Clinging to North Korea: A Chinese Traditionalist View

By | January 24, 2013 | No Comments

Chinese poster from the Korean War era“Long live the Victory of the Korean People’s Army and the Chinese Volunteer Army!”

North Korea and China in better, pre-Nixonian, times. | Image courtesy Stephan Landsberger

Positive signs of the old “blood alliance” between China and North Korea have been few and far between in the past ten weeks. Rodong Sinmun wrote a barely veiled allegory of how China was giving in to imperialist betrayal, and the PRC got even nastier with its mockery of Kim Jong Un. But scratch the enamel of recent Chinese anger hard enough and you might just find some lingering memories of the Korean War, not to mention admissions that China might need strange friends in strange times. The following apologia for the PRC-DPRK alliance, published as a featured blog editorial on the Huanqiu Shibao website, is a rather unusual direct attack on the growing scholarly consensus in China that the old reasons for the alliance with North Korea have become outmoded.  Thanks to Roger Cavazos, the essay is able to speak for itself. — Adam Cathcart, Chief Editor

Tang Ge [唐歌], “Why China Clings to North Korea: Finally Clarifying North Korea’s Importance [为什么中国要死守朝鲜:终于明白朝鲜重要性],” Huanqiu Shibao (featured blog post), January 12, 2013. Translated by Roger Cavazos

If one were to carefully research a map of China, one discovers that if the United States wanted to forcibly enter China, the most logical place through which do so is North Korea, followed by Vietnam. Therefore, North Korea’s safety [安危] is related to the safety of China.

In spite of this some Chinese “experts” and “elites” say that the concept of North Korea as a strategic buffer is outdated. They shout that North Korea has no meaning for China’s security, that China should abandon North Korea, and that China can no longer be abducted by North Korea [中国不能再被朝鲜绑架了]. I have a few responses:

Viewing things from a purely military aspect, no matter if in the past or now, North Korea’s significance to China’s security cannot be doubted.

Considering the Role of Air Power | These so-called experts and elites say that because of technological advances — such as long-range weapons and the development of naval and air power — foreign countries wishing to attack China will no longer need a land springboard to do so, and that therefore North Korea has no strategic meaning to China. Is that really the case?

Long-range weapons originally were not  the main weapon and despite a great deal of development, even in the future war, long range weapons will still not play the decisive roles played by short range weapons and ground troops.

Production costs for long range weapons are high so they can’t be produced in large batches because of the cost.  Second, the enemies being fired at have sufficient time to prepare and a high probability of intercepting the long range weapons because of their long flight time.  Even if the weapons are not intercepted the ones fired upon still have time to react.  The reality of modern war is that short range weapons play the main role even among the most advanced U.S. weaponry, whether in the former Yugoslavia, or the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

China is preparing a third-generation surveillance craft to cope with new US technology | Via Huanqiu

China is preparing a third-generation surveillance craft to cope with new US technology | Via Huanqiu

In order to defeat a country, even though the Air Force is unquestionably significant to modern war, through its roles in surveillance, bombing and precision strike, air forces have never been a substitute for ground forces. Only when the Air Force and ground troops are paired together can they defeat a country.  The Air Force alone must have ground troops to really achieve the goal of controlling a country.

Air Force bombing alone can only destroy military targets and is not able to control a country. Just destroying military targets do not have any meaning since the destroyed military targets can be repaired over a period of time.  The U.S. attacked Iraq, bombed them for a few months, yet in order to eventually overthrow the Saddam regime they still had to rely on ground forces.

Some may say that the ground troops can rely on an amphibious landing [海军登陆发起进攻] offensive to avoid a direct land route (of invasion).   However, this is far more difficult to do as is common sense to the military. Controlling the land adjacent to a country is still the best option to attack.  Modern warfare used missile and Air Forces based on land.

The modern aircraft carrier is like a mobile small piece of land.  It is a base for aircraft to take off and to launch missiles.  But it is not as good a piece of adjacent land.   Aircraft carriers have a relatively small area, are easily sunk and cannot come directly to the shore.  It is just an option in case there is no land base. [1]

If the US were to attack China with every U.S. aircraft carrier it still would not be on par with launching an offensive directly from North Korea to China.  All the powerful countries of the world expend great effort to develop an aircraft carrier, something that’s not on par with or as important as having a piece of land.  From this we can see how important it is to have a piece of land next to a country one wants to attack.

Every bit as important as the Yalu? Chinese guards in Afghanistan. | Via Chinese Defense

Every bit as important as the Yalu? Chinese guards in Afghanistan. | Via Chinese Defense

North Korea and Afghanistan |  From a geographical perspective, North Korea is the best place for a foreign power to enter China some experts say.  The U.S.  already occupies Afghanistan and can enter China from western Afghanistan, so North Korea does not have any significance to China.

Although it is much more difficult for the US to invade China from Afghanistan than it is to attack China from North Korea, there is nothing wrong with this argument. U.S. troops entered Afghanistan in the name of fighting terrorism but it is evident they are there to contain China’s intent is self-evident, but the significance of China’s security in Afghanistan and North Korea are not comparable (North Korea is far more important).

This is because Afghanistan is too far away from China’s political and economic center.  To attack from Afghanistan, one has to go through the middle of sparsely populated areas and even no-man’s land, most of the region is mountainous or desert and easily defended through China‘s great strategic depth, and the United States would be faced with being extended supply lines, and easily run into troubles midway through the lines.

The U.S. is struggling with supply difficulties just to support the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.  Supplies are a small problem, but a big headache.  Right now, the supplies used to support US battlefields in Afghanistan come through Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan. These countries are unlikely to allow the United States to use their territory to attack China.

North Korea is close to China’s political and economic center, adjacent to the northeastern region of China which is one of China’s important industrial base and an important food-producing area. North Korea is near the ocean, close to South Korea and Japan and makes it completely convenient to supply the U.S. military. If the U.S. were to occupy North Korea and attack China from both Afghanistan and North Korea, the Chinese the situation in both places will be very passive.

North Korea is close to China’s political and economic center, adjacent to the northeastern region of China which is one of China’s important industrial base and an important food-producing area.  In order to defend the security of Vietnam, the Qing dynasty fought the Sino-French War.  Losing North Korea to Japan allowed Japan to plant the seeds of aggression against China.

During the Mao Zedong era, China fought and won against the U.S. in the Korean War (Resist U.S., Aid North Korea) and the Vietnam War (Resist U.S., Aid Vietnam) since those wars were the only way to guarantee 60 years of peace building. Currently, it will also be difficult to realize a plot to use Vietnam as an attack route since it is distant from the U.S. allies, South Korea, Japan and far from North Korea.   So the current U.S. strategic focus is on North Korea and is the essence of the crisis in North Korea.

Now we're into concepts of security dating back to BC 3rd century and the Spring and Autumn period

Evoking concepts of security dating back to BC 3rd century and the Spring and Autumn period.  Photo via Wangchao net

A Cost-Benefit Analysis | From the Chinese view, for China to firmly support North Korea is a small cost big benefit activity and accords with China’s fundamental interests because of North Korea’s importance to China’s security.   So China firmly supporting North Korea is a small cost, big benefit.   If the U.S. were to attack China, North Korea is bravely in front of us so that China can have a stable environment for China to concentrate on economic development. [2]

The amount China gives North Korea in economic and military support is far less than the cost and loss of a direct U.S. attack.  If North Korea could not stand up for themselves and China sent troops to support North Korea, the cost of war is far less than the loss of China’s territory. If China were to lose North Korea, the amount of defense spending China would have to pay is much more.  And if war were to break out in China, the cost would be incalculable.  There is no difference between abandoning North Korea and resisting attacks from the U.S.

Xi Jinping doesn't want to be Neville Chamberlain, does he? Quite a galvanizing juxtaposition.

Xi Jinping doesn’t want to be Neville Chamberlain, does he? Quite a galvanizing juxtaposition.

Historical experience teaches us that to ease tension temporarily or to abandon North Korea is to implement a policy of appeasement, to abandon North Korea.  China will face a very dangerous situation like the one during World War II, in the face of an aggressive invasion of Germany, Britain, France and other countries to implement a “policy of appeasement”.   The British wanted to temporarily seek security, sit back and watch German troops enter into the demilitarized zone of the Rhine and watched Sudetenland being given to Germany.

When Germany attacked Poland, Poland’s allies, the British and French engaged in a  strange “sitzkrieg” (phony war ) [静坐战] which allowed Germany to go across the European land of inaction.  France was quickly subjugated and British situation was passive almost to the point of the death of the country. Britain and France wanted to avoid war losses, and tried to adopt a “low profile” [韬光养晦]with the result of suffering even greater losses. [3]

After World War II, Britain and France became second-rate powers after being destroyed in the war.  After the attack at Pearl Harbor by the conniving of the fascist states, the U.S. suffered a great loss.  But the U.S. drew a lesson from the attack and supported the anti-Fascist war with strong assistance from the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and China and others.

The U.S. assisted those countries, so that those countries could resist the fascist attack, and in so doing avoided being burned by war on the U.S. Because the U.S. was spared from a destructive war, the U.S. became the world’s number one power. After the war, the U.S. provided economic assistance to Europe and other allies so that these countries could stand up and resist Soviet Union expansion.  Finally, after the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States became the world’s only superpower.[4]

The U.S. ability to become the world’s only superpower and U.S. foreign aid are inseparable.  The U.S. (use of) foreign aid, prevented war from destroying the U.S. and also strengthened the control of every country in the world. U.S. assistance to the world not only did not cause the U.S. to lose money, but even earned not a little [美国不仅没有赔,而且赚了不少].

The current situation on the Korean Peninsula and pre-World War II situation have many similarities. The relationship between North Korea to the safety of the Chinese nation can in no way be questioned.  Protecting North Korea’s security is protecting China’s security.  Those “elite experts” calling to abandon North Korea should understand North Korea’s significance to China; the purpose of their call is all too clear. Didn’t China learn during World War II that the British and French policy of “appeasement” led to a diametrically opposed struggle? China once again stands at a crossroads that will determine its fate.


[1] The preceding four paragraphs indicate the writer clearly does not agree with Douhet, Billy Mitchell or Mahan.  He is a big Jomini fan and would probably hug Sir Halford Mackinder.  He also seems to say that if the US can’t pull it off, China can’t.

[2] The three prior paragraphs make it clear his thinking comes straight out of the Spring and Autumn Annals [吕氏春秋]of Lv Buwei, the classic BC 3rd century strategic classic.  He also assumes that North Korea was a part of China and hence China’s to lose to Japan.

[3] His comments to quit maintaining a “low profile” [韬光养晦] directly contradict the 5th quatrain of Deng Xiaoping’s 24 character formula and should be read as a call for China to take a more active role in the world.

[4] He is offering a surprising almost compliment in order to goad fellow Chinese into “doing something even better.”

No Comments

  1. “When Poland attacked Germany, Poland’s allies, the British and French engaged in a strange “sitzkrieg” (phony war ) [静坐战] which allowed Germany to go across the European land of inaction……”

    Something’s wrong here, Chinese History Books I guess….

  2. Fantastic site. We follow you with great anticipation for your content. Thank you

  3. Harry, thanks for pointing this out! The error has been fixed, I think we missed the particle “bei” which makes Poland the passive victim of aggression, not its initiator. Chinese history books are a little off-the-wall sometimes, but we’re not in Oceania yet.

  4. As a German, this stiked my eye immediately

  5. Opinion management may these kinds of Huanqiu articles, as long as an alliance with North Korea remains a strategic necessity, in Beijing’s view. There’s still more to the alliance – beyond strategy – than to Beijing’s alliance with, say, Khartoum, but old connections matter. Even Albanese-Chinese relations remain special, from the days when both Beijing and Tirana “opposed Soviet social imperialism” or Moscow’s de-Stalinization.

    Credibility is also at stake. You can’t easily dump an old ally without looking like a questionable power (and ally) abroad, and at home. And you can’t dump Pyongyang as easily as you might dump Gaddafi or (possibly) al-Assad. But the old connections and memories alone would be no major reason to keep going trough thick and thin with Pyongyang.

    Is there anything beyond the footnotes known about Tang Ge (the author/blogger)? I usually find it hard to judge the “weight” of those bloggers – many of them keep blogs on Huanqiu, Sina, and even Phoenix (Hong Kong), all at the same time, and feed them with the same posts.

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