Written by James Hoare.

The Chinese–Korean relationship has puzzled Westerners. While the Korean kingdom claimed to be independent, at the same time it seemed to accept a dependent status within the Chinese world order that was seen as a limitation on sovereignty. Yet in the 1870s and the early 1880s, while the Korean court consulted China on what it should do as Japan and the West pressed it to open up to trade and residence – and got the advice to engage in diplomatic relations with countries such as the United States and Britain to avoid becoming too close to Japan – at the same time, it claimed the power to make treaties with other countries independent of China. Western countries added to their own confusion by sometimes dealing directly with Korea and at other times going through China. Thus the Korean Customs Service was until the mid–1890s, a branch of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service. In the British case, no minister was appointed to Korea. Instead the British minister in Beijing was side accredited to Seoul. To further add to the confusion and complexity, China twice intervened in Korea, in 1882 and 1894, on the first occasion removing the Korean de facto leader because it did not approve of his policies. This was a special relationship hard to understand.

The 1894 intervention proved disastrous for China, which suffered defeat at the hands of the Japanese. Korea became formally independent but Japan dominated and eventually took over the country completely. And so the connection with China ended. But of course it did not. Some two thousand years of interaction did not come to an end suddenly in 1905 or 1910. Many Koreans went into exile. While those who went to the United States, such as the future president of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, tended to have a relatively high international profile, many more went to China.  Their numbers included those who would later be prominent on both sides of the divided Korea that emerged in 1945. That division was a new complication. While the international balance had shifted in East Asia with the defeat of Japan and the increasing dominance of the United States, China, a weak and divided country for the 40 years after 1911, was once again united under the newly established People’s Republic of China. And when the Korean War began, the new China made it clear that it would not stand by if its interests were threatened. When these warnings were ignored, the Chinese acted, sending the “Chinese Peoples’ Volunteers” – the People’s Liberation Army, in reality – to save North Korea. The intervention in peninsula affairs did not stop with the war, since China played an active role in the 1954 Geneva Conference, and in 1975, after the reunification of Vietnam, indicated to the North Koreans that they would get no support if they attempted once again to settle the division of the peninsula by war.

So what has all this history to do with today? Naturally, when there are tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the outside world tends to look to China to pressurize the North Koreans.  After all has not China been the main supporter of North Korea since saving it from destruction in 1950? Surely the Chinese can – and should – use their influence to make the North Koreans see reason?  Alas, it is more complicated than that. That earlier history shows that there is no simple client relationship between the two countries. Chinese involvement in Korea has always been driven primarily by Chinese interests – the North Koreans make no secret of this, even if the Chinese are a little more circumspect. When those interests are threatened, the Chinese will act. A relatively recent example was in 2002, when the Chinese moved swiftly after the North Koreans had appointed the Sino–Dutch businessman, Yang Bin, as the head of a newly projected Special Economic Zone just across the border from China at Shinuiju. As the Chinese ambassador said: “We warned our Korean friends” against such a move. When it still happened, Yang was arrested when next in China and in 2003 received an 18–year sentence for tax evasion.

So China can and will act but its leaders have to believe that it serves Chinese interests to do so. An antagonistic North Korea is something that they can do without, especially with a large Korean– Chinese community on their borders with widespread links to North Korea. The nuclear issue does concern China but its leaders believe that it was the United States that created the current crisis by abandoning the 1994 Agreed Framework and that it is only the United States that can sort out the problem. The Chinese strongly believe that they have been helpful, in convening the Six Party Talks in 2003. But they have hitherto argued that their influence on an issue such as this is limited and that Chinese interests preclude them from exerting too great a pressure on North Korea. While they have signed up to the latest sanctions, I would not expect an overzealous implementation of them. Exasperation with the current North Korean leadership may lead to an initial fervent endorsement – but it may not last.

Dr James Hoare is a retired British diplomat, whose last job was setting up the British Embassy in North Korea. He now writes and broadcasts on East Asia. Image Credit: CC by Roman Harak/Flickr.