A PRISONER OF CHINESE GEOGRAPHY: Why do the Chinese continue to support the Kim regime?
A common question asked of North Korea experts is why China continues to tolerate a madcap rogue state with nuclear weapons that routinely threatens to destroy its international neighbours, right on its border. Despite this, Beijing continues to prop up the North Korean economy and defend it internationally.
For most Western nations, awareness of Korean history begins in 1950, with the outbreak of the Korean War. For China, it goes back much further. Any understanding of North Korean geopolitics must be based both on the geography of China, and the tragic history of the two nations during the 20th century.
China has incredibly solid natural borders to prevent attacks from the West. They have the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the Himalayas of India and Pakistan, the mountains of central Asia and the open steppes of Russia to the north. All of these make it nearly impossible to run supplies and tanks through that you would need for a war with China. The only potential weak spot, 700 miles from China’s capital, is the Korean peninsula. So, China is incredibly interested in maintaining a buffer state that would be far more pain to attack than it would be to maintain the status quo. International relations scholar Tim Marshall coined the term ‘prisoners of geography’ to describe a country whose political destiny is determined by its geography. Russia, with its lack of natural land borders to its west that leave it open to invasion, is one classic example. In this sense, the two Koreas are prisoners of the geography of their mighty neighbour.
The ‘hermit kingdom’ is an epithet often attached to North Korea, but this term was actually coined for the kingdom of Korea itself by western observers in the 19th century. China had been perpetually fragmented. The insular and suspicious Korean nation rarely bothered the various dynasties of Chinese emperors. Then, in 1910, Japan annexed Korea and maintained a brutal occupation there until the end of the Second World War. In the 1930’s, Japan used the Korean peninsula to launch a series of military campaigns into China. China is usually the forgotten victim of the second world war, but it lost more souls than any other nation bar the Soviet Union. China is extremely concerned that this could be repeated.
At that time, China was an impoverished, divided state amid a civil war between the nationalist Kuomintang and the communist insurgents. The Japanese were able to occupy large parts of the country, and the conflict would continue until the end of the Second World War in 1945. Despite the fact that the Soviet Union only declared war on Japan at the very end of the war, Stalin and US President Harry Truman agreed that the Korean peninsula would be divided along similar lines to Germany, along the 38th parallel. The original plan was for the reunification of the country, but with the outbreak of the cold war, both sides installed friendly governments in their relative zones of control. 1948 saw the birth of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the North, and the Republic of Korea in the South. Both sides claimed legitimate sovereignty over the entire Korean peninsula. Emboldened by the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, and with the backing of the Soviet Union, on June 25 1950, the North Korean armies invaded the South. The United States, with the backing of the United Nations, led a coalition to support the beleaguered South.
The situation changed after US General Macarthur decided instead of stopping at the original North Korean border, to drive his forces north towards the Chinese border and attempt the wholescale destruction of the North Korean regime. With the memory of the Japanese occupation of their northern territory still fresh, decided to reinvade to push the Americans back. After three bitter years of war, the original borders were reinstated, a truce was agreed, and a Demilitarized Zone was constructed. To this day, it remains the world’s largest and most heavily guarded international border.
It is easy to forget how much of a gamble it was for the Chinese to send troops to support North Korea in 1950. The nation was desperately poor, only slowly rebuilding from the devastation of the Japanese invasion. Mao Zedong’s Communist regime was barely a year old and was far from having consolidated its power. It had yet to solidify its control over the entire country, and it still faced resistance from the remnants of the Kuomintang.
The United States was the far richer country, with a much stronger military and it possessed the atomic bomb. There was no doubt who would win in a conventional war. At this stage, General MacArthur’s forces had shown no intention that they would ever cross the Chinese border, and all indications was that they would stop with the reunification of the two Koreas. Yet Mao considered the Korean peninsula important enough for Chinese security, that he was willing to gamble his entire regime on it.
The countries remain technically at war to this day. But despite the official status, the situation on the Korean peninsula was relatively stable until recently. The Cold War would continue, but the strategic focus of the United States and the Soviet Union would shift to other theatres. Germany, Vietnam, Cuba, Latin America would be the sites of further drama. North Korea, like the Koryo regimes of the old Kingdom, turned increasingly inwards. The ‘hermit kingdom’ returned. Official Marxist-Leninist doctrines of international communist solidarity and revolution were replaced with the philosophy of juche- loosely translated as ‘self-reliance’.
The North Koreans talked a big game, but they were rarely in a position to have great influence over international affairs. That is, until 2017, when the increasingly belligerent North successfully tested a nuclear weapon. Since then, the world has been fixated on have been engaged in a high stakes game of nuclear diplomacy between the US and North Korea.
The whole Korean peninsula coming under the US sphere of influence would be a missiles in Cuba level crisis for China. It could be even worse, as the US would be able to station ground troops just 700 miles from the Chinese capital of Beijing. The equivalent would be China or Russia gaining control of Florida.
Japans wars in China bought about the deaths of around 25 million citizens. Beijing has not forgotten this and will do whatever it takes to ensure the western forces do not have what it takes to have this launchpad to wield against them. It is to China’s advantage to have the price for this springboard to be a nuclear exchange, with the price to pay being the deaths of around 20 million South Koreans. A price that by Beijing’s estimate, the US would be unwilling to pay.