China was North Korea's chief ally during the thee-year Korean War, but Russia's Stalin was a key player. Photo: US Army/Wikipedia Commons

In 2010, when the People’s Republic of China marked the 60th anniversary of its participation in the Korean War — between the Soviet- and Chinese-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to the north and the UN- and the US-backed Republic of Korea to the south — Xi Jinping described the conflict as “a great and just war for safeguarding peace and resisting aggression.”

In the view of China’s then vice-president and now President Xi, the military conflict, which ended in an armistice on July 27, 1953, “was also a great victory gained by the united combat forces of China’s and the DPRK’s civilians and soldiers, and a great victory in the pursuit of world peace and human progress.”

Whether it was “a great and just war resisting aggression” and whether China and the DPRK won the war remains debatable. Yet, it is safe to say that China paid a heavy price in defending its communist ally and that without its huge sacrifices, North Korea — then led by Kim Il-sung — could be defeated and probably would have collapsed.

For instance, a 2003 study by a researcher of military history at China’s Academy of National Defense found that some 2.97 million Chinese troops (up to 70% of the forces of the People’s Liberation Army) were dispatched to North Korea as Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPV) and about 148,000 of them were killed during the three-year conflict. Later Chinese statistics showed the number of the CPV’s deaths were 183,108.

As for the financial cost, the 2003 study estimated that China spent 6.2 billion yuan in the war — about 3.1% of the total national income (200 billion yuan) of the then newly established PRC’s first three years. China also owed US$1.3 billion to the Soviet Union.

Korean war was a costly venture for China

From a Chinese perspective, China’s human and financial costs in the deadly conflict were smaller than those of the US. Still, the prices it paid for protecting its communist ally were huge.

After the war, although the two neighbors were not always “as close as lips and teeth,” their friendship was strong. In 1961, Beijing and Pyongyang signed a Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty. The treaty, which was extended twice — in 1981 and 2001 — remains valid until 2021, and is China’s (and North Korea’s) only mutual defense alliance. Under it, China is, in theory, obliged to militarily support North Korea in the event of an attack.

Economically, China is its neighbor’s main lifeline, with its finance, food and fuel supply being the central source for the Kim Jong-un dynasty’s survival. It is estimated that China accounts for nearly 90% of the hermit kingdom’s external trade.

However, the client state that China has defended, protected and nourished is now embarrassing and disrespecting Beijing and endangering its national interests.

However, the client state that China has defended, protected and nourished is now embarrassing and disrespecting Beijing and endangering its national interests.

The DPRK, a so-called “winning” side of the Korean War, has become a failed, impoverished, isolated state ruled by a brutal dictatorship and with a devastated economy.

In contrast, South Korea, a “losing” side, is now a thriving democracy and an economic powerhouse. Though both occupy the same peninsula, they are worlds apart in all aspects. One is the world’s poorest and least free state while the other is one of the world’s richest and freest countries.

China seems unable to rein in its official ally

China’s leaders must feel uneasy, if not embarrassed, to realize — or to be reminded — that their country’s only official ally is so appalling. Moreover, for all the military, political and economic support it has provided North Korea, China is no longer able to shape and tame its wayward and recalcitrant neighbor.

Worse still, under Kim – who came to the “throne” in 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong-Il, the second generation of the Kim dynasty — Pyongyang has increasingly sought overtly to despise, denounce and defame Beijing.

Early last month, when China’s National People’s Congress held its annual meeting, North Korea launched a quartet of ballistic missiles. Another missile launch April 16 ended in failure. It was believed that these missile tests were timed partly to irritate and humiliate Beijing.

In recent months, North Korea’s KCNA news agency criticized Beijing for “dancing to the tune” of America and warned it of “catastrophic consequences” in bilateral ties if it “keeps applying economic sanctions” on Pyongyang.

That North Korea’s state media condemned its chief protector and benefactor in the same language that it usually uses for traditional enemies — South Korea, Japan, and the US — is indicative of Pyongyang’s contempt of Beijing.

Provocations pose real security threat

Most importantly, North Korea’s missile and nuclear provocations are a real threat not only to South Korea, Japan and the US, but also to China. The Global Times warned April 24 that Pyongyang’s nuclear program has “severely impacted peace and stability in Northeast Asia” and jeopardized “China’s major national interests.”

In another editorial three days later, the Chinese state-run news outlet reiterated that concern, explicitly emphasizing that “what North Korea is doing goes against China’s strategic interests.”

Such a concern is understandable. Faced with an imminent threat from its northern neighbor, South Korea has already sped up the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), which China views as a threat to its own ballistic missiles.

The South Korea government’s decision to install the US-operated anti-missile shield despite the threats of economic retaliation from China, its biggest trading partner, shows Beijing’s efforts to pull Seoul out of Washington security orbit in recent years has failed.

Any further provocative and aggressive behavior by the Kim Jong-un regime, which is very likely, will intensify America’s military presence in the region. This, in turn, will hugely undermine China’s strategic and security interests.

For all these reasons, China may now regret that it has hugely invested to safeguard and feed the hereditary dictatorship in Pyongyang.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping may also find it uncomfortable to realize that he hailed the outcome of the Korean War as “a great victory in the pursuit of world peace and human progress.” What North Korea actually is and especially what the Kim Jong-un regime is doing proves the complete contrary.

The question is whether the communist leadership in Beijing is now willing to abandon the reckless, heartless and antagonistic regime by cutting off its political and especially economic lifeline for Pyongyang.

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Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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