North Korea-China Relations: An Asymmetric Alliance

By Dwivedi, Sangit Sarita | North Korean Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

North Korea-China Relations: An Asymmetric Alliance


Dwivedi, Sangit Sarita, North Korean Review


Introduction

The aim of this paper is to examine North Korean threat perceptions in the context of Stephen Walt's balance-of-threat theory. This theory argues that states actually react to perceived threat rather than to power, and aim to balance it. North Korea, as surrounded by four big powers-China, Russia, Japan, and the United States (U.S.)-perceives the U.S. policy toward itself, and the strengthening of U.S.-South Korea security cooperation, as posing serious threatening challenges. To balance this threat, North Korea has developed an alliance system with the People's Republic of China (PRC) based on common ideology,1 anti-Japanese sentiment, and anti-U.S. sentiment. Geographically, North Korea shares an 800-mile-long frontier with China. Historically, China and Korea have had shared relations, symbolized by a hierarchical tributary system. In this age-old relationship, China enjoyed the role of "big brother" to Korea's "little brother." Culturally, ideologically, and socially, North Korea belonged to the Chinese zone of influence. Common threat perceptions alone would have argued for a cooperative arrangement between these two countries. China was vast, powerful, economically strong, and therefore the dominant party. Hence, it was a partnership not between equals, but between two unequal states-one strong and powerful and the other a client.

The Korean Peninsula, Hub of the Balance of Power in East Asia

Much of Korea's history is "the story of its struggle, not always successful, to maintain its independence against external pressures."2 Contrary to its name, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is located within one of the world's most heavily militarized areas. There is little "strategic depth" between the DMZ and the capital cities of Pyongyang, which is about 125 km north of the DMZ, and Seoul, which is approximately 40 km south of the DMZ. Following the consolidation of Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe and the signing of the "Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance," the United States perceived that the consequences of a South Korean defeat would be highly detrimental to its own political and strategic interests. Chinese leaders had concluded that intervention in the Korean War would temper and caution Washington, whereas inaction would embolden it. Thus, the Korean War of 1950-1953 reminded China of the importance of Korea to its national security. The Korean War ended, but the peninsula remained divided at the Demilitarized Zone.

Threat Perceptions until 1979: The North Korean Perspective

The U.S. Threat. North Koreans harbor a very deep grudge against the United States for two main reasons: the division of Korea and the American occupation of the southern part of Korea from 1945 to 1948. North Koreans also resent other American actions taken since 1953, the mutual security agreement with South Korea, and the maintenance of 36,000 American troops in South Korea. As the United States treated North Korea as a mere satellite of the Soviet Union, the relationship between the United States and North Korea developed to take the form of ideological confrontation; that is, capitalism versus socialism. From Pyongyang's point of view, a long and unbroken period of American nuclear hegemony in East Asia was inter- preted as a clear threat to its security. North Korea is the only country in the developing world that has faced a direct threat from a superpower's nuclear weapons from its very inception.3 During the Korean War, President Truman (at the behest of General Douglas MacArthur, who in July 1950 suggested a plan to use atomic bombs) seriously considered using nuclear weapons, but other allied nations objected.

The South Korean Threat. The hostility between North Korea and South Korea is not only mutual but evenly matched. The North Korean version of history argues that the Democratic People's Republic (DPRK) in the north is the only legitimate government representing the entire Korean people, and that it was American "imperialism" and its creature, the South Korean regime, that prevented unification. …

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