Cary Huang
SCMP Columnist
Sino File
by Cary Huang
Sino File
by Cary Huang

Despite the pomp, China and North Korea are now more business partners than brothers in arms

  • The show of friendship when Kim Jong-un hosted Xi Jinping last month in a Chinese leader’s first-ever state visit cannot cover up the cracks in the traditionally ‘teeth and lips’ relationship between the two communist allies
The scenes of cheering crowds and the red-carpet treatment to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping to North Korea may evoke memories of the good old days of close relations between the communist allies, when their founding fathers described the relationship as one of “teeth and lips”.
Xi’s June 20-21 visit was the first by a sitting Chinese president in 14 years and also the first to be officially designated a state visit since Beijing and Pyongyang established diplomatic relations in 1949. It was also Xi’s fifth meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the past 15 months.
Xi’s trip came just a week before his meeting with his US counterpart Donald Trump on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, and before Trump and Kim shook hands over the weekend in a surprise meeting at the demilitarised zone that divides the two Koreas.
Both communist allies are locked in a stalemate with the US administration on separate issues. Washington and Beijing are engaged in a protracted trade war while the US-North Korea nuclear negotiations have been languishing, following the collapse of the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi in February. And both are eager to reach a deal with Washington.

Against that backdrop, the spate of Xi-Kim summitry suggests that the allies see value in cementing – and to be seen cementing – their relationship.

Nevertheless, the pomp and ceremony of Xi’s Pyongyang trip does not mean the rebooting of the two countries’ cold war-era alliance, of the kind seen during the Korean war in 1950-53. The deep suspicion and distrust that have accumulated over the long years of Chinese-Korean relations, mixed with feelings of gratitude and misgivings, favour and resentment, cannot be so easily unravelled.

5 things to look out for when Xi Jinping visits North Korea

That relationship goes back more than a millennium to the Han dynasty, when the Chinese exported goods as well as technology and ways of thinking to its neighbour, notably in papermaking technology and, probably most significantly, Confucian teachings. For a long time, Chinese emperors saw Korean kingdoms as protectorates while the kingdoms served as tributaries of the imperial court.

In the more recent past, China shed much blood over Korea, in two Sino-Japanese wars in 1895 and 1937, the second of which merged into World War II. Some historians have described China-Korea relations as like those between close relatives, rather than neighbours. However, some Koreans see China as an enemy of a millennium, and Japan as an enemy of a century.

The complicated and often antagonistic relations have turned sour since North Korea detonated its first nuclear device in 2006, and particularly after the young Kim came to power in December 2011. Since then, Beijing has supported US-led UN sanctions. China’s utmost interest is to pursue denuclearisation and stability on the peninsula while also aiming to gain leverage in its trade negotiations with Washington.
Kim still resents and is suspicious of Korea’s huge neighbour, despite Beijing’s critical role in the survival of the Kim family dynasty. But, as an isolated state in a hostile world, Kim may see that even a difficult friend is better than no friend at all.

Xi’s North Korea visit underlines Kim’s need for friends abroad

The clearest evidence of the superficial nature of the alliance are the weak links in two significant areas – the military and ideology. There are no defence exchanges or joint exercises between the two militaries. The rare exchanges between the party organs and institutions may also suggest precious little exchange on ideology.

Xi may treat Kim, who is 30 years younger, more like a naughty boy who needs to be restrained than as a friend on equal footing. The latter is how Xi treats other world leaders, calling Russian President Vladimir Putin his “ best friend” and Trump his “ friend”.
This explains that while Beijing-Pyongyang relations may be warming, the historic bond of brotherhood shared by generations of comrades in arms from the two communist allies may be gone, broken by the deep frictions of the past decade.

Cary Huang is a veteran China affairs columnist, having written on this topic since the early 1990s

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Old comrades in arms are now superficial allies