On Jan. 2, then President-elect Donald Trump tweeted a promise that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would not be allowed to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile armed with a nuclear bomb. In a second tweet, Trump complained that China “won’t help with North Korea.”
On Feb. 12, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) once again tested a ballistic missile. While Trump’s Twitter feed had no immediate response, the North Korean move will undoubtedly lead to an even greater sense of urgency in Washington — and more demands on Beijing to help rein in the North Korean nuclear threat.
Persuading the Chinese to inflict major costs on North Korea will prove to be one of the most difficult tasks of the new administration. Trump has suggested he “would get China to make [Kim] disappear in one form or another very quickly,” while a Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force believes “China can help get North Korea back to the negotiating table by withdrawing material support, enforcing sanctions, and applying diplomatic pressure.” Securing Chinese help would require a difficult mix of persuasion, pressure, and concessions.
But even if Beijing steps up and plays a significant role, Pyongyang has a long history of resilience to Chinese pressure. Pushing for greater Chinese support will not automatically lead to a solution to the growing crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
China has gotten tough on North Korea many times
During the 1950s and 1960s, the Chinese twice tried and failed to significantly weaken the political position of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the North Korean regime and grandfather of Kim Jong Un. These two cases demonstrate clearly the enduring potency of Korean nationalism and antipathy toward Chinese interference. Here’s how these two events unfolded:
1) Mao Zedong was no fan of Kim Il Sung. In 1956, China’s Chairman Mao told a visiting North Korean delegation that Kim was a “foolish ruler,” worse than feudal-era emperors. A few months later, Mao said that Kim Il Sung was a traitor in collusion with South Korean leader Syngman Rhee. According to a Soviet ambassador to the DPRK, “Kim Il Sung knows very well that we had conversations with Mao Zedong who then called him a Nazi and a fascist.”
Mao’s direct attempts to inflict his will on the North Korean leader proved futile.
In 1956, members of the North Korean elite who had served with Mao in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), along with colleagues who had grown up in the Soviet Union, tried to convince Kim to stop promoting lackeys, divert more resources to peoples’ livelihoods, and limit his own burgeoning personality cult. When the attempt to force changes on Kim failed, some of the dissenters fled to China.
Mao was furious. At a meeting with Soviet politician Anastas Mikoyan in Beijing, Mao said that “It is necessary to let Kim Il Sung know all the same that he cannot remain in the leadership without correcting mistakes.” Mikoyan, along with Chinese Defense Minister Peng Dehuai, traveled to Pyongyang to convince Kim to make peace with the dissenters, or perhaps even support Kim’s removal. The Sino-Soviet delegation could only secure a compromise that heavily favored Kim, and even this agreement was soon violated when Kim finished the purge of his detractors.
2) China bullied North Korea during the Cultural Revolution. In 1966, China’s Cultural Revolution introduced a radicalism into Chinese foreign policy that directly threatened the North Korean leader. Yao Wenyuan, who would later find fame as one of the “Gang of Four,” called Kim Il Sung a revisionist in a November 1967 speech. These were harsh words — essentially calling for Kim’s removal.
Chinese diplomats in Pyongyang took further measures. They refused to applaud Kim’s name at official functions, and posted inflammatory posters on the Chinese embassy’s walls. When told to pull down the posters, the Chinese said they would “observe those laws of the DPRK that they liked, and not observe those they did not like.” Pyongyang complained to diplomats from the eastern bloc that Mao was acting “senile.”
The border was also a source of tension during the Cultural Revolution. In the fall of 1967 ethnic Koreans murdered by Red Guards in Manchuria were put on a DPRK-bound train with signs like “Look, this will also be your fate, you tiny revisionists!” The Chinese set up loudspeakers to broadcast propaganda across the border, calling on North Koreans to “smash Korean revisionists and Kim Il Sung.” In one particularly bizarre incident, the Chinese created a powerful dam to divert a river to cover the part of the Korean riverbank that had a major monument to partisans who fought during the 1930s.
Eastern bloc observers at the time believed Beijing was looking to remove Kim from power. The North Korean ambassador in Bucharest told East German diplomats that “it is obvious that China wants to organize an overthrow [of Kim Il Sung] in North Korea.” According to one Soviet cable from 1969, Kim Il Sung said, “Mao Zedong hates us, the Chinese are embittered, we can expect anything from them.”
These historical patterns continue
My research on power struggles in Leninist regimes looks at how Kim Il Sung defeated these challenges in part by relying on his friends who fought against the Japanese with him in Manchuria in the 1930s. The third and current Kim no longer has this base of support.
But what do the lessons of history tell us about today’s foreign policy debates on the Korean Peninsula? U.S. policymakers will soon have to decide on a mix of carrots and sticks to prevent the situation on the peninsula from deteriorating further. How much of a role will China play?
The good news from the historical record is that the Chinese have not refrained from heavy-handed tactics toward Pyongyang in the past. In recent years, Beijing has continued this tradition by supporting U.N. sanctions against the DPRK.
The not-so-good news is that North Koreans have proven over the decades to be tough against interference from Beijing. The recent assassination of Kim Jong Un’s half brother Jong Nam, as well as the 2013 execution of Kim’s uncle, suggest a continuing Korean allergy toward figures that have questionable relations with Beijing.
Joseph Torigian is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.