China's North Korea Policy--Interview with Chen Jian (Part 2)

Chen Jian: Chen Jian is Global Distinguished Professor of History at NYU Shanghai with an affiliated appointment at NYU. Chen is a leading scholar in modern Chinese history, the history of Chinese-American relations, and Cold War international history. Among his many publications are China's Road to the Korean War (1994), The China Challenge in the 21st Century: Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy (1997), and Mao's China and the Cold War (2001).

Interviewer: Zhaoxin Jiang (Meridian 180)

3. In your work, while contending that “ideology matters” in the study of Cold War history, you also suggested that ideological factors played a crucial role in mobilizing the Chinese people for the Korean War and for affirming a special relationship with North Korea. In light of recent developments, do you see a different situation?

I am glad that you raise this question right after my discussion about the Korean War’s impact upon China. The key here is how to define “ideology.” As already touched upon in the discussions above, ideology should be defined as an instrument of representation and justification of legitimacy. As far as the legitimacy of a state/regime is concerned, I define it as everyday people’s “inner acceptance” of the policies, strategies and, in the final analysis, constitutional representation of the state/regime. What I have often seen, however, is that people—including scholars—have defined “ideology” in rather narrow and superficial ways.

Let me follow my discussion in my answers to the last question to further clarify what I mean. As I mentioned earlier, when the People’s Republic—the “New China”—was established in 1949, Mao announced that “we the Chinese people have stood up.” This was a legitimacy statement that took, first and foremost, the Chinese people as its audience. Mao substantiated the statement by establishing two fundamental missions for his “revolution after revolution”: to change China into a land of universal justice and equality; and, by challenging and destroying the “old” world, to make China strong and revive China’s central position in the international community.

Like any design of Communist modernity, Mao’s was also directed by a utopian vision; and his extraordinary aspiration of transforming China’s backwardness into modernity in the shortest possible time was unable to stand the test of the Chinese people’s lived experience. This was especially true after the failure of the disastrous “Great Leap Forward” and, later, the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” and the legitimacy of Mao’s “continuous revolution” was called into serious question. Consequently, Mao’s revolutionary programs were losing the Chinese people’s “inner support” (i.e. its legitimacy).

Thus, even in the last years of Mao’s life, the actual emphasis of the CCP’s legitimacy narratives of the Chinese “Communist” state had gradually yet decisively shifted from “changing China into a land of universal justice and equality” to “making China strong and reviving China’s central position in the international community” (this basic change was most clearly revealed in the discursive changes during and after the Chinese-American rapprochement). In the post-Mao era, the Chinese leadership has further adopted the same legitimacy narrative, greatly emphasizing that it was because of the Chinese Communist revolution and the state that it has created that China had stood up in the world.

Within this context, it probably is easier to understand the impact of the ideological factors in the larger context in which the China-North Korea relations have evolved. When China entered the Korean War, the Beijing leadership stressed that North Korea was a fellow Communist country as one of the most important justifications for the intervention. And this was also compatible with Beijing’s representation of North Korea as a “lips and teeth” ally of the “New China.”

In Mao’s later years and in the post-Mao era, along with changes in the CCP’s legitimacy narratives, China’s international policies as well as its Korea policy also changed accordingly. When post-Mao China has been increasingly transformed from an “outsider” into an “insider” of the existing international system and institution (with North Korea remaining a complete “outsider”) , Beijing’s leaders gradually and, in the post-Cold War era, almost completely abandoned using Communist terminology to define China’s relations with Korea. This is another revelation of reasons underpinning the current difficulties in Beijing’s dealings with Pyongyang.

4. What has been China's role with respect to the North Korean issues? Could you also comment on China's latest stance toward North Korea? Do you think China’s relationship with North Korea will help strengthen or hinder China’s future influence in the Asia-pacific region? What may China do to help control and, eventually, resolve the North Korean nuclear issue?

When you use the term “North Korean issues,” I think you mean both the North Korean nuclear issue and, in a more general sense, the challenges that North Korea has presented to Asian-Pacific peace and security as a complete “outsider” of the existing international order (and the codes of behavior underpinning that order).

China has been North Korea’s most important ally. However, Beijing’s relationship with Pyongyang in the past sixty years, though seemingly very close in a general sense, has almost never been harmonious. Underneath such rhetoric as “solidarity” and “cooperation”—or even “the lips and teeth alliance—is tension or even friction.

Even during the Korean War years, when large numbers of Chinese troops were present on Korean territory, Beijing failed to stop Kim Il-sung from purging outstanding members of the pro-China Yan’an faction in within the North Korean Party. Then, Kim repeatedly demonstrated that he was capable of sticking to his own course of action in face of pressures from Beijing. Under Kim, Pyongyang had developed a policymaking structure, as well as a rationality associated with it, that is highly independent (epitomized by the Juche ideology). In the post-Mao and, especially, the post-Cold War age, Beijing and Pyongyang have been further driven apart by their different attitudes toward the existing international system (as the result of very different domestic developments). The successions of Kim Jong-il and, now, Kim Jong-un also meant that the “ties” between the old-generation of leaders in China and North Korea have lost completely. In these senses, Beijing virtually has not necessarily occupied a more privileged position than others in dealing with Pyongyang’s leaders. Indeed, given that Korea historically had been China’s sphere of influence and North Korean leaders have been extremely sensitive toward the impact of that tradition, Beijing’s leaders will have to show real caution in trying to advise, let alone to apply pressure on, their North Korean “comrades.”

Since the mid-1970s and certainly during the post-Cold War era, a fundamental feature of Beijing’s policy toward the Korean peninsula has been maintenance of the status quo. Beijing has plenty of reasons not to allow the North Korean crisis get out of control. If any transformation in the region were to happen, Beijing would prefer that it occurred through negotiations between the two Koreas and through international diplomacy involving Beijing as a main East Asian power. As is well known, therefore, with Beijing playing a crucial role, the six-party-talk structure was created and, for several years, operated.

However, the real problem is not what Beijing is willing to do, but what it is in a position to do. And Beijing’s ability to influence the orientation of Pyongyang’s attitudes and policies has been relatively limited.

Beijing’s real leverage on Pyongyang is North Korea’s economic dependence upon China. But this certainly does not mean that Beijing’s leaders are in a position to impose certain policy decisions upon North Korea at will. In actuality, Beijing’s leaders are facing a major dilemma in this regard. If they do not apply the economic means, it is likely that their voice will become powerless in Pyongyang’s ears; but if they do use economic means—such as cutting off China’s aid to North Korea—this might backfire and, in the worst case scenario, might even cause North Korea’s economic and societal collapse and thus result in a huge blow to China’s own interests. (Among other things, Beijing certainly hopes that North Korea will continuously serve as China’s strategic buffer on its northeastern border.) Therefore, Beijing will have to act cautiously in designing and implementing its policies toward Pyongyang. It seems that Beijing has not developed—despite the great efforts that have been made in recent years—satisfactory strategies to cope with and settle this dilemma.

In the final analysis, however, I do see that the North Korean challenge also presents itself as a great opportunity for China to strengthen, rather than weaken, its overall influences in the Asia-Pacific region or even in the world. It is the North Korean issue that can and should serve to enhance the mutual trust and cooperation between China and the United States. After all, both countries share the goals of not allowing the Korean peninsula to become the battlefield of another “Korean War,” or to undermine the existing international system and structure. It is on this issue that China not only has had much agreement with the Republic of Korea but also with Japan. It is up to Beijing to try to turn the opportunity into reality. This is still time.

-End of Interview-

China's North Korea Policy, Part 1