The Sino-DPRK Split and Origins of US-DPRK Bilateralism

By | February 20, 2017 | No Comments

Kim Il-sung in East Germany (1956), talking with painter Otto Nagel (left) and Prime Minister Otto Grotewohl (center). | Image: Wikicommons

As China signals a potential willingness to apply economic pressure to North Korea by banning coal imports, one is reminded of the simmering contention that underlies a relationship so often described as being like “lips and teeth.” History informs us that, in fact, the Sino-DPRK relationship is in no small part defined by substantive disagreement. Some have been bigger than others, and there is perhaps none bigger than the schism that resulted from Beijing’s unwillingness to promote Pyongyang’s interests in the early 1970s, argues London School of Economics graduate Eungseo Kim.

Using sources from the indispensable Wilson Center Digital Archive and its North Korean International Documentation Project (NKIDP), Kim dissects the politics and unintended consequences of Sino-US détente in 1972. He finds that Pyongyang’s grievance against Beijing for its refusal to insist on certain preconditions for Sino-US diplomatic normalization (namely, removal of US Forces Korea from the peninsula and a peace treaty) was likely the reason why Pyongyang soon decided it needed to deal directly with the United States. Instructively, Kim notes that Pyongyang’s demands then were not substantively different than they are now. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

The Sino-DPRK Split and Origins of US-DPRK Bilateralism

by Eungseo Kim

The Birth of North Korea’s “Self-Reliant” Foreign Policy | While the North Korean regime is frequently labeled as erratic and irrational, North Korea’s policy in its quest to acquire nuclear weapons has been unchanging in one essential regard: the goal of directly negotiating with the US rather than participate in any form of multilateral talks including South Korea, China, Japan, Russia or anyone else. North Korea’s government identified its foreign policy as “self-reliant” in the 1960s, and bilateral negotiations with the US have since been seen as the essential means to achieve it.

North Korea’s preoccupation with bilateral negotiation has a much longer history than the Six-Party Talks. Pyongyang began its push to build bilateral relations with the US when change came to the Northeast Asian geostrategic environment with the Sino-US détente of 1972. Before this, Kim Il-sung and his partisans had been struggling for independence against Japanese colonization and then tackling the state-building process after the Korean War. Even though Beijing professed a “hands-off” approach to North Korean internal affairs after the Korean War, the country was still full of Chinese troops, and conditions were not sufficient for Kim to take autonomous action in the handling of domestic and foreign policy. It is undeniable that Pyongyang had to rely on its two giant neighbors, China and the USSR, for economic and political purposes. North Korea overflowed with anti-American slogans and propaganda, but it could not consider the US as a diplomatic peer.

From the late 1960s, however, the DPRK started promoting an independent foreign policy. While the common experiences of the anti-Japanese movement and fight against imperialism helped the three communist countries (the USSR, PRC, and DPRK) in the Asian region consolidate relations, North Korea, a small and new-born country, was exposed to the unlimited influence of the two giant countries. In particular, an August 1956 failed coup attempt at the removal of Kim Il-sung and his partisans only intensified Kim Il-sung’s belief that Beijing and Moscow would intervene in North Korea’s domestic politics for their own interests. As the regime’s security became more vulnerable, its longstanding concerns about external interference in domestic politics and regime survival crystallized into a strong sense of self-reliance and anti-“great power chauvinism”.

In the wake of the worsening Sino-Soviet split, Kim Il-sung tried to expand his “elbow-room” in the domestic and foreign realms by taking advantage of the anatagonism between the two countries. Conflict in the communist bloc served as an opportunity for North Korea because escalation made China and the Soviet Union reconsider North Korea’s strategic value, and both countries tried to curry favor. Along with rapid economic development, these courtships provided Kim Il-sung with an opportunity to launch his self-reliant measures.

In order to implement a foreign policy of self-reliance, Pyongyang deliberately changed its stance toward the two communist countries and did not lean on one side during the whole period of the Sino-Soviet split.1)Bernd Schaefer, “Weathering the Sino-Soviet Conflict: the GDR and North Korea, 1949-1989,” Cold War International History Project, Bulletin, Issue 14/15 (2001): 25-35. For instance, when the USSR adopted a peaceful coexistence position vis-à-vis the West and de-Stalinization was widespread, Kim Il-sung was more attached to the Chinese than to the Soviets. Yet as the Cultural Revolution swept through China, he restored closer ties with the Soviet Union. In this way, Kim removed both pro-Chinese and pro-Soviet groups from the high-ranking officials of the party and kept his distance from the two neighbors.

Along with a policy of balanced relations with Beijing and Moscow, Pyongyang made an effort to enhance relations with what was then called the “Third World” as part of its pursuit of an independent foreign policy. By 1968, the number of the Third World countries with which North Korea had established diplomatic relations was almost two times higher than the number of communist countries. After Kim Il-sung consolidated favorable diplomatic relations with the Soviet bloc and the Third World, Pyongyang made a plan to extend its diplomatic influence into Japan and some European countries, which had hitherto been hostile to North Korea. Consequently, in 1966, those efforts led Kim Il-sung to declare the foreign policy of North Korea to be one of self-reliance, a policy which put emphasis on national self-determination and blocking or withstanding external influence.2)Rodong Sinmun, August 12, 1966, 1.

On July 4, 1972, the South and North Korean governments announced a joint agreement, the first of its kind since the division of the peninsula. | Image: The Academy of Korean Studies (AKS)

Détente and Pyongyang’s Calculation for Survival | For Kim Il-sung, the push for a self-reliant foreign policy was linked to the presence of the US forces on the Korean Peninsula. This was because US troops, stationed only a few miles away from the DMZ, posed a serious threat to Kim’s regime. In this sense, Kim had taken into account some measures to complete the withdrawal of the US troops from South Korea and conclude a peace treaty with the US.3)Hong Seok-ryul, US-DPRK relations in the first half of the 1970s: Under the conditions of North-South dialogue and improvement in Sino-US relations [1970년대 전반 북미관계: 남북대화, 미중관계 개선의 관련 하에서], Treaties on international politics [국제정치논총], 44 no. 2 (2004): 45.

North Korea’s attempts at approaching the US intensified following the Sino-American rapprochement in 1972. For example, North Korea asked some Eastern European countries such as Romania to deliver its messages to Washington.4)See, specifically: “Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, SECRET, Urgent, No. 060.127,” March 24, 1974, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Archives of the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Matter 220 – Relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, 1974. Obtained by Izador Urian and translated for NKIDP by Eliza Gheorghe. For a more comprehensive overview of Pyongyang’s intentions and its communiques with Romania and the US (via Romania), see the collection of diplomatic cables curated by the Wilson Center at: Moreover, in May 1974, it issued an official proposal for the face-to-face negotiations with the US to Gerald Ford (the US Vice President and President of the Senate) in the name of Hwang Jang-yop, the Chairman of Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA).5)Letter from Government of North Korea,” May 13, 1974, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, Ford Vice Presidential Papers, Office of Assistant for Defense and International Affairs, Files 1973-1974, John O. Marsh, Box 61, North Korea. Obtained for NKIDP by Charles Kraus. In a letter to the US Congress, North Korea proposed the following: a pledge not to invade the other side; mutual arms reductions; withdrawal of UN forces from South Korea; military neutrality; and, as a final step, replacement of the Armistice Agreement with a peace treaty. In other words, what North Korea is seeking today is not all that different from what Kim Il-sung desired several decades ago, with the obvious difference being an existent rather than prospective nuclear capability in Pyongyang.

In addition to concerns about security, it is noteworthy that Kim’s discontent at Chinese ambivalence was another motivation behind the attempts at direct contact with Washington. Sino-DPRK relations had deteriorated rapidly because of the eruption of the Cultural Revolution in Chinese cities and the border region of Yanbian, and both governments publicized harsh criticism of the other.6)Bernd Schaefer, “North Korean ‘Adventurism’ and China’s Long Shadow, 1966-1972,”Cold War International History Project, Working Paper #44 (October 2004). When the Sino-American rapprochement came to the fore in the early 1970s, however, North Korea unexpectedly described Nixon’s visit to Beijing as “the march of the defeated or a great victory of the Chinese people and revolutionary peoples worldwide” and expressed a more enthusiastic response to Sino-US détente than other communist countries.

Kim Il-sung confessed to a Polish delegation in 1973, “If we provide hints about bad relations with our socialist neighbors in the North, it weakens our position vis-à-vis the enemy in the South.”7)On the Visit of a PRP Party and Parliamentary Delegation to the DPRK,” July 16, 1973, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, PolA AA, MfAA, C294/78. Obtained and translated by Bernd Schaefer. Clearly, the sudden thaw between China and the US had triggered a North Korean security dilemma, and pushed Kim to sympathize with the Chinese approach to the US. However, it is likely that there are strategic reasons behind Kim Il-sung’s unexpected response to the détente. First of all, when the end of the Vietnam War was in sight by the late 1960s, and the US (along with its ROK ally) withdrew substantial numbers of troops from Southeast Asia, Kim calculated that a similar US decision would be possible on the Korean Peninsula. His confidence was further strengthened by developments in New York. After the People’s Republic of China assumed a permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 1971, North Korea believed that the Chinese would take an active role in representing its interests regarding Korean affairs. In return for his assent to the process for détente in the region, therefore, Kim expected the Chinese to facilitate bilateral talks with the US and set a more favorable environment for the withdrawals of US troops and a peace treaty. In accordance with the Sino-American rapprochement, North Korea decided to open inter-Korean dialogue, resulting in the first official inter-Korean agreement, the 7.4 Joint Communiqué.

When Nixon paid a visit to Beijing in 1972, North Korea thought that the withdrawal of US forces from South Korea could be negotiated with the help of the Chinese. | Image: Wikicommons

The Slide from Great Anticipation to Disappointment | However, the Chinese did not meet North Korea’s expectations. A report by a GDR delegation after a conversation with a Soviet diplomat, Kurbatov (1st Secretary of the USSR embassy to China), in Beijing clearly revealed the different calculations between Beijing and Pyongyang.8)Note On a Conversation with Comrade Kurbatov, 1st Secretary of the USSR Embassy, on 26 March 1973 in the USSR Embassy,” March 28, 1973, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, PolA AA, MfAA, C 295/78. Obtained for NKIDP by Bernd Schaefer and translated for NKIDP by Karen Riechert. Kurbatov was convinced that, based on China’s national interest, the Chinese only half-heartedly supported Korean unification and the withdrawal of the US forces from South Korea. First, a reunified Korea with a population of 50 million would possess and exert significant political influence in the region, which might be more disadvantageous to China. In addition, China could be willing to negotiate with the US about the withdrawal of United States Forces Korea (USFK) to the extent that North Korea did not stand against the Chinese positions and policies. Kim Il-sung expected the Chinese to push their American counterparts to accept his terms for the reunification and USFK withdrawal. However, the Chinese “were said not to have insisted enough on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea.”9)Ibid.

Even though conflicting relations between China and the USSR might have affected Soviet perceptions, it is evident that China did indeed hesitate to fully support North Korea’s policy objectives. To some extent, China articulated North Korea’s ideas about Korean issues such as the peace treaty, the withdrawal of US troops, and developing a unification process on North Korea’s terms.10)Schaefer, “North Korean ‘Adventurism,'” 34-39. During détente, however, both the US and China dealt with their respective allies and the Korean issues in a pragmatic manner so as not to disrupt the negotiation process.11)Gregg Brazinsky, Korea’s Great Divergence: North and South Korea between 1972 and 1987, in ed. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, The Cold War in East Asia 1945-1991 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 241-265. China, as well as the US, prevented the two Koreas from influencing the talks in such a way that their demands might jeopardize Sino-American rapprochement.

Accordingly, for the US and China, stability (or the status quo) in the Northeast Asian region was put ahead of drastic change. China, and even the USSR, changed their perceptions when détente came into effect. The presence of the US forces in South Korea was seen as serving an integral role in preserving regional stability.12)Adrian Buzo, The Guerilla Dynasty: Politics and Leadership in North Korea (London: Westview Press, 1999), 82. In this sense, it is likely that China and the USSR calculated that US forces on the Korean Peninsula contributed to deterring any adventurist or provocative action that North or South Korea may take against the other. In other words, despite a fraternal relationship born of war, China was unwilling to support all North Korea’s demands.

North Korea’s complaints about China’s reluctance intensified at the UN General Assembly, where the two Koreas competed to pass resolutions in favor of each other. In 1972, North Korea tried to push a comprehensive UN resolution on Korean issues, such as the dissolution of UNCURK (UN Commissions for the Unification and Rehabilitation of Korea and UNC (UN Command) in South Korea, the withdrawal of US troops from the peninsula, and the conclusion of a peace treaty. To this end, it coordinated with the Chinese representatives to the UN because North Korea was not an official member, either.

On the contrary, South Korea, with the help of the US, preferred a step-by-step solution to the issues. Although North Korea reluctantly agreed to a compromise resolution, which focused only on the dissolution of UNCURK, upon the request of the Chinese, they felt betrayed by their ally.13)Hong, US-DPRK relations, 45. From this time on, North Korea directly approached the US regarding its central concerns. Indeed, at the 29th UN General Assembly in 1974, Korea unilaterally laid a bill demanding the immediate breakup of UNC, the conclusion of the peace treaty and withdrawal of the UN forces from South Korea at the same time.

Tripartite talks proposed by the DPRK in the late 1970s are another example of North Korea’s willingness to act without China. After it became evident that the DPRK had failed to achieve its objectives at the UN, and the US rejected any form of bilateral negotiations with the DPRK, Kim Il-sung officially proposed tripartite talks between the US, ROK, and DPRK. China was not invited as a negotiating member. Since China was one of the four signatories of the Armistice Agreement, the deliberate exclusion of China showed the degree of North Korea’s mistrust in China.

Kim’s disappointment with China is illustrated in the conversation between him and the Polish delegation to Pyongyang in 1973. According to the report from Polish delegation, Kim Il-sung “explained that the DPRK and KWP had, and [still] have arguments with the PRC and the CCP…. The PRC applied pressure on the DPRK but we did not bend. They called us revisionists. Along the border the Chinese installed loudspeakers calling on our people to abandon the revisionist regime of Kim Il-sung.”14)On the Visit of a PRP Party and Parliamentary Delegation to the DPRK,” July 16, 1973, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, PolA AA, MfAA, C294/78. Obtained and translated by Bernd Schaefer. Kim believed that China wanted to fold North Korea into its sphere of influence, and did not care for his country’s national interests. As a result, Kim decided that the normalization of diplomatic relations with the US was the best means of getting a peace treaty and the removal of US forces from the peninsula.

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