North Korea and China have a special relationship. The two countries are each other’s only military alliance partners, and the People’s Republic is commonly seen as shielding North Korea from the discontent of the international community. But while this relationship started as an ideological alliance and was forged in blood during the Korean War, it has seemingly become of a more pragmatic nature in recent years.
In order to understand the history of Sino-North Korean relations better, we sat down with Professor John Delury. We talked about the premodern interactions between China and the Korean peninsula and the insights they hold for the situation today, about the distrust that has long characterized relations between China and North Korea, and where the countries stand today with regards to each other.
John Delury is Associate Professor of Chinese Studies at the Graduate School of International Studies of Yonsei University in Seoul. He completed his undergraduate and graduate studies in History at Yale University. In 2013, he published with Orville Schell the critically acclaimed Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-first Century (Random House). Professor Delury’s writings have appeared in various publications including Foreign Affairs, 38 North and Asian Perspective. He is also active on Twitter.
We still obsessively predict the collapse of North Korea, and imagine it’s a kind of switch: there’s a room in Beijing that connects to oil pipelines, and if one day Xi should just flip that switch, the oil shuts off, the whole thing stops, and all the North Koreans, led by Kim Jong-un, walk out of their bunkers with their hands up and say: “Okay, Park Geun-hye, it’s all yours”. I’m not being fair, but […] I am entirely unpersuaded by the ‘collapse and absorption’ scenarios that are out there. And I guess, more importantly, […] Chinese I talk to are not persuaded by this. Recently, one Chinese interlocutor […] said: “You’ve seen what’s going on in Syria. You get why we would talk about stability in North Korea?”
The interview was recorded on January 29th in Seoul.