I’ve had trouble explaining China’s fortitude in supporting North Korea. A recent article by the former U.S. Ambassador to China, J. Stapleton Roy, explained it for me. His article also stressed that people and nations are behaving rationally in the region, however self-contradictory and irrational they may seem to those who don’t understand their perspectives and motivations.
I figured China supported North Korea in the Korean War mainly to keep a buffer between it and the United States military in South Korea. That perspective was on the right track, but just scratched the surface.
Three devastating wars and invasions began from the Korean peninsula in modern times. As Mr. Roy states,
The Korean Peninsula has posed a massive security problem for China for well over 100 years. In the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-95, the principal land battles were fought in what is now North Korea and Taiwan was lost in the peace settlement. Over the next two decades, the Japanese first made the peninsula a protectorate and then a colony, which became the launch pad for the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, where the puppet state of Manchukuo became a key base for Japan’s invasion and occupation of vast swathes of China from 1937-45.
Well, there you go. The Korean peninsula has been China’s Achilles heal for over a century, leading to devastating military losses. Get invaded from a place an enemy where gets a foothold and you’ll probably weather a lot of criticism to keep a friend there too.
Mr. Roy continues to note that the Chinese government opposes North Korean policy across the board as much as any other country. As with everyone else however powerful elsewhere, North Korean decision-makers hold all the cards in the region. He continues
China is struggling to deal with an irreconcilable contradiction posed by the nature of the North Korean regime, not by Chinese failures in logical reasoning. Beijing disapproves of every aspect of North Korean policy, including the dynastic succession arrangements and North Korea’s self-destructive economic fumblings. Its opposition to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program is as strong as our own. But unlike us, Beijing has an overriding security interest in maintaining influence in Pyongyang and in not permitting other powers to gain the upper hand there.
China is behaving rationally in response to a challenging situation. They’d probably want to take over North Korea if the U.S. wouldn’t almost certainly fight back.
Note that Mr. Roy now works for Kissinger Associates, according to Wikipedia:
Kissinger Associates, Inc., founded in 1982, is a New York City-based international consulting firm, founded and run by Henry Kissinger, and Brent Scowcroft. The firm assists its clients in identifying strategic partners and investment opportunities, and advises clients on government relations throughout the world. It is known for its secrecy; little is known of its specific activities.
You have to judge for yourself how that association colors his perspective. Personally, I find his paper makes a lot of sense.