North Korea and China: Tracing the Historical Linkages and Legacies

Apart from the ideological similarities and bonds, there was also a bond that was created by the Korean War between North Korea and China.
Keywords: China, North Korea, War, Conflict, Partnership, Korean War, Historical, Communist, Manchuria, Socio-Economic
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While mentioning North Korea’s foreign relations, the two major countries that always stand out as friendly nations to North Korea are the erstwhile Soviet Union and China. While the foundation of the relationship with the Soviets was laid down during the Soviet administration of the Northern region of the Korean peninsula, in the case of China, the Korean-Sino relations date back centuries before North Korea was formally separated from the whole of Korea. Taking the case of North Korea in particular, the first-ever diplomatic relation was established on October 6, 1949, and just a year later “Chinese people’s volunteers” showed their support to North Korea in the Korean War. Even today quite a lot of social and official meetings between North Korea and China, officials from both sides bring up the shared trauma of the Korean War and refer to their “blood-bonded” alliance as along with North Koreans, tens of thousands of Chinese lost their lives in the Korean War. Apart from the ideological similarities and bonds, there was also another kind of bond that was created by the Korean War between North Korea and China. This bond was the shared trauma of post-war, as the sacrifice of the Chinese soldiers in the Korean War was significant and built a historic relationship between the two nations. 

The two countries primarily interacted during Japanese rule due to political and ideological similarities. During the colonial period 1910-1945, there were thousands of exiled Korean communists in mainland China and Manchuria and that produced a viable cadre of native communists and created suitable socio-economic conditions in the Korean peninsula. It won’t be wrong to say that the alliance between North Korea and China is not just based on shared ideology but also on common security issues and in the case of North Korea and China the common threat is the United States and its allies. It is more of an alliance of convenience and mutual benefit than one founded on shared values.

The history of North Korea can also be considered the history of communism among the Korean people. Thus, while looking into the prehistory of the North Korean state before 1948, it will be only logical to trace the outlines of Korean communism, and what better field to look into than the history of exiled Korean communism in the Chinese mainland and in Manchuria which was a seminal chapter in the history of the DPRK’s relations with China. After the mid-1930s and around the end of world war II, most of the signs of meaningful anti-Japanese resistance appeared among the people of the Korean diaspora as anti-Japanese acts were nearly impossible inside Korea and Japan due to the harsh repression that the Japanese authorities enforced during the 1930s. The Korean people who voluntarily or involuntarily left Korea did so to express their anti-Japanese attitudes in a relatively safe country. As per the official figures released by the Japanese government, there were 65,000 Koreans in Manchuria (Manchukuo) and 3,500 Koreans residing in mainland China in the year 1932. There were Koreans in other parts of the world too, namely Hawai, the United States, the Soviet Union, Mexico, etc but these countries were either too remote to make a direct impact on the anti-Japanese movement or bound by treaties with Japan as in the case of the Soviet Union and America. The Soviet–Japanese Basic Convention was a treaty normalizing relations between the Empire of Japan and the Soviet Union that was signed on 20 January 1925 (Slusser, Robert M., Triska, Jan F., 1959, p.49). It was because of this treaty that in 1937, the Soviets relocated Koreans to different parts of the USSR. Americans too had several treaties and diplomatic agreements signed such as The Taft–Katsura Agreement of 1905 (Raymond A. Esthus, 1959, pp. 46-51), and this agreement essentially has the effect of allowing the Japanese Empire a free rein to administer the Korean Peninsula in exchange for the Japanese recognition of America’s mandate on the Philippines. As a result, there were only two groups in the Korean diaspora that were of any concern to the Japanese State. 

Beijing, Nanking, Shanghai did not have large numbers of ethnic Koreans, but some were extremely passionate and committed anti-Japanese warriors and since the establishment of the Korean provisional government in Shanghai in 1919 (Nirala, 2015). The Korean people of Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanking were known to send agents to Japan and Korea to organise clandestine nationalistic activities and build community organizations. These exiled Koreans were of different ideologies and political beliefs and some of them had an alliance with the Kuomintang, the Chinese nationalists. Apart from these, there were also other Koreans residing in the Chinese Mainland who joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  Koreans in China had two advantages in their struggle against the Japanese. Firstly, they were staunchly anti-Japanese in their attitude and secondly, they were uncomfortably close to Korea and Japan from the Japanese perspective.

The Korean communist thrived in China, especially in the Shanghai-based Communist party led by Yi Donghwi, and by the Year 1930, the Korean Communists were emboldened and confident because they had the support of the Chinese Communists. In 1930, these Korean Communists caused violent disturbances in Manchuria such as damage and destruction of Japanese-owned offices, power plants, Transportation lines, communication wires, etc. The historical narrative of Korean Communism in China and in Manchuria influenced the general course of Communism in China and the struggles of Korean Communists led to the formation of the Yenan faction, a group of pro-Chinese Korean Communists, some of whom even trained and served in the Chinese army.

The North Korea-China past relationship can also be traced through the diplomatic visits and treaties signed between the two states. In February 1958 Zhou Enlai visited North Korea upon his arrival, he said that China and Korea are friendly States united by Blood. The diplomatic friendliness of Zhou’s visit became symbolized by the Sino-Korean joint statement on February 19, 1958. The statement read in part as the iteration of the awareness that the two peoples had both undertaken a protracted struggle against aggression and that the two Nations had struck a traditional friendship in the blood of their best sons and daughters. Zhou Enlai concluded his speech at the session of the Supreme People’s Assembly by declaring that “per their international duty the Chinese people will, if necessary, continue as in the past to fight along with the Korean people in defense of the interests of the peoples of Korea and China, and we solemnly remind the American ruling clique that now the time has come to draw clear conclusions”. Zhou Enlai ended his speech with the following words, “There is no force which can break the great and eternal friendship of the peoples of our countries” (amb. Puzanov, 1958).

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Ngawang Gamtso Hardy

Ngawang Gamtso Hardy is Research Fellow at India Foundation

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