Even close friends and allies can sometimes prove troublesome for their big power patrons. President Obama discovered that in his first term dealings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who lectured the U.S. president, embarked on a rash of settlement building, and then openly embraced Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. The Russians are finding that out with Syria, as Moscow looks increasingly isolated in its continued support for Bashir al-Assad’s blood-soaked regime.
China is probably just as exasperated right now with its longtime protégé, nuclear-obsessed North Korea. Like Moscow and Washington with their allies, Beijing is unlikely to quickly jettison a relationship forged over decades and that defies easy definition. But there are clear signs that the relationship, while not about to unravel, is at the very least showing new signs of strain. It's not just that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un this week openly flouted Beijing’s requests and detonated a nuclear test devise. It's also that the narratives that once linked the two countries are growing ever weaker with age.
Officially, the Chinese foreign ministry expressed “firm opposition” to the nuclear test 100 kilometers from China’s border and made a show of calling in North Korea’s ambassador to register its displeasure. The state-run media also piled on, with the nationalistic Global Times newspaper—owned by the Communist Party’s main mouthpiece People’s Daily—calling the test “unwise and regrettable,” even while blaming Pyongyang’s “insecurity” on hostility from the United States.
But it was via social media, particularly weibo, or Chinese Twitter, that average Chinese citizens have been blasting their government for continuing to embrace a dangerous, mercurial and hermetic regime that seems to have little concern with international norms. “Surely the root cause is that for decades the DPRK has been ruled by a succession of evil unbalanced dictators,” one Internet user wrote, posting comments immediately after the Global Times editorial. What was amazing is not the sentiment—but that the Communist-owned paper allowed the comment to remain on its site.
Other online comments were even harsher. “Kim Jong-un slapped China on the face by having a nuclear test at our front door, during the Chinese New Year” said one weibo user named Liu Weiwei. “China has spent so much money every year to raise this ungrateful wolf.” Hu Xijin, the chief editor of Global Times, wrote on his personal weibo account; “I hope the government will firmly oppose this action, instead of just paying lip service. The friendship between China and North Korea is important, but China should not be kidnapped by the North Korean regime.”
But why is the Chinese public at pains to suggest that the “friendship” with North Korea is important at all? This is indeed where something gets lost in translation. Where Westerners simply see North Korea as an impoverished and unpredictable country, Chinese see it as a neighbor with which it became bonded through the trauma of war. The defining moment of the relationship came in October, 1950, when Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong sent more than a hundred thousand People’s Liberation Army troops swarming across the Yalu River, where they overran advancing United Nations and American troops. They engaged in some of the bloodiest battles of the Korean War, which is still referred to in that part of China as “the war to resist U.S. aggression and aid North Korea.” The bonds forged in that war persist to this day—though they are attenuating with age.
To understand this process it helps to make the trek to Dandong, a quiet border town in China’s Rust Belt just across the Yalu River from the North Korean city of Sinuiju. When I last visited, a little over a year ago, a new “Friendship Road Bridge” was just under construction to connect the two towns, to augment the old single-lane bridge that was jam-packed with a line of backed-up trucks, hauling a good chunk of the two countries’ booming $3 billion in annual cross-border trade.
Along the main street, I popped into the Songtayuan restaurant, one of the many North Korean eateries specializing in dog meat cooked in an infinite variety of fashions, from hot pots to stews to deep-fried. On a stage in front, female singers in colorful North Korean costumes were entertaining the mostly uninterested Chinese patrons—uninterested until they broke into a familiar tune, known as the “People’s volunteer battle song.” All of a sudden, it seemed like every man in the place over 65 years old was on his feet, crooning at the top of their lungs and driven almost to tears with the memory of slaughtering imperialist American aggressors in the mountains of Chosan.
On that same trip, I talked with several of local Chinese businessmen who regularly cross the border for business dealings with North Koreans, and they were blunt, and their opinions uniformly negative. They openly described their North Korean business partners as untrustworthy; they told horror stories of deals gone wrong, entire shipments confiscated, rules that change in a heartbeat and the military in league with rogue traders to pilfer or steal what they could. These businessmen said they much prefer to do deals on their side of the border because they had far more faith in the legal system and the police in China.
These businessmen were hard-nosed pragmatists—but their pragmatism was a byproduct of their relative youth. They were of a different generation than the elderly men who then ran the apparatus of the Chinese state; they weren't susceptible to misty-eyed nostalgia brought on by tales (or memories) of killing Americans across the Yalu to aid their North Koreans brothers.
In that sense, it is significant that Xi Jinping, China’s new Communist Party ruler, is also of this different generation. At age 59, he was born three years after the Chinese troops crossed the Yalu River. His defining years were Mao’s Cultural Revolution, not the war against American “aggression.” He may be a nationalist and a tough operator—witness China’s stance against Japan in the ongoing islands dispute. But Xi also is believed to want to maintain good relations with the United States, if only to allow him to focus on China’s economy as the country tries to steer the country to a consumer-led growth model.
It's equally significant that the young Kim now in charge in North Korea is also further removed from the wartime experiences that forged his country's alliance with China. Indeed, he hasn’t seemed particularly anxious to endear himself to his Chinese patrons. Kim hasn’t yet made a visit across the border to visit his benefactors. That could be chalked up to the fact that China is still in the midst of its leadership transition; Xi, elected Party General Secretary in November, does not actually become president until March. But China-North Korean relations are largely a party-to-party affair. And the train ride is short.
So one can safely expect somewhat chillier relations between China and North Korea. And maybe even some more publicly blunt talk. But a full break seems unlikely; the ties of memory and sentimentality among the elite of both countries are still too deep for that. Xi and Kim will almost certainly be stuck with each other for the next few years.
Though the North Korean leader's status as an ostensible ally doesn't mean he won't continue to be a headache. Just ask President Obama, as he prepares to depart for Israel to meet Benjamin Netanyahu.
Keith Richburg, who is teaching at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, was the Washington Post’s China correspondent from 2009 until this year, and most recently visited Pyongyang in 2011.