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The Uneasy Partnership Between North Korea And China


President Trump and presidents before him have long sought help from China to curb the North Korean nuclear threat. But what's the relationship like between China and North Korea? Are the diplomatic partners? Are they reluctant allies, two countries stuck next to each other? Jonathan Pollack is with the Brookings Institution. He joins us now with some historical context. Jonathan, thanks for being with us.


MARTIN: To understand North Korea's relationship with China, it's important to understand the Korean War, right? So can you give us a snapshot here? How did these two countries end up fighting alongside one another and against a U.N. coalition that America was such a big part of?

POLLACK: Well, Kim Il-sung, the founding father of the North Korean state, was the principal instigator of the Korean War. He persuaded Stalin and then, with greater reluctance, Mao to go along with his plans to initiate the war. He found himself in a heap of trouble after enormous initial success. And in something of a panic, he then had to turn to China to save him.

And China intervened massively a few months later and pushed the United States back. And so they became partners, in that sense, in the Korean War. They had known one another in the revolutionary struggle. But it was an uneasy partnership then, a lot of strains. So that's where it all began.

MARTIN: How has China played into North Korea's economic path?

POLLACK: Well, in the aftermath of the Korean War, the Chinese and the Soviet Union were major partners in the rebuilding of North Korea because it had been extraordinarily devastated by U.S. air bombardments during the war. And so in the 1950s, North Korea was recovering very, very quickly, thanks to aid from both countries. North Korea had a lot of plans of its own. In fact, in the '50s and '60s, North Korea was much more economically advanced than China was.

MARTIN: Which is amazing to think about, considering what we know of North Korea today.

POLLACK: Yes, at the end of the Cold War with the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea lost its primary benefactor, the Soviet Union. And it went into a real tailspin. The economy probably contracted by more than a quarter of its size in the 1990s. And ever since, North Korea has been begging, borrowing and stealing from the international system.

MARTIN: Both North Korea and China have pursued their own nuclear weapons programs. What kind of cooperation, if any, has there been between the two countries on that?

POLLACK: Almost none - the Chinese, frankly, were much more intent on building a program of their own.

MARTIN: Does China feel threatened by the North Korean nuclear program?

POLLACK: I think that they do. But they wouldn't admit it. You know, it's kind of ironic when we think about the growth of Chinese power and how assertive many claim that China is. But China continues to walk on eggshells with North Korea. They don't know quite what they might do under extreme circumstance.

MARTIN: Well, let me ask you, if the Chinese do feel the threat from North Korea and its nuclear capabilities now or down the road, why haven't they been more aggressive about pressuring the North Korean regime?

POLLACK: That's the nub of the question. We know that Xi Jinping, China's leader, conveyed strenuous objections about North Korea and about Kim Jong-un, the young leader, whom he has never met and feels is biting the hand that feeds him. He conveyed that to President Obama in California in 2013. He just conveyed that to President Trump in Florida just several months ago.

And it's led many people to believe that China was finally ready to begin to really restrict what it does with North Korea. But they have remained uneasy or uncomfortable or unprepared to really tighten the noose in a way that would threaten the very viability of the North Korean state.

MARTIN: Jonathan Pollack is a senior fellow at the Center for East Asia Policy at the Brookings Institution. Thank you so much.

POLLACK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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