China’s Support for North Korea

DANDONG, China—In China, they say that North Korea and China are “as close as teeth and lips.” Lately, however, Kim Jong-il has been giving the Chinese government a toothache.

In 2006, despite protests from Beijing, the North Koreans test-fired a series of ballistic missiles leading to a rebuke from the Chinese government. Beijing took the then-unprecedented action of supporting sanctions against North Korea at the U.N. Security Council; it even cut off oil imports for a brief period. In 2009, North Korea tested a nuclear missile just 50 miles from the Chinese border—reports indicated that the ground rumbled in China. Beijing was said to be furious and joined the Security Council in condemning the move.

But despite the occasional fractiousness, China still keeps the North Korean regime above water. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, China provides as much as 90 percent of North Korea’s energy, 80 percent of its consumer goods, and 45 percent of its food. Much of this is in the form of direct handouts and aid, though there is also some nominally commercial trade between the two countries. (North Korea primarily exports mined minerals, and the amounts are pitifully low—its trade deficit with China is $1.25 billion out of less than $3 billion in total trade.) Beijing’s attitude toward Pyongyang resembles that of an older brother who is constantly disappointed by the behavior of his erratic and spoiled younger sibling yet continues to love and support him. Tragically, the aid will never be enough to make much of a material difference in the lives of ordinary North Koreans, but it will suffice to keep the regime afloat.

Beijing’s reasons for propping up Kim Jong-il’s vile regime can certainly be seen as amoral and cynical. China would have to deal with millions of starving North Korean refugees if Kim’s government collapsed, a possibility that Beijing is loath even to contemplate. After all, China already refuses to show mercy to even the limited number of North Korean refugees in the country now. “China fears being flooded with refugees if it shows compassion,” says Suzanne Scholte of the Virginia-based North Korea Freedom Coalition.

Beijing also views the North Korean regime as a firewall against antagonistic powers like Japan and the United States. Shen Dengli, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, writes that “North Korea’s allegiance is important to Beijing as a bulwark against U.S military dominance of the region as well as against the rise of Japan’s military.” (Presumably, this refers to the potential rise of Japan’s military; Japan is still pacifist by order of its constitution.)

Both of these theories point to a Beijing motivated by cynical “strategy,” a Chinese government that is wantonly disregarding the human toll that the continued existence of Kim Jong-il’s regime exacts.

Dandong’s Korean War museum takes a different approach: It casts Beijing’s brutal realpolitik in idealistic, revolutionary terms. The museum’s official English name does not quite roll off the tongue—it’s the Museum To Commemorate the War To Resist American Aggression and Aid Korea—but it certainly speaks volumes. The museum and memorial, set on a hill overlooking Dandong (and, of course, Sinuiju), embodies the idea that China and North Korea are revolutionary brothers-in-arms, united in fighting Western imperialism. Since the museum is state-run, it provides insight into how the Chinese government likes to present its relationship with North Korea.

The introductory sign at the front of the museum informs visitors that “the war to resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea is a just war against aggression to aid Korean people and safeguard the national security waged by the Chinese people under the leadership of the Communist Party … in June 1950, the Civil war in Korea broke out. The U.S imperialists immediately carried out armed intrusion.” The idea that China and North Korea are righteous partners fighting U.S. “imperialism” is promoted throughout the museum.

Most of the museum’s exhibits, which include tanks used in the war, socialist-realist paintings of battle, and a treasure trove of black-and-white photos of Korean and Chinese infantrymen, stress the revolutionary solidarity between North Korea and China. “The Chinese People’s Volunteers strictly abided by political and military disciplines in Korea and always respected the Korean Labor Party, Korean people, People’s Army and its leader Kim Il Sung; observed the policy and law of the Korean Government, respected the habits and customs of Korean people, never took a single needle or a piece of thread from the Korean people and took good care of every mountain, river, grass and tree owned by the Korean people,” reads a typical display caption. Whether this is revolutionary clap-trap designed to obscure China’s real motives or a genuine expression of brotherhood, it shows that China remains a steadfast ally of the North Korean dictatorship.

And, indeed, the aid keeps rolling in. The week I am in Dandong comes just after devastating floods in North Korea, floods that were particularly severe in the rural areas near Sinuiju and within the city of Sinuiju itself. South Korea and the United States both pledged small amounts of aid to help with the recovery, but, as usual, it is Big Brother Beijing that is stepping up and giving North Korea more aid than anybody else.

Late one morning, I spent over an hour watching an aid caravan crossing the Friendship Bridge. Hundreds of Chinese trucks inch across the bridge at a snail’s pace, carrying all manner of donated goods across the river. Some carry heavy machinery, like tractors and backhoes, destined for North Korea’s rural areas. Others bring more quotidian and commonplace items—but items that are distressingly lacking in North Korea: watermelons, packages of ramen, bottles of drinking water, rice. At the end of the day, those trucks come back empty, their aid distributed. There is nothing to transport from North Korea to China. The Friendship Bridge is a one-way street.

Click here to view Entry 3 of the Staring at North Korea slide show. 

Like  Slate on Facebook. Follow us  on Twitter.