Reinterpreting the Withdrawal of Chinese Troops from North Korea, 1956-1958

By | July 12, 2016 | No Comments

Kim and Zhou, Feb 1958We know the pattern. Nuclear and missile tests in North Korea lead to Chinese participation in the international condemnation of the provocation, and PRC support for United Nations sanctions. Considerable discussion is then stirred up as to the depth of China’s apparently new anger at North Korea; analysts with access to satellite imagery start studying cross-border traffic for signs of a dip, while others make their way to Dandong to get a more granular sense of bilateral ties. The presence or non-presence of Chinese delegations at key North Korean events is parsed, the role of China’s control of North Korean refugees (will they let them flee unimpeded in order to heighten leverage on Pyongyang?) questioned, and of course the rumble of minerals over the dusty borderland bridges listened for.

Then, having gone about as far as they will go in publicly disassociating themselves from Pyongyang, the Chinese Communist Party will roughly throw itself back into the North Korean embrace. Not literally, but in effect this is what happens when Beijing lashes out at signs of American aggression and wire-pulling in the region. Such signs are multiple, of course: they include U.S. participation in military drills with South Korea, the announcement of installation of anti-missile defenses in the ROK, or tacit legal opposition to Beijing’s wide-straddling stance in the South China Sea. Today’s Beijing People’s Daily paroxysm over a court ruling in The Hague was a fine case in point, followed on by misanthropic abuse by netizens whose anger seems primed to spill out into the streets this summer.

Amid the analysis of the Janus-faced Chinese role in enabling North Korean misbehavior, there is precious little time or space available for those who wish to look back into the long-standing Party-to-Party relationship between China and North Korea to ask: “Has China always used North Korea as a chess piece in its relations with the United States?” Still less often does anyone dig into the real and mythical roots of the anti-Japanese guerrilla movement in the 1930s, a period both of intense coooperation and betrayal within and among Chinese and Korean communists. Finally, what China gained by its 1950 intervention in the Korean War, or what it would give up in the future, were it to relinquish North Korea to some historical dustbin, never properly concerns us. Indeed, against the grain of current events, to discuss past trends — anything prior to the Great Famine of the 1990s, really — feels almost like an anachronism, if not an outright betrayal of the present.

Perhaps the Chinese Communist Party itself is sympathetic to such acts of forgetting, so long as they do not weaken the national resolve. North Korea’s multiple offerings to the CCP under the stresses of the Chinese civil war, or the smaller acts of kindness during the Great Leap Forward, are readily forgotten. To the extent that North Korea remembers China’s own aid during the Korean War, we are most relieved when it is only pro forma, in the shape of an empty monument or darkened museum wing in Pyongyang. As one North Korean said to me this past spring in Pyongyang as he explained the unique location of the PRC Embassy, “There are Chinese in every country.” Perhaps what had been special is no longer so.

Fortunately, some scholars continue to be preoccuped with understanding high tide of Chinese influence in North Korea, the period from 1950 until 1958 — in other words, the years when Chinese troops were stationed in North Korea, serving as an unavoidable guarantor of the existence of the state.

Tian Wuxiong, a Ph.D. candidate in modern history at Peking University, has produced a nicely nuanced view of the end of this period, and the withdrawal of the Chinese People’s Volunteers from the North. Tian has a good grasp of the Chinese historiography; he also spent a year at Harvard in 2013-14. His paper, entitled “Different Intentions with One Voice: The Making of Chinese Troops’ Withdrawal Package from the DPRK in 1958 / 同声异汽:中国1958年从朝鲜全部退军方案的形成” was published by Harvard Working Paper series. 

No paper is much good without new sources, and Tian brings a few key findings to the table. He draws from recent publications in Chinese by Shen Zhihua, documents obtained and translated from Soviet archives by the North Korean International Documentation Project, a handful of documents from the PRC Foreign Ministry Archive, and a few crucial scraps from the Chronology of Mao Zedong (毛泽东年谱) published in December 2013. He seems determined to avoid of the work of Andrei Lankov, and most of the other Western histories Chinese-North Korean relations, but these lacunae also allow him to focus almost primarily on the sources rather than getting bogged down in historiography.

It has never been entirely clear why the Chinese People’s Volunteers, or Chinese army, withdrew from North Korea when they did — in three waves in early 1958. Part of the problem has been how the question is framed: If we see Kim Il-sung’s power consolidation and growing nationalism as the prime mover, as has often been the case, then the withdrawal of the CPV shows how Kim was operating within the growing gap of the Sino-Soviet rift, and indicates further how Kim was demonstrating to a domestic audience his independence from Beijing in the aftermath of the 1956 “August Incident.”

What Tian shows is how little these questions played into the calculus. Instead, the documents indicate how the decision to withdraw troops was largely of Mao’s doing, and how heavily propaganda questions played into Kim Il-sung’s decision to support the withdrawal. Foremost among the considerations was how to put pressure on the US at the United Nations; by withdrawing troops from North Korea, the PRC could make the US look like the dastardly aspiring hegemon in the region since it was understood that the Republic of Korea was not in the least ready for an American retreat from the peninsula. The communist side could call for “all foreign troops to leave” the Korean peninsula, and then engage in free-fire from a propaganda standpoint against the United States when it did not do so.

While this may seem like a matter of little significance, we need only look to a recent essay by Korean Workers’ Party foreign policy intellectuals which points back — repeatedly — to 1956, supposedly the moment of exemplary American insincerity when it comes to negotiating a withdrawal from the peninsula or a peace treaty which would prepare such an exit. The DPRK’s call for foreign troops to depart Korea in 1956 was, ironically, coordinated closely with the leaders of one large group of foreign troops in Korea (i.e., the Chinese), and Kim Il-sung’s ostensible moment of great nationalistic prickliness was hardly that. Mao and Zhou Enlai were apologetic about perceptions that they had interfered in North Korean internal affairs but were much more interested in diffusing rumors — both domestically and internationally — about a decline in Sino-North Korean relations in late 1956. Thus, amid the tremors of the uprising in Hungary, all the parties agreed to a full withdrawal of Chinese troops from North Korea.

Tian’s paper is at times overly reliant on what is still sometimes thin evidence (two paragraphs from the Mao Zedong Chronology for 30 November 1956 turn up in about half a dozen footnotes), but, like the work of Charles Kraus, it generally does a brilliant and worthwhile job of putting forward an alternate picture of what we thought we knew already. In that sense, a reappraisal of Sino-North Korean relations today could benefit from a similar approach.

Source: Tian Wuxiong, “Different Intentions with One Voice: The Making of Chinese Troops’ Withdrawal Package from the DPRK in 1958 同声异汽:中国1958年从朝鲜全部退军方案的形成” Harvard Working Paper Series, 2014.

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