The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) enjoy a unique relationship, and one that may well call for a unique model by which to best understand and conceptualise it. They are treaty allies through an agreement in 1961 – the only one that the PRC currently has since the lapsing of the Sino-Soviet pact when the USSR fell in 1991. This brief document commits them to mutual self-defence. But it says little about the detailed reasons for their strong mutual commitment. For that one has to look elsewhere – to history, for instance, and past and current politics (https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/3005971-1961-Treaty-of-Friendship-Cooperation-and-Mutual.html).
What do these tell us about the basis for the DPRK Chinese relationship? Part of their constrained predicament is simply a result of geographical necessity- they border each other. For the DPRK too, they need to keep a wary eye on their immense and increasingly powerful neighbour, particularly because of their isolation. They have no other proper allies since the early 1990s when the Soviet Union withdrew much of its economic and aid support before collapsing. Part of their link is through ideological closeness. Both share a model of governance where Marxist Leninist parties enjoy a monopoly of power. In some ways, they subscribe to a form of indigenous Leninism, though for each there are huge differences arising from their distinctive culture and their histories. This shared history goes far deeper back, to the era when under the long standing Chosun dynasty from the 14th century to the 19th, China in effect treated the Korean peninsular as zone of special influence. Chinese cultural also had immense impact here, through the migration of Confucianist social practices and beliefs into Korean society.
History and geography also highlight major differences. North Korea is a tiny 23 million compared to the PRC’s 1.4 billion. This is a structurally and obviously asymmetrical relationship. The history too is full of evidence that their closeness also reveals deep differences, and had led to a legacy where their attitude towards each other is infected by distrust, disdain, and sometimes dislike. This operates in a framework where they have to conceal and hide their differences because of the areas of closeness mentioned above. Whatever the issue between the DPRK and PRC, it is not one that is overtly spoken between the political elites on either side. It operates more covertly.
In this context, where so much seems predetermined, what sort of influence does China really have over the DPRK? If there is one country that China has attempted to persuade to adopt its political economic model, then this would be its neighbour. In the early 2000s, the then supreme leader of the country, Kim Jong-il, visited the special economic zones of its neighbour and had Chinese officials urge on him the need to adopt some elements of socialism with Chinese characteristics. But he did not respond, again perhaps through fear of not so much the political but the cultural threat that this might pose. The need for a clear ideological and identity barrier between DPRK and PRC is something Andrei Lankov commented on in his book. `Everyday Life in North Korea.’ Crossing the Yalu river from one to the other meant going over not just a physical but an ideological barrier. It seems therefore that even in a case where a lot of effort was made to exercise influence by China, it did not work. Is this true across the board in the relationship?
The deep structure of DPRK-PRC relations means that even a Chinese leader with the kind of powers which have been imputed to someone like Xi Jinping cannot change radically the framework within which this relationship operates. They may find the DPRK’s actions deeply antagonistic to their own requirements, and know and feel that public opinion in China on the DPRK is negative, or has a consensus on a specific set of actions, but despite this they are still unable to act. Amongst the most serious of these structural matters is the fact that reshaping the relationship would mean addressing a raft of historical issues where the PRC also risks undermining its own legitimacy and integrity. If it said from 1949, no matter what, that the relationship with North Korea was closer than lips and teeth, and it engaged, at its own deep expense, in the 1950-1953 Korean War, then how can it now, as part of the same socialist political tradition and narrative, turn its back on this? Revising the historic consensus on these issues would also not only effect matters about North Korean, but impact on many other associated more general ones, for instance about the commitment to Marxism Leninism, etc. Chinese elite leaders therefore work here in a context in which they have the illusion of agency and power, but where in fact they are not masters of their own situation. Unless they were to turn their back on their own political identity, and leave the historic narrative they are currently in, this is unlikely to change.
In this situation in which even the most powerful (leaders in DPRK and China) in truth have no real power, the key issue is to look at the ways in which opinion about north Korean in China in online forums and other areas is controlled, and the threat that it may turns from North Korean back to Chinese leaders neutralised. Despite being impotent, Chinese leaders do not want to come across like this. They want to convey the illusion of agency and autonomous power. They are therefore particularly sensitive to the hidden messages of public opinion on DPRK and how these might relate to them negatively, highlighting this obvious but suppressed part of their current predicament.
Of course, it is also tactically important for the Chinese government to have some notion of what the public mood towards the DPRK is. But the question remains in what ways expressions of public mood about this relationship can change anything, even if the central government wanted these too. It can enlist and sometimes manipulate anger towards Japan, for instance, or Europe or the US, for aims that it finds useful. Chinese leaders can claim with some justification that on the current trade war with the US, they are acting with public support, and they have to respond to public worries and anxieties.
With the DPRK, however, political kindredness, on the surface at least, means that the PRC government is ever alert and sensitive to language which seems to be about not so much the DPRK per se but its socialist system – one that is uniquely from a common historic root. Separating these issues – criticism of the entity, and of the system it operates on, and what implications for that there might be – is important. It makes the domestic discourse on DPRK for Chinese different from anywhere else, where such political commonality is simply not there. It is more about fearing public views that are too critical of China’s system and too laudatory over outside ones that is the problem for the rest of the world. For the DPRK, similarity is the challenge – and what sort of assessment to give to views which are ostensibly about the China but might be about something closer to home. This all highlights the fact that China, so powerful in the minds of everyone else in the world, on this issue looks, acts, and probably is, a prisoner of a series of constraints and comes across as the precise opposite – largely powerless.