Bickering Brothers: The impact of historical Sino-Korean Relations on contemporary PRC-DPRK Relations.

Andrew Kwon

Sino-Korean relations are among the oldest continuous cultural interactions in the world with records indicating relations beginning at least as far back as under Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (r.141-87BCE). Ever since, this long history of continuous contact has played a great part in the historical development of these unique cultures and today shapes the basis for the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) support for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). However historical Sino-Korean relations have traditionally been fraught with volatility, holding the potential to greatly affect regional stability.

With age comes wisdom…maybe At the best of times, Sino-Korean Relations was an exemplar of the Chinese hegemonic system.  Starting with the Tang Dynasty (618-907CE) was the formal establishment of Sino-Korean tributary relations which helped to solidify Korean independence in exchange for recognising Chinese imperial authority. Undoubtedly the nature of the relationship was hardly as simplistic as described as there were considerable underlying features, considerations and advantages that each party enjoyed from this unique diplomatic arrangement. Firstly, it was in Chinese interests to maintain an ally to help secure its eastern frontier and serve as even a ‘buffer’ against nomadic tribes that freely raided from the plains of Manchuria. Secondly, it was in Chinese interests to maintain an intermediary for certain raw material (e.g. Silver from Japan) and as a market for its cultural exports. In exchange, consecutive Korean Dynasties enjoyed the support from the undisputed regional power and was a preferred trade partner and recipient for technological and cultural advances.

Unfortunately, the relationship has not always been so mutually beneficial or particularly amiable. The roots of Korean nationalism has been attributed to a history of fierce opposition to foreign invasion and interventions particularly from the Chinese dynasties, for this reason the relationship between the two cultures can hardly be said to have a sound basis. In fact the events that helped lead to the formal establishment of the bilateral tributary institution used to characterise classical Sino-Korean relations was an outcome of political expediency. After helping the Korean Silla Kingdom (57BCE-935CE) in toppling its rivals and uniting the peninsula in 668CE, the Tang Dynasty briefly faced off against its ally over its ongoing occupation before being expelled. Instead of adding to its concurrent wars along the frontier, the Tang came to an agreement with Silla that would form the basis of future relations.

Back to the Future Modern PRC-DPRK Relations is one of the two modern incarnations of historical Sino-Korean relations and unsurprisingly it encapsulates many of its characteristics. Perhaps the greatest benefit the PRC enjoys through its continued support of the DPRK (one which has been covered extensively in both academic and practitioner circles) is the retention of a buffer zone and a source of alleviation to its security dilemma in the east. The status quo in Northeast Asia is a source of concern for Beijing, as its nature has eased the discernibility of ‘potential threats’ by sharpening the clarity of the fault lines. It is from this that the DPRK benefits greatly as its continued existence is made possible by PRC economic support and its own security dilemma alleviated through close relations with a rising regional powerhouse.

However despite the clear benefits of their mutual arrangement, historic trends place a limitation on the proximity of this relationship. Despite playing a role in PRC Northeast Asia security strategy, Beijing does not fully trust Pyongyang. The reasons for this lie in historic events as recent as the Korean War. Shortly after the Korean War, the DPRK displayed considerable initiative in insuring its independence much to the PRCs expense e.g. the DPRK took advantage of the deteriorating relations between the USSR and PRC and received millions in aid and technical support as both side sought its support. As such it can be argued that the resultant mistrust plays out today in the form of PRC economic support which is only sufficient in maintaining the baseline functions of the DPRK but has the benefit of insuring a modicum of control over the recipients behaviour. In turn it can be argued that the DPRK has traditionally been suspicious of PRC intentions with amicability only peaking during the Korean War. Throughout the rest of the Cold War, the DPRK tended to trend closer to Moscow than Beijing due to what can be surmised as a fundamental historic reasoning that the latter was a greater threat to its independence. It is thereby unsurprising that the DPRK occasionally acts in a particularly unpredictable manner. These acts should not be construed as testing regional response mechanisms alone as they are also meant to test the limits of the ‘restrictive’ functions of its alliance with the PRC. Ultimately the PRC and the DPRK are as the title suggests ‘bickering brothers’, a dysfunctional duo prone to ‘mind games’ and ‘power plays’ except with the added danger of potential ramifications for regional and International Security.

Andrew Kwon is a 2012 graduate with a Masters in International Security from the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney. He is currently an Intern at the Australian Institute for International Affairs (NSW Branch). The views expressed are exclusively his (andrew.yc.kwon@gmail.com).

(Picture courtesy of the China News Centre. Copyrighted by Rebel Pepper)

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3 thoughts on “Bickering Brothers: The impact of historical Sino-Korean Relations on contemporary PRC-DPRK Relations.

  1. Hello Andrew,
    A great article. As an avid watcher of the Sino-PRC bilateral relationship I seldom reflect on the historical basis, so it was great to read about it.
    The only point I would add is that the events of the Korean War had actually engendered a level of resentment within the DPRK toward China. When China entered the War it effectively took over combat operations and pushed Kim Il Sung to a subordinate position which the elder Kim had to accept for continued Chinese support. This constituted a humiliation for Kim, and a measure of suspicion regarding Chinese intentions in the North.

    Source: Pages 32-34 of ‘No Exit’ by Jonathan Pollack.

      • Hey Chris,
        Thanks for the reply. Your slip was understandable, you should of seen my face when I was editing this thing!

        Nice catch with your point on PRC-DPRK relations during the war, it helped in providing a sense of how quickly these relations became extremely tense. In fact your example reminded me of an earlier event in history when the Ming Dynasty intervened in 1593 against the Japanese during the Imjin War (1592-1598). A similar scenario played out whereby all Joseon forces (Joseon being the Korean Dynasty at the time) fell under Ming command. This caused a considerable amount of resentment among the upper echelon of the military as control of strategy for example was put in the hands of Ming officers who were relatively unfamiliar with Japanese tactics.

        I recommend you read about this particular period of history as It’ll not only give you a sense of the undefinable qualities of Sino-Korean relations but also the mutual distrust that seems to pervade Chinese-Korean-Japanese relations.

‘When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite’.

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