Original Version Published in AUGUST 1ST, 2011. On July 27th, China and South Korea held their first ever National Defense Strategic Discussions in the Ministry of Defense Summit Hall. These came barely two weeks after the two countries held Defense Minister level talks in Beijing. These are the first such substantive contacts since the 2008 joint declaration by South Korea and China that they would from this point on consider themselves strategic partners. The exchanges cannot be viewed as anything other than a welcome improvement in South Korea-China ties, since the strained atmosphere which developed in the military realm in the aftermath of the Cheonan sinking.
The day, however, when China-South Korea relations attain the status of friendship shared between North Korea and China, despite their willingness to extend their ties into the military arena, is a long way away. Even if the strong North Korea-China traditional ties of unity, the so called blood alliance, is not considered, their solid bonds of mutual interest are such that South Korea and China’s slowly improving relationship pales in comparison.
In order for South Korea to make real achievements in its relationship with China, especially in terms of effecting foreign policy with regard to issues relating to North Korea and North-East Asia, it would be wise to approach matters after first attempting to grasp what exactly is the basis of the China-North Korea relationship.
First of all, North Korea and China’s power elites maintain close ties because of their many coinciding points of strategic interest. The Chinese Communist Party and the North Korea Workers' Party formed an alliance based on their ideological connections in the context of their corporative anti-Japanese struggle since 1936. For forty years after the Korean War pitted the two against the South Korea-US alliance, China and North Korea continued a close relationship of sibling-like intensity. Their mutual interests were the adhesive which maintained the status quo in ties, even after China took the path of materialistic utilitarianism in the 90s.
“Mountain ranges rush to the longed-for sea,” goes the line from Yi Yuk-sa’s poem. And these days China has its sights set on the Pacific. It remains to be seen what will be the results of their economic cooperation in Hwanggumpyong Island which has started with China's attempt to develop a seaway connecting its three north-eastern provinces with the Rajin-Sonbong special development zone, but China, for the time being, has started work on expanding its maritime influence in the region. Key figures in North Korea’s leadership succession process are currently scheming to link up with China and Russia. Transitioning through a phase of economic crisis and a third generation handover of power, North Korea is activating its geopolitical and military advantages with the regional continental powers to leverage greater levels of investment. Kim Jong-un and his allies are making particular efforts in this regard and China and North Korea, as a result, will share even deeper ties of mutual material and strategic interest.
In accordance with the development of North Korea and China’s strengthening strategic relationship, any trivial diplomatic incidents or disputes in the private sphere are dealt with quickly, quietly, and informally. In light of their strategic codependency, such tacit understanding that what is important are matters of real mutual strategic interest is becoming more plain to see. A recent example of such an incident was the shooting of two Chinese businessmen by North Korean border guards (see footnote1.) China neither demanded nor asked for either a scientific investigation into the matter or an official apology from North Korea. North Korea went no further than to declare that a traffic accident and heart attack were responsible for the sudden deaths. In order not to bring about discord over some relatively minor diplomatic incident, both countries have set the precedent of letting go what might normally be significant cases. Like two brothers running a business, their various long standing ties are so interlinked that killings of their own citizens by one side or the other on the one hand, or regional peace threatening provocations such as the sinking of the Cheonan on the other, cannot be allowed to upset the status quo nor the direction of the relationship.
In addition to their points of mutual interest, there is something else that should be remembered when explaining the China-North Korea relationship, and that is the network of private relationships that intertwine the two. At the core of this network are the so-called ‘patriot-descendants’ and the North Korean residents in China. The patriot ancestors are what are termed the ‘bloodline of the anti-Japanese Chinese-Korean heroes’, those Chinese-Koreans who distinguished themselves in the conflict with the Japanese during the occupation. The generation directly involved may have passed away but their descendants continue to maintain good group relations with North Korea’s elite, and to enjoy its favor. The North Korean residents in China were born in North Korea and have North Korean nationality but emigrated to China. In the main, they are engaged in trade and fulfill an important liaising role between North Korea and China.
The patriot-descendants and North Korean residents in China enjoy special benefits when they trade with the North. This is illustrated by the case of a Chinese businessman from Dandong (see footnote2.) His grandfather fought the Japanese from the Lee Hong-gwang base in the 1930s, and this individual has subsequently enjoyed considerable advantage due to his personal relationship with key members of the North Korean elite. He began a legitimate fish export business after his father died in 1981 and has also been heavily involved in smuggling into North Korea. The reason for his treatment as a most favored trading partner goes back to the personal relationships first established during the early 20th century fight against the Japanese.
There are many instances of China’s patriot descendants and North Korean residents in China VIP businessmen and government officials forming an old boys network with North Korea’s power elite. North Korea and China’s close relationship is maintained more via a person to person route rather than via diplomatic channels or mutual points of interest between elites, according to one source. Frequent exchanges between those Chinese-Koreans who share a history of anti-Japanese activity in Manchuria with their close relatives in North Korea is the basis of the inseparable relationship between the two countries.
It is nineteen years since China and South Korea established diplomatic relations. The National Defense level strategic discussions represent an important first step in military diplomatic relations. But between the two countries remains the problematic presence of North Korea. More positive counter measures must be devised in order to improve the quality of China and South Korea’s cooperative relationship. “China opposes any actions which are detrimental to peace on the Korean peninsula,” it once again evasively equivocated when pressed during the recent Defense Minister level talks as to what its role is in preventing North Korean provocations. It is evident that the ‘strategic partner relationship’ is at an early stage in the road, and the road is a long one.
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