty, China again. The response of the Joseon elite was to implement reforms and to isolate the country, which became known as the Hermit Kingdom.
The last part of the 19th century, though, was a period of great transformations for Joseon society. After the era of prosperity under the reigns of Yeong-cho (1724-1772) and Chung-cho (1776-1800) there was a long period of “in-laws’ government, which fell into chaos as the corruption of officials became uncontrollable and popular uprisings proliferated. On the other hand, foreign religious like Catholicism were introduced in the late 18th century and developed since the beginning of the 19th century; its principles of equality and eternal life after death brought about profound changes in society. The traditional noble class system collapsed as well as a result of changes in class structure, and made peasants more aware of their power. As the pillars that had sustained the Joseon dynasty were fractured, foreign powers began to circle around Korea. Profiting from the divisions in Korean politics, two camps with their respective foreign sponsors soon emerged: on the one side, China-supported conservatives and, on the other, Japan-backed progressives. As the conflict intensified, the political and economic rivalry between the two powers over Korea’ future led to the Chinese-Japanese War (August 1, 1894-17 April, 1895). After fighting two Opium Wars against the British in 1839 and 1856, and another war against the French in 1885, China had been debilitated and Japan saw the opportunity to take China’s place in the strategically vital Korea. Japan defeated China and the subsequent Shimonoseki Treaty consolidated Japan’s exclusive influence on Korea. Additionally, China ceded Taiwan and the Liaodong peninsula to Japan. Then Japan embarked on another war, the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) to get rid of the imperial rival ambitions of the Russian Empire in Manchuria and Korea, which also concluded with Japan’s victory. Japan culminated its hegemonic ambitions in Korea with the secret “Taft-Katsura Agreement” between the U.S. and Japan, which led to the dissolution of the Korean army in 1905 and facilitated the total control of Korea by Japan in 1910.
Japanese woodblock print depicting the Battle of Pyongyang in the first Chinese-Japanese War over Korea.
Ten years after Korea was annexed to Japan, Korea established its own government in exile. This time, China, which was undergoing its own revolution, aligned with the Korean cause against the Japanese. Various independence forces operating inside and outside Korea were unified and placed under the leadership of the Provisional Government in Shanghai. In 1940, the Korean Liberation Army was founded and participated in numerous battles against Japanese units throughout China. During the Pacific War in 1941, in cooperation with the Chinese, the Korean Liberation Army formally declared war on Japan and intervened in battles on the Indian Front. Korea was liberated in 1945 when Japan finally surrendered. Particularly noteworthy regarding the military alliance with China, Kim Il-sung and other Korean communists fought alongside the Chinese communists during the Chinese Civil War, in which Kim would allow the People´s Liberation Army (PLA) to use North Korea as a strategic base. It should also be noted that during the Chinese Civil War period, political, economic and cultural exchanges took place alongside the military support, further solidifying the CCP-DPRK relationship. The traditional Chinese perception of relations with North Korea as a “teeth-to-lips” relationship originated at that time.
CHINA AND NORTH KOREA IN MODERN TIMES
The current partition of Korea is a legacy of the II World War when it ended in the Eastern front. Korea was divided in two as the forces of the United States and the Soviet Union established their respective military administrations to the south and the north of parallel 38. Then, at a conference in Moscow, the foreign ministers of the US, Britain and the Soviet Union adopted a 5-year trusteeship plan for Korea, a plan that the Korean people fervently opposed. Under the tutelage of the Soviet Union, North Korea had already created a single Communist Party-led government to control the northern half of the country. Meanwhile, right-wing influences in the South led to the creation of an interim capitalist and authoritarian government. Therefore, the division was taking root even more deeply.
As political turmoil in North and South Korea, the failure of North-South negotiations, and the stagnation of the Joint Commission due to Soviet intransigence ensued, the United States took the issue of Korea’s independence to the United Nations in September 1947. Accordingly, the UN approved general elections under UN supervision, but the elections were held only in South Korea, as it was the only territory open to oversight by the UN Commission (10 May 1948). Once elections took place, the first National Assembly met to formulate a national Constitution, which was approved and formally promulgated (July 17, 1948). Then, the Assembly elected Syng-man Rhee as president. North of parallel 38, on September 9, 1948, Kim Il-sung declared the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Thus, the confrontation between the capitalist regime in the south and the socialist system in the north begun and would last for decades. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) exchanged diplomatic recognition on October 6th, 1949.
The animosity between North and South continued to grow during the “Cold War” that followed World War II. On June 25, 1950, Kim Il-sung, backed by the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea. As part of the Communist bloc and also to reassert its position within it, China entered the Korean War (1950-1953) with a total of 2.97 million Chinese soldiers that fought alongside with North Korean forces. This intervention would go on to claim between 180.000 and 400.000 Chinese lives (including that of Mao Zedong’s own son). In 1961, the PRC and the DPRK signed the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship, whereby China pledged to render military and other assistance to its ally against any outside attack. This treaty was prolonged twice, in 1981 and 2001, with validity until 2021. The denomination of “Blood allies” originated from this military alliance between China and North Korea.
The Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea.
This is the background against which we have to understand Beijing’s response to the most recent peak in the North Korean crisis, provoked on 3 September 2017 by the sixth nuclear test conducted by Pyongyang since 2006, this time with a powerful hydrogen bomb. As a result of this test, the reaction of the international community was harsher than ever. Apart from US President Trump’s particularly loud use of the tweet, it took the form, later in September, of renewed sanctions on North Korea imposed by the U.N. Security Council forbidding all North Korean textile exports; cutting off more than 55% of refined petroleum products such as gasoline and fuel going to North Korea and banning countries from hiring new North Korean workers.
As it happened with other rounds of sanctions, this time the focus has also been turned on China, North Korea’s biggest trading and economic partner. For this reason, it is widely considered that if Beijing truly puts more pressure on North Korea, this could help getting North Korea to the negotiating table.
Despite Beijing’s official condemnations of the North Korean nuclear programme, as it has happened before under similar circumstances, there are doubts regarding how committed China is about implementing trade restrictions on its neighbour. In fact, as sanctions from the international community against the DPRK keep on being implemented, North Korea’s dependence on China appears to continue growing. China–North Korea trade has been steadily .increasing in recent years. The trade volume in 2016 between China and North Korea amounted to 5.51 billion USD, representing approximately 91.5% (previously around 70%) of North Korea’s total trade volume.
President Trump hoped earlier this year that China would help curbing North Korea’s aggressive behaviour with more economic sanctions, however trade between China and North Korea actually increased in the first quarter of 2017, suggesting that Beijing was not seriously trying to put all its economic pressure on North Korea. A case in point has been the spike in cross-border trade though the city of Dandong, on the Yalu River delta, which is the largest Chinese city on the border and is considered to be the “lifeline to the outside world for North Koreans”.
Bridges across the Yalu River in Dandong, from the Chinese side of the border.
Things could change, though, in the second half of 2017 since this time China seems more eager to implement the latest round of sanctions in order to accommodate an international community that is increasingly nervous about North Korean aggressiveness.
This happens at a crucial time when Beijing has been holding the 19th Congress of the Communist Party and the current President Xi Jinping is consolidating his grasp on power.
At the same time, for its own security, China regards stability and the avoidance of war on the Korean peninsula as its primary interests. North Korea’s collapse would destroy China’s strategic buffer between China and South Korea, where around 35.000 U.S. troops are stationed. Chaos on its border is another real worry for China: hundreds of thousands of refugees will get into China’s economically weak northeast region if the DPRK regime collapsed.
Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un are not necessarily seeing eye to eye, but the bounds between both nations are still strong.
Besides, although the communist ideology is not as strong as it was in China’s considerations, it is still a factor present in today’s relations with North Korea. Ever since the PRC and the DPRK exchanged diplomatic recognition on 6 October 1949, they became firm allies based on socialism and hatred for a common enemy: the USA.
China’s support for North Korea, considering the strong American presence in the region is therefore pragmatic and reinforced by ideological justification.
In geopolitical security terms, China cannot afford to turn away from North Korea. China considers that if North Korea disappears, a US-backed South Korea will border directly on China and pose a potential threat to its survival.
Preserving the Chinese culture legacy in Korea is another reason why China has consistently opposed harsh international sanctions on North Korea that could lead to its disintegration. As we have seen, Korea has been greatly influenced by Chinese civilization, borrowing from its written language, arts, religions, philosophy and models of government and administration. South Korea, though, is now mores exposed to US and Western cultural influences than to Chinese soft power. Another factor, not least important, is that ethnic Koreans are present on China since the Goguryeo and Balhae dynasties and have continued living there ever since. Their numbers have swelled by more recent waves of migration, particularly during the Japanese Occupation of Korea in the early 20th century. These human bounds make even more difficult for China to turn away from its neighbor. After all, in an age of impersonal tweets and digital diplomacy, history and the human touch still matter.