60 years after the end of the Korea War – China refuses to let down its ally
North Korea remains the country of contradictions. Some weeks ago, the regime scared the surrounding world by conducting a nuclear arms test, and added that more can be expected. According to the dictator Kim Jong-un, North Korean missiles should be able to hit targets not only in neighboring South Korea, but even as far away as in North America. A while later, Kim invited former basketball star Dennis Rodman and the American show team Harlem Globetrotters to participate in a movie project.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the ceasefire that ended the Korea War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953. A formal peace treaty, however, has never been signed, and peace has, in principle, been hanging in a fragile balance since July 27th 1953, when the armistice agreement was signed in the border town of Panmunjom. Certainly, a joint declaration of peace was issued on October 4th 2007 by North and South Korea in the North Korean capital Pyongyang, but a fully-fledged peace agreement does not yet exist.
The division of the Korea peninsula followed the Japanese surrender in September 1945, where after four decades of Japanese control, it was divided into a southern and a northern part in accordance with the Potsdam agreement between the leaders of Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union after the end of war in Europe. It was agreed that the Soviet Union would occupy the northern part, the United States the southern, in expectation of a future reunification.
The Russians put their money on the leader of the communist resistance movement and Red Army major Kim Il-sung as leader of North Korea, while the Americans backed Syngman Rhee as their man in South Korea. On August 15th 1948, the Republic of Korea was proclaimed in the south, followed three weeks later by the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north.
Just under two years after that the Korean War began, as North Korean forces attacked the south in an unprovoked attack on June 25th 1950. A US-led United Nations expedition comprising of 16 countries, with general Douglas MacArthur as commander, stood at the side of South Korea, while communist China under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung sent a flotilla of soldiers from the Chinese Revolutionary Guard in order to support the frail regime of Kim Il-sung.
After the Korean War, Stalinist North Korea stood out as the stronger of the two Korean states, as South Korea was both poorer and more divided under the relatively democratic but corrupt government. North Korea was even hailed as an exemplary country by left-wing movements in Sweden and abroad, along with countries such as China, Albania and Cuba.
Even today, North Korea is idolized by the small Swedish Kommunistiska Partiet (“Communist Party”), until 2005 named KPML(r), which for a long time has had City Council representatives in the towns of Lysekil, Karlshamn and Gislaved. That North Korea, according to international human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International holds some 200,000 individuals locked up in slave labor camps, and appears as a heavily armed poorhouse with famine as its most plentiful consumer good, seems not to be of concern to these Swedish left-wing nostalgics.
A turning point for South Korea came with the bloodless coup d’état conducted by army general Park Chung Hee on May 16th 1961. Park let South Korea go through an economic austerity program, and thereby laid the foundation for wealth and democracy to develop in southern Korea. The Republic of Korea in the south has been fully democratic since the end of the 1980′s, and has, in spite of periods of economic problems, been outperforming North Korea at all levels.
North Korea is now the only remaining Stalinist dictatorship in the world, building on a dynasty which has held on to power since the days of Kim Il-sung. When Kim died in 1994, he was succeeded by his son Kim Jong-il, who in turn died on December 17th 2011. The son of the latter, Kim Jong-un, who had not yet turned 30, succeeded him. His grandfather Kim Il-sung now holds the title “The Eternal President of the Republic”.
The question, however, is how long the communist republic in the North will hold out. Even though there are no direct indications of an imminent collapse, North Korea under Kim Jong-un has monumental problems with mass starvation due to more or less constant famine and an economy which would not last for many days if it were not for China keeping it on life support.
The British daily The Guardian, working with the American Washington Post, reported in an article on January 22nd this year that China is likely to resist a reunification of the Korea peninsula The article is based on an American Senate report published on December 2012, informing the second Obama Administration and members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, among them recently-appointed Secretary of State John Kerry, about the situation on the Korean peninsula.
The reasons for China’s having a negative attitude on Korean reunification are listed as mainly two: China has significant economic interests in North Korea, and China has outstanding territorial demands on the Korean peninsula dating back 1300 years. Lately China has been acting in more a aggressive manner in the East Asian region, asserting interest in the South China Sea and some islands currently under Japanese administration. According to the Senate report, China may be equally aggressive concerning North Korea in order to ”safeguard its own commercial assets, and to assert its right to preserve the northern part of the peninsula within China’s sphere of influence”.
The main author of the report is Keith Luse, an expert on East Asia who was assistant to Senator Richard Lugar, former chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The report makes more than clear that the constellation China – North Korea constitutes a challenge to the new Obama Administration, as well as to the new conservative government in Seoul, where Park Geun-hye – born in 1952 and daughter of the former president and coup general Park Chung Hee – was installed as president on February 22nd this year.
Park Geun-hye, in her inauguration speech in Seoul, encouraged North Korea to give up its nuclear arms ambitions and to participate in the task of “peace and mutual development”. In parallel with Par’s conciliatory speech, the South Korean defense forces demonstrated their new cruise missile, which is said to be able to strike forcefully against any target in North Korea.
Certainly, China did criticize their ally in relatively strong terms on the occasion of the North Korean nuclear test on February 12th, but the Chinese can still be expected to stand on the side of North Korea in the future, not least due to its economic interests. 70 percent of the North Korean trade is with still-communist China, due to international sanctions and the hardened South Korean attitude. North Korea can, with good reason, be considered a pure Chinese vassal state.
The Chinese have invested heavily in North Korea, including building North Korean ports, bridges and roads, and have helped North Korea in separate economic zones. Natural resources and rare earths are major Chinese imports from North Korea.
Given this background, it is vastly unlikely that China will give up North Korea, which it defended during the Korean War and is still defending today, against the economic sanctions.
East Asia experts have, however, pointed out that even a united Korean peninsula with its capital in Seoul would constitute a stabilizing force and benefit Chinese interests. The question is difficult to judge, though, according to Zhang Liangui, professor in international strategic research at the PartySchool of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, according to The Guardian.
”One misunderstanding by the US is that they think of China as a whole,” Zhang is quoted as saying. Within the ruling Chinese communist party there is, according to Zhang, a variety of opinions about how to handle the situation in the Korean peninsula.
At the end of the Senate report, a section is dedicated to the newly awakened Chinese territorial demands dating back 1300 years. The Chinese claim that a kingdom, then located on the Korean peninsula, was under Chinese control. These demands might be reactivated if Korean reunification returns to the agenda.
The young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – the third in the Kim dynasty – with some of his generals. Photo by Rodong Shinmun
The president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, encouraged North Korean moderation during her inauguration speech. Photo by The Guardian
By Tommy Hansson