The People’s Republic of China (PRC) wants to extend its “One Belt, One Road Initiative” to the Korean Peninsula.
Beijing’s plan comes after the historic summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, which took place from September 18 to September 20 in Pyongyang.
During the meeting the two sides agreed to “cease all hostile acts against each other.” They vowed to submit a joint bid to host the 2032 Summer Olympics, create rail and road links between North and South within the next year, stop military drills aimed at each other along the Military Demarcation Line, remove 11 guard posts in the demilitarized zone, and advance the development of the Kaesong Industrial Region and the Kumgang Tourist Region.
Beijing appears to regard the rapprochement of the two Koreas as a strategic opportunity to exert its influence on the divided peninsula.
According to Taiwan-based Apple Daily, China has unveiled proposals for the construction of a railway link that would connect the city of Dandong, in China’s Liaoning Province, with the North Korean capital Pyongyang and the South Korean capital Seoul. Dandong is a Chinese border city facing North Korea’s Sinuiju across the Yalu River.
The project, named “General Infrastructure Plan For the Liaoning ‘One Belt, One Road’ Comprehensive Pilot Zone”, was announced on September 10 on China’s state-run media outlet Liaoning Daily. According to the paper, the plan will implement a bilateral agreement previously reached by Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un.
The plan aims at developing Liaoning into a major infrastructure hub connecting Russia, Mongolia, China, North and South Korea, as well as Japan.
Beijing is worried that the rapprochement between North and South Korea may lead to warmer relations between Washington and Pyongyang, thus expanding American influence in the region. The infrastructure project might be seen as an attempt to strengthen long-term Chinese influence on the Korean peninsula.
The “One Belt, One Road Initiative” (BRI) is the core of Chinese President Xi Jinping‘s foreign policy. The BRI is an ambitious project for the construction of roads, railways, ports and industrial corridors connecting China with trading partners in Asia, Europe and Africa.
Xi first spoke of a “New Silk Road” during a speech in Kazakhstan in September 2013. On October 2 of the same year, Xi gave a speech to the Indonesian parliament. “China will strengthen maritime cooperation with ASEAN countries to make good use of the China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund set up by the Chinese government and vigorously develop maritime partnership in a joint effort to build the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century,” Xi said.
Xi’s “New Silk Road” proposal was later dubbed the “One Belt, One Road Initiative”.
Although Xi claims that the BRI will “benefit people in countries involved and build a community with a shared future for humanity”, the scheme has been criticized for strengthening China’s political influence and for pushing poorer countries into debt. In August, Malaysia cancelled two BRI infrastructure projects over bankruptcy fears.
According to Tom Miller, with the BRI China “wants to create a network of economic dependency that will consolidate its regional leadership, enable it to hedge against the United States’ alliance structure in Asia, and diversify energy supply.” The BRI is therefore an economic as much as it is a political project (Tom Miller: China’s Asian Dream: Empire Building along the New Silk Road, Chapter I).
The PRC has always viewed North Korea as a key ally and as a buffer state between its own territory and the US sphere of influence in East Asia. The two countries share a common 850 mile-long border. In the 20th century Japan used Korea as the base from which to invade China. During the Korean War (1950-1953), the forces led by US General Douglas MacArthur occupied for a brief period North Korea and came close to the PRC border. From Beijing’s perspective, North Korea is a key geopolitical partner vis-a-vis the Washington-Seoul-Tokyo axis (see Andrew Scobell, China and North Korea: From Comrades-In-Arms to Allies at Arm’s Length, 2004, p. 3).
In 1949 the Communists led by Mao Zedong overthrew the government of the Republic of China (ROC). While the ROC state apparatus retreated to Taiwan, Mao proclaimed in Beijing the foundation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a Communist one-party dictatorship allied with the Soviet bloc.
On October 6 the PRC established diplomatic relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the Communist regime created in North Korea by Kim Il-sung (Chi-Kwan Mark, China and the World since 1945, 2012, p. 19).
Kim Il-sung wanted to unite the whole of Korea under his leadership. In March 1949, Kim sought Stalin’s support for an invasion of the US-backed Republic of Korea (ROK) in the South. Stalin rejected the idea at first. One year later, however, after the Soviet Union had acquired the atomic bomb and China had become a Communist ally, Stalin felt confident enough to give the green light to Kim’s plan.
In mid-May Kim visited Beijing. Mao gave his approval for military action and offered to dispatch troops to the Sino-Korean border in case of American involvement. Kim reassured Mao that the US would not intervene and the war would be brief (Mark 2012, pp. 24-25).
The Soviet Union provided arms and ammunition and sent military advisers to North Korea. At the end of May, Kim’s regime began amassing troops at the 38th parallel – the border between North and South Korea.
According to historian Kim Jin-wung, North Korea had significant superiority over the ROK forces: “in the number of troops, the ratio was 2 to 1; guns, 2 to 1; machine guns, 7 to 1; submachine guns, 13 to 1; tanks, 150 to 0; and planes, 6 to 1.” Pyongyang planned to advance 15 to 20 km per day and occupy the whole South within 27 days (Jinwung Kim, A History of Korea: From “Land of the Morning Calm” to States in Conflict, 2012, pp. 406-407).
On 25 June 1950 at 4 a.m. the 89,000-strong North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel. Pyongyang falsely claimed that it was responding to an attack by South Korean troops, part of the Kim regime’s propaganda campaign.
The first main military objective was the South’s capital, Seoul. The North Korean regime believed that taking the capital would deal not only a strategic, but also a psychological blow to the government of the ROK, accelerating its demise. South Korean forces were swiftly defeated and by 28 June Seoul had fallen.
The invasion of South Korea was a wake-up call for Washington. US President Harry Truman told Warren Austin, US ambassador to the United Nations, to recommend to the Security Council that “members of the United Nations furnish such assistance to the ROK as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area” (Kim 2012, pp. 407-408).
General MacArthur flew to Korea and reported to President Truman that the US would have to send ground troops to the ROK’s aid, or else the whole of Korea would be lost. On June 30 Truman ordered that US forces be dispatched to Korea (ibid. p. 408).
The first battle of the US army ended in failure. On July 5, a 540-man task force of the 24th Infantry Division under Lieutenant Colonel Charles Brad Smith was defeated near the town of Osan and was forced to withdraw, losing 150 soldiers.
On July 7, the UN Security Council established the United Nations Command (UNC) under the leadership of General MacArthur. UNC forces comprised both US troops and those sent by 15 UN members. On July 14, South Korean President Syngman Rhee handed over authority of the ROK armed forces to MacArthur. By the end of the war in July 1953, the UNC had 932,964 men stationed in Korea.
After the 8th Army had suffered a series of defeats, on September 15 the tide turned when UN forces launched an attack on the port city of Incheon, near Seoul (ibid., p. 410).
At dawn on 15 September 700,000 American and South Korean troops, backed by 230 ships, began Operation Chromite, landing at three designated points and swiftly taking Incheon. The US-led army then marched towards Seoul, which was recaptured on September 28. The following day MacArthur and Syngman Rhee entered the capital in triumph.
The North Korean army retreated back across the 38th parallel, and by the end of September South Korea was entirely under UN control (ibid., pp. 409-411).
Victory emboldened both South Korea and the US. They believed that they could reunify the Korean peninsula by force. On October 1 ROK troops crossed the 38th parallel and drove the North Koreans towards the east coast. Meanwhile, MacArthur demanded the surrender of Kim Il-sung’s regime.
On October 3, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai asked Indian Ambassador K. M. Panikkar to warn Washington that China would intervene in Korea if the United States crossed the thirty-eighth parallel. Washington ignored the warning (Kim 2012, p. 412, Mark 2012, p. 26).
On October 7 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that established the Commission for the Unification and Rehabilitation of Korea with the objective of creating a “unified, independent and democratic government in the sovereign State of Korea”.
As US and Korean forces fought their way into North Korean territory, on October 8 1950, Mao Zedong issued an order to organize the Chinese People’s Volunteers to help the North Korean regime.
“In order to support the Korean people’s war of liberation,” Mao Zedong wrote, “and to resist the attacks of U.S. imperialism and its running dogs, thereby safeguarding the interests of the people of Korea, China and all the other countries in the East, I herewith order the Chinese People’s Volunteers to march speedily to Korea and join the Korean comrades in fighting the aggressors and winning a glorious victory.”
Truman was increasing worried about Beijing’s reaction. He insisted on having a private conference with General MacArthur, whom he had thus far never met. Wake Island, a tiny US-owned atoll 2,300 miles from Honolulu and 2,000 miles from MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo, was chosen as the venue for the conference, which took place on October 15.
During their meeting President Truman raised the issue of Chinese intervention. MacArthur said that there was “very little” likelihood that China would enter the war, and that even if the Chinese were able to mobilize their troops on time and crossed into North Korea, they would suffer “the greatest slaughter.” US diplomat Philip C. Jessup commented that MacArthur’s answer was an example of the “traditional army contempt for the little yellow people” (Dennis Wainstock, Truman, MacArthur, and the Korean War, p. 67- 68). MacArthur was gravely mistaken.
On October 10 the city of Wonsan fell to South Korean forces. By October 19, UN troops had captured the North Korean capital Pyongyang. On October 21, Kim Il-sung established a provisional capital in Sinuiju near the border with China (Kim 2012, p. 412).
On October 13, the CCP Politburo adopted a decision to send Chinese troops to North Korea. Three days later, General Lin Biao’s 4th Field Army crossed the Yalu River. On October 19, General Peng Dehuai led over 250,000 Chinese People’s Volunteers into North Korea (Mark 2012, p. 27).
On October 25, Chinese forces attacked the UN army on the western and eastern fronts, but then retreated as swiftly as they had appeared. One month later, on November 25, the PRC launched a massive assault, forcing UN forces to retreat back across the 38th parallel to defend Seoul (Kim 2012, pp. 413-414).
On December 11 over 100,000 UN forces were evacuated from North Korea. On New Year’s Eve, the Chinese People’s Volunteers launched a third offensive, crossing the 38th parallel. On January 1, 1951, the Chinese captured Seoul, dealing a severe blow to the UNC. After prolonged fighting, UN troops managed to retake the capital on March 14 (ibid., p. 414).
Military failure heightened tensions between Truman and MacArthur. The General was a hardliner who believed that the US should conduct an all-out war against the Soviet bloc. On April 11, 1951,Truman relieved MacArthur of his duty as the Commander of the UN forces in Korea, a move that at the time shocked American public opinion.
On May 3, 1951, the US Senate Armed Forces and Foreign Relations Committees began hearings into the General’s dismissal. Republican representatives were adamant to use MacArthur’s sacking as an opportunity to criticize the Democratic President. However, the hearings backfired.
MacArthur condemned Truman’s Cold War foreign policy and argued that the Korean War would have been won without “a very great additional complement of ground troops” if the President’s “inhibitions” had not hindered the war effort. The General stated that the US needed to pursue a strategy of military destruction of the Communist bloc in order to prevail in the Cold War. MacArthur’s extremism alienated the majority of the American public, and he soon lost his former popularity.
On July 1, Kim Il-sung and Peng Dehuai agreed to armistice talks in Kaesong. But disagreements between the Communists and the UN coalition delayed the progress of the negotiations, which ended two years later, on July 27, 1953, with the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement that is still in force today (Kim 2012, p. 416).
During the Korean War, the US lost over 140,000 troops, while over 100,000 men were wounded. Korean casualties are estimated at over 500,000 individuals. But it was China that recorded the highest number of casualties – over a million (ibid., p. 419).
Nevertheless, for the Chinese Communist regime the Korean War was a huge propaganda success. For the first time, China had defeated a Western army. As Huang Zhao, a soldier who joined the fighting when he was only 15 years old, put it in a 2013 interview: “We PVA [People’s Volunteer Army] are the world’s first troops to defeat the US army … We successfully punished the US, the world’s superpower, and made the Americans respect us.”
Without PRC intervention, North Korea’s Communist regime would most likely have been annihilated and replaced by a US-friendly government. For Beijing, the existence of an independent North Korean ally is a matter of national security as well as of national pride.
In the late 1970s China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping repudiated the legacy of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and personality cult, ushering in an era of reform and opening up. Deng pursued a policy of maintaining Communist one-party rule, whilst transforming the Soviet-style planned economy into a market economy where private businesses were allowed to exist alongside the state sector.
Deng and his two immediate successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, focused more on economic development than on Communist ideology. On August 24, 1992, Beijing and Seoul established diplomatic ties, considerably improving bilateral relations and economic exchange. China and South Korea also began working together to pressure Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear programme. Pyongyang looked increasingly isolated (Sheila Tefft, “China, S. Korea Cooperate to Ease N. Korea Nuclear Stand,” The Christian Science Monitor, May 6, 1993).
Both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao visited Pyongyang and reaffirmed China’s commitment to the alliance with North Korea. On the other hand, they signalled their opposition to a conflict in the region and worked with Washington and Seoul to prevent their Communist ally from taking extreme actions.
Since taking office in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has maintained close ties with the North Korean regime while at the same time trying to play the role of mediator between Pyongyang and Washington.
However, Xi’s “One Belt, One Road Initiative” may be the start of a new policy aimed not only at containing American influence, but also at expanding the PRC’s leverage in the whole of Korea by exerting its economic leverage.
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