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Why Won’t China Help With North Korea? Remember 1956
President Donald J. Trump’s short-lived honeymoon with Chinese Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping is over. On June 29, the U.S. imposed sanctions on a Chinese bank, a Chinese shipping company, and two Chinese nationals, all accused of helping North Korea evade the international sanctions regime. “So much for China working with us,” Trump tweeted on July 5, “but we had to give it a try!” And after meeting the newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in in late June, Trump announced he had no more “patience” for North Korea, promising a “determined response.” The Administration’s pressure on China is a part of this response, and it has already triggered an angry reaction in Beijing, which called on the United States to “stop wrongful actions” that could hurt Sino-American relations.
Leaning on China to pressure North Korea is not a new idea. Beijing has a stranglehold on the North Korean regime, or so the narrative goes; all it has to do is shut the border and properly implement sanctions, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will come begging for forgiveness. The assumption behind this narrative is that China and the United States share a basic goal: to force North Korea to give up its nuclear program, and that all Beijing needs is a little prodding to do what in any case it should have no reason to oppose.
The narrative completely misreads the ordering of China’s foreign policy priorities. Yes, Beijing has voicedfrustration with Pyongyang’s recklessness, and joined the international community in condemning the five nuclear tests the North Koreans conducted since 2006. The Chinese have also watched with unease as Kim consolidated his tyrannical rule by murdering first his uncle (of considerable Chinese connections), and then his half-brother, who had lived in China-administered Macau.
But for all the frustration, North Korea is an important piece on Beijing’s diplomatic board. If played incorrectly, it could backfire on China to the detriment of its bid for global leadership. Bringing Kim to his knees on behalf of the international community does nothing to advance Xi’s vision of a China-centered order in East Asia.
This is not new. Beijing has played this game before—most disastrously in 1956, when then North Korean leader Kim Il Sung brutally purged his political opponents suspected of ties to China and the Soviet Union. Moscow and Beijing intervened on their behalf, but Kim outplayed his allies with Machiavellian guile.
The crisis was also a turning point for China’s relations with North Korea. It was in 1956 that Beijing realized it had to go easy on Pyongyang, despite Kim’s maddening obstinacy, because the alternative was to surrender the country to the Soviet influence. As difficult as Kim was, he kept his distance from Moscow, and he could be an important ally in Beijing’s bid for leadership in the socialist bloc. Overnight, North Korea became an issue in China’s relationship with the Soviet Union, much as today it complicates China’s relationship with the United States.
Although historians have a good grasp of what happened in Pyongyang in 1956, the Chinese and the Soviet angles of the story have remained murky at best—until now. In early July, the Wilson Center published a collection of newly declassified documents from the Russian archives that recount the drama of the failed Sino-Soviet political intervention.
In 1956, North Korea was just beginning to recover from the devastation of the 1950-1953 Korean War, which killed an estimated 2.5 million civilians and decimated both sides of the peninsula. The 1953 armistice left Korea divided along the 38th parallel. Unable to reunify the Korean peninsula by force, Kim nursed his wounds and consolidated power.
In December 1955, he moved against the “Soviet” faction in his party, purging senior leaders with Soviet connections. Kim also imprisoned the most prominent “Chinese” Korean, Pak Il-u, known as “Mao Zedong’s man in Korea” for his close relations with the Chinese leader. Mao complained that Pak had been “arrested for no reason.” For Kim, though, Pak’s Chinese connection was reason enough: he targeted anyone with foreign ties.
Kim oversaw the creation of his own personality cult, one of the most odious in the Communist world. Korea’s history was rewritten to portray Kim as the country’s sole savior and liberator. Composers devoted songs to his bravery. Writers celebrated his heroism and wisdom. Anyone questioning Kim’s cult risked losing their job, and could end up in prison, or worse. And Kim’s deification played out in a country that had by far the worst living standards in the socialist camp.
But Kim was less secure in power than he appeared. When the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivered a shattering critique of Stalin’s personality cult in February 1956, little Stalins of the socialist bloc—Kim included—had a cause to worry. He had imitated Stalin. Now, the new Soviet leadership demanded he curb tyranny. Inspired by Moscow’s support for reforms, Kim’s opponents moved against his personality cult. Before, the dictator played the “Soviet” faction against the “Chinese” faction. But during an important Party meeting in late August 1956, “Chinese” Korean Yun Kong-hum attacked Kim for his dictatorial practices. Kim mobilized his supporters in the party to counterattack, and Yun and other critics were forced on the defensive and finally silenced.
Kim’s opponents went home in the evening to discover their telephone lines had been cut. Sensing trouble, Yun and three of his allies fled to China that night, where they claimed asylum. They were fortunate. Kim arrested those who stayed behind. The violent purge in the North Korean party was a rude shock to the Russians: they had cautioned Kim not to do it, and lent a sympathetic ear to his critics. But he challenged the Soviet authority. Now, they had to act.
Coincidentally, Khrushchev’s top aide, Anastas Mikoyan, was in China in September 1956. The details of his discussions with Mao are revealed here for the first time. “The North Korean Party is in a grave crisis,” Mikoyan told Mao. “If it goes on like this, the party will collapse.” Weeks earlier, Mikoyan helped force out Hungary’s “Stalin,” Mátyás Rákosi. Although the evidence is inconclusive, at this point Moscow was quite possibly considering Kim’s removal. Having installed him as their puppet in North Korea just a decade earlier, the Russians expected obedience, not defiance, especially from a regime that was heavily dependent on the Soviet largesse.
But it was important to have Beijing onboard. In 1956, the Chinese still had some 440,000 troops in the country—those who remained after phased withdrawals since the end of the Korean War, which China fought on Kim’s behalf. This added up to considerable leverage.
Mao agreed with Mikoyan that there were serious problems in Pyongyang. Himself a ruthless dictator, Mao claimed Kim, who “still does the Stalin thing,” appalled him. “He brooks no word of disagreement and kills all who tries to oppose him,” Mao said.
But he claimed that China had no influence on the North Koreans. “This time we have to mainly rely on you,” he told Mikoyan. “They won’t listen to China!” Mikoyan retorted that Moscow’s leverage was hardly any better, but Mao disagreed: “They won’t listen to China 100 percent of the time. They won’t listen to you 70 percent of the time.”
Mikoyan said he simply did not understand why Kim was acting this way. Mao knew why: “He is afraid that our two parties are digging under the wall [of his house].”
And Mao, sensing, rightly or wrongly, that Moscow was plotting Kim’s ouster, warned the Soviet envoy they should not try to topple him. The Chinese leader opposed the Soviet practice of overthrowing recalcitrant tyrants. Nor did he think Kim’s regime was as bad as the Soviets claimed. After all, Mao’s own regime was not exactly democratic either. If he helped bring down Kim’s house, he would set a precedent that could one day be used against him.
There was another reason for Mao’s hesitation. He was beginning to challenge Moscow for leadership in the socialist camp. He accused the Soviets of arrogance, and of trying to impose their will on other countries. Much as he feared letting Kim get away with brutalities would lead to North Korea’s collapse, he did not want the Soviets to use him as a proxy.
The quandary Mao faced was not that different from the one Xi faces today: to join in common action with a potential rival (the Soviet Union in 1956, the United States today) to pressure a client, or to procrastinate, because common action could mean surrender of leadership. Two tigers cannot live on one mountain, as the Chinese saying goes. The North Korean mountain is the one the Chinese tiger has always kept for itself.
Mao’s situation was especially difficult because Mikoyan was in Beijing pressing for action. Mao agreed to send a joint delegation to Pyongyang. Mikoyan volunteered himself, while Mao dispatched the former commander of the Chinese troops in Korea, Peng Dehuai.
The two tried to persuade Kim that killing his opponents was not always the best course of action. “You have enormous rights,” Mikoyan told him. “You can expel [someone] from the party, arrest a person, [or] shoot him. Not a single government body in a capitalist country, not US President Eisenhower, for example, and no one else has such rights.”
Kim agreed to mend his ways. He professed full faith in the “indisputable authority” of the Soviet Communist parties, and promised the mistakes he made “will not be repeated.”But no sooner had Mikoyan and Peng left Pyongyang, on September 23, that things returned to normal: brutality, tyranny, and worship of the “Great Leader.” His political opponents were briefly restored in the party, but were again purged in early 1958. No one ever challenged Kim again. In fact, 1956 heralded the beginning of the Kim family’s murderous but unopposed reign that continues to the present day.
Back in Beijing, Mikoyan and Peng briefed Mao on their talks with Kim. His irreverence struck Mao. “[Kim] is like a seedling,” Mao grumbled: “You planted him. The Americans pulled him out. Then we planted him again in the same place. Now he is assuming airs, saying that he is 100 percent correct.”
But, Mao repeated, he would not “seek to topple them but to support them.” It is clear why. Heavy-handed intervention was not how he envisioned China’s leadership. He wanted Kim to defer to China, much as generations of Koreans have deferred to the Chinese Emperor: not out of fear but out of respect. As long as North Korea remained in China’s political orbit, Mao was willing to put up with Kim’s erratic behavior.
For all the frictions of the relationship, Mao was remarkably successful in keeping North Korea at China’s side. In 1958, he ordered the withdrawal of the remaining Chinese troops in a bid to persuade Kim he should not fear China. He also chose to blame his embarrassing involvement in the joint Sino-Soviet intervention on Peng, whom Mao purged in 1959, accusing him of, among other things, subservience to Soviet interests.
Sensing that Mao would not be “digging” under him, Kim drew closer to Beijing, while keeping Moscow at a distance. When the Soviet Union and China fell out in the early 1960s, Kim was among Mao’s most vocal supporters. Mao paid back in the same coin, generously supporting North Korea with economic aid, even though he famously refused to provide Pyongyang with an atomic bomb, which Kim asked for in the mid-1960s. Only once did relations sour: in the late 1960s, because the North Koreans failed to embrace the radicalism of the decade-long anarchic Cultural Revolution. Things became so tense in 1969 that China and North Korea nearly went to war over their disputed border. But it was only a year before Mao reconsidered, and again sought Pyongyang’s friendship in return for Kim’s acknowledgement of China’s leadership.
The same implicit trade-off is in place today, which is why Xi refuses to tighten the noose around Kim Jong-un’s neck. Like Mao in 1956, Xi is tired of North Korea, but he is keen to emphasize that China won’t crack the whip on anyone’s behalf.
By pressuring China, Trump is challenging Beijing’s claims to greatness. Suddenly, for the Chinese, the issue is not whether a nuclear North Korea threatens peace, but whether the U.S. threatens China’s standing as the big kid on the East Asian block.
The pressure will do nothing to solve the North Korean problem, though it will worsen the Sino-American rivalry, just as Mikoyan’s 1956 intervention contributed to the Sino-Soviet rivalry. Mao resented Mikoyan’s “patronizing tone,” and, when China’s relations with the Soviet Union deteriorated later that decade, accused him of speaking to China like a father would to a son. Xi may well draw similar conclusions about Trump.
With Beijing preoccupied with its aspirations for global leadership, the U.S. has no recourse but to consider direct engagement with Pyongyang to gain the leverage that China won’t provide. Better this than indulging in unrealistic hopes that Xi will sooner or later “help” America bring Kim to his senses. He just won’t.