Sino-North Korean Military Relations: Comrades-in-Arms Forever?

For decades, the Sino-North Korean alliance has been viewed as one of the closest and most crucial links in East Asian security. At the same time, it is one of the most opaque and misunderstood relationships. The common view is that China is North Korea’s ally. The two countries share a similar political system and considerable strategic interest in regional international relations. Indeed, this is true to a large extent. But, the strategic relations between the two countries have ebbed and flowed over the last fifty years, gradually eroding the ties that were forged during the Korean War.


The tie that many point to as being the strongest and most enduring is the one between the two militaries, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Korean People’s Army (KPA). Many have argued that at least in the military arena, China has significant leverage over North Korean decision-making. They point to the martial cultures of both countries. They point to the fact that China contributed numerous forces to support North Korea in the Korean War. They point to numerous military delegations that have crisscrossed between the two capitals for decades, especially in times of high tension. In truth, the PLA-KPA relationship has been captive to the tempestuousness of the overall strategic relationship. Beneath the surface of the alliance, China and North Korea share very few common interests. In fact, the two countries can hardly agree to any matters between them, be it ideological, economic, or diplomatic. This places great strain on the relationship and limits China’s insights and influence within the Hermit Kingdom. At best, the military relationship serves as part of the connective tissue that binds the two countries together. But, with the turnover in generations in both militaries (and among political leaders), this tissue becomes weaker.


The Historical Relationship

The Sino-North Korean strategic relationship has been one of convergence and divergence over the last fifty years. From the beginning, it was a rocky alliance. In the mid-1940s, Kim Il-sung rallied behind the China-based factions to achieve ultimate leadership within North Korea. Then he purged his China-backed peers with the assistance of Soviet-trained cadres. By doing this, he significantly marginalized the pro-China group (Yanan faction) within the North Korean leadership and planted the seeds of great dissatisfaction among China’s first generation leaders.


At this time, the KPA remained largely out of the political struggle, even though it was a bastion of Chinese influence. As the KPA was being formed in the 1940s, it absorbed tens of thousands of Korean soldiers who had fought in Manchuria alongside the Chinese communists against the Japanese. They were tough, crack troops with Chinese experience, whose return inevitably moved North Korea toward China with which Koreans always share a cultural affinity.


The Korean War and the Establishment of PLA-KPA Patronage Systems

The brother-in-arms relationship between China and North Korea was solidified during the Korean War. For three years, the Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPV) fought alongside Kim Il-sung’s North Korean troops. For five years after the war, Chinese troops remained stationed on the Korean peninsula, many assisting in reconstruction projects. The Korean War was a watershed event in that it allowed for the forging of personal ties between PLA and KPA leaders. Elements of the Third and Fourth Field  4 Armies deployed to the Korean peninsula under the command of the Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPV), headed by Peng Dehuai.1 The CPV command structure as it existed in 1950 included: In the aftermath of the war, Lin Biao’s 4th Field Army expanded its influence within the high command and the political arena. Six of the ninety-one full members of the 8th Executive Central Committee hailed from the 4th Field Army elite; twenty-five more members of the 4th Field Army leadership were alternate members.3 Within the Central Military Commission (CMC), the Korean War veterans assumed critical positions. Lin Biao retained his membership on the commission, while Peng Dehuai became the member in charge of daily affairs in 1954. Within the PLA high command, several who saw service in Korea over the next few decades began to rise through the ranks of the PLA. They were not only linked to the 4th Field Army system, but were spread across the military patronage systems.4


Hong Xuezhi of the Second Field Army served as deputy commander and concurrently head of logistics of the CPV, forging close ties to both Lin Biao and Peng Dehuai. After his service in Korea, he became director of the GLD. Officers such as Qin Jiwei (later Minister of National Defense) and You Taizhong were promoted through the military regions after returning from Korea, developing their own patronage systems along the way. The dynamics of civil-military relations at work in North Korea was very different. Unlike in China, where the military, through its patronage systems, enjoyed influence over military-related issues, the North Korean model was characterized by a paramount leader, who acted as an arbiter and enforcer, thus blunting military input into the decision-making calculus. This served to both isolate the KPA from establishing full-blown relations with the PLA and subordinated the KPA (even more than to the PLA) to internal power struggles in Pyongyang. KPA-PLA relationships forged during the Korean War in many respects hampered senior KPA generals in the 1950s. By 1958, Kim Il-sung’s efforts to stamp out factionalism reached the military. At the First Representatives’ conference, ostensibly aimed at adopting the First Five Year Plan, Kim Il-sung stepped up his attack on the Yanan faction.5 Allegations were made that ‘the opposition’ was plotting a military takeover in Pyongyang. Since the Yanan faction included many ethnic Koreans who had fought with the Chinese Red Army before 1945, it came under suspicion. Yanan generals, such as Kim Won-sul and Kim Ung were branded in the press as ‘military conspirators.’ The purge that ensued, gutted the KPA of many of its pro-Chinese elements, as well as its critical conduits to the PLA.6


The 1960s and 1970s: Shifting Strategic Landscape

By the early 1960s, North Korea was ruled by a combination of former guerrilla leaders and young technocrats, who had forged their careers after liberation and the Korean War. They were Kim’s men. The destruction of the Soviet and Yanan factions liberated Kim Il-sung from many domestic constraints on his foreign policy. For the next three decades, it afforded him the possibility of manoeuvring between Moscow and Beijing. At the beginning of the 1960s, North Korea moved toward China. The de facto Sino-North Korean alliance was formalized in July 1961 when the two countries signed a Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation, and Mutual Assistance. This agreement, which is China’s only formal foreign military alliance, committed one country to come to the aid of the other if attacked. During this period in China, power struggles within the leadership  curtailed the North Korean expertise/support mechanism within the PLA high command. The Peng Dehuai affair in 1959, which alleged the creation of an ‘anti-Party military club’ headed by the former head of the CPV, led to Peng’s ouster from the CMC and his replacement by Lin Biao as the member in charge of daily affairs. A few years later, bilateral relations collapsed as China embarked on the Cultural Revolution. During the ideological frenzy that ensued, China castigated its former ‘comrade-in arms.’7 The Red Guards referred to Kim Il-sung as a ‘fat revisionist.’ Beijing also publicized its claim to a small strip of North Korean territory on the Sino-Korean border, supposedly in return for Chinese assistance in the Korean War. Any PLA support for North Korea was muted and the military lines of communication further constricted. By the end of the 1960s, the  Chinese leadership began to renew its ties with North Korea, which Kim Il-sung accepted in an attempt to balance the scales with the Soviet Union. Premier Zhou Enlai in 1970 became the first high level Chinese visitor to Pyongyang since 1963, and the two sides again referred to their ‘blood-cemented militant friendship’ that was ‘as close as lips and teeth.’8 The following year, a North Korean delegation led by Chief of the General Staff O Chin-u visited Beijing and signed the first Sino-Korean military aid agreement in more than 15 years.9 In this

period, China’s military assistance to North Korea reached its peak.10 Two months after O’s visit, the PLA again

lost an elder with North Korean ties when Lin Biao allegedly died in an airplane crash in Mongolia after his plot to assassinate Chairman Mao failed. Any trepidation the North Korean leadership may have felt with the turmoil within the Chinese leadership was probably exacerbated by the Sino-U.S. rapprochement in 1971 and the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations in 1972.


The 1980s: Deng Xiaoping and Great Leader Politics

Throughout the rest of the 1970s and the 1980s, Sino-North Korean relations were the jurisdiction of the senior political leadership. While the PLA and KPA maintained routine contacts at the lower levels as a matter of course, the relationship was not a conduit of influence. Any arguments the PLA (and to a lesser extent the KPA) could make with regard to policy were trumped by ‘great leader’ relations. This was made clear in 1975, when Kim Il sung visited China, his first visit since 1961. During meetings, Mao refused to support Kim’s succession plan, which would hand over power to Kim Jong-il. Mao emphasized that there had not been any family succession in the communist world. Power transfer based on family inheritance violated communist principles. In addition, the Chinese leadership apparently rejected Kim’s plans to achieve reunification of Korea by force, which it saw as endangering Sino-U.S. and Sino-Japanese entente and probably increasing North Korea’s need for Soviet military equipment.11


CPV Command Structure2

Position                                                 Person

Commander                                           Peng Dehuai        

Political                                                  Commissar Peng Dehuai

Deputy Commanders                           Deng Hua, Hong Xuezhi, Han Xianchu

Chief of Staff                                         Xie Fang

13th Army Group Commander           Deng Hua

38th Army Commander                       Liang Xingchu

39th Army Commander                       Wu Xinquan

40th Army Commander                       Wen Yucheng

42nd Army Commander                      Wu Ruilin

50th Army Commander                       Zheng Zesheng

66th Army Commander                       Xiao Xinhuai

CPV Artillery Commander   Wan Yi

Front Logistics Commander               Zhang Mingyuan


China’s attempt to address the rift in relations with North Korea in the 1980s was again the jurisdiction of the senior leadership, although military ties were used to pave the way. As part of China’s ‘anti-hegemony united front’ strategy, Premier Zhao Ziyang visited Pyongyang in December 1981. In April 1982, Deng Xiaoping and Hu Yaobang visited North Korea as part of the celebration of Kim Ilsung’s 70th birthday. The North Korean Vice Minister of the Armed Forces Pak Chung-guk visited China in June, followed by a visit by China’s Minister of Defence Geng Biao to North Korea later that month. These military visits paved the way for a renewal of the Sino-North Korean military commitment, made tangible by China’s transfer of 40 F-7 fighter planes (improved model of the MiG 21/FISHBED) to North Korea, which was North Korea’s first new aircraft in 10 years. Further assistance included R-class submarines, AN- 2 cargo carriers, Silkworm ship missiles, and surface-to-surface ship missiles.12 At this point, Deng Xiaoping took it upon himself to address the critical barrier to Sino-North Korean rapprochement, namely the succession issue. In September 1982, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il visited China. In Deng’s hometown of Sichuan, Kim Ilsung outlined his inability to allow a succession to anoint one of his peers as his heir apparent, since it would throw the North Korean leadership into chaos. Deng in return gave his support and understanding for a dynastic transfer of power. While this may have gone a long way to repairing relations between Kim Ilsung  and the Chinese leadership, it allegedly did not change the basic attitudes of Kim Chong-il toward Beijing. In the following years, the Dear Leader led the opposition movement within the North Korean leadership to Deng’s reform movement in China.


By the late 1980s, China’s military assistance evaporated, as its weapons were not advanced enough to meet North Korea’s weapons modernization programme. It was during this period that the Chinese leadership reorganized the CMC, reducing its numbers and streamlining its organization. The reforms were designed to restore old mechanisms and boundaries in order to build consensus on policy and reduce factional politics within the high command. The decentralization model, where membership had been extended to the military region level commanding officers, was replaced by the centralization model, where CMC membership was accessible only to the PLA senior leaders and the heads of the general departments. This restructuring, while making sense bureaucratically, probably served to reduce a pipeline of unique information on North Korea to the senior Chinese decision-makers, namely from officers in the Shenyang Military Region, which controls the Sino-North Korean border.


1990s-2004: Status Over Substance

The 1990s witnessed an improvement in Sino-North Korean military ties. Beijing’s desire to enhance its influence over North Korean behaviour in a period of transition in the ‘Hermit Kingdom’, as well as Pyongyang’s desire to use China as a bulwark against the U.S.-South Korean- Japanese alliance, paved the way for a closer relationship at the strategic level. At the operational level, Kim Jong-il’s increasing assumption of the formal reigns of power by 1992, coupled with his reticence to leave the country, pushed the bilateral relationship forward as an alternative to the Great Leader diplomacy of his father. The PLA began to push the military relationship in 1991 via the CPV-KPA Association and the General Staff Department. Early KPA delegations (headed by second and third echelon military leaders) were received by senior PLA leaders, such as Gen. Chi Haotian (Chief of the General Staff Department). In that same year, Kim Il-sung received a PLA Navy delegation, headed by its commander, VADM Zhang Lianzhong, which suggested that North Korea found this track an acceptable venue for passing messages between the two leaderships. The KPA also used these delegations as intelligence gathering operations about the outside world. This overlapped with PLA thinking. One of the PLA’s rationale’s for pushing the enhancement of the military relationship was to help the KPA better understand the outside world in the hope that this would make it more receptive to Chinese influence.13 This would be achieved through a carefully managed engagement of the KPA leadership in an expanding dialog that would over time broaden its horizons.


Following a dip in relations in the wake of the Sino-South Korean normalization in 1992,14 which led to a dramatic downgrading of military ties to visits by military academies and the CPV, by 1996, PLA-KPA relations spanned the range of contacts: high-level exchanges; visits by regional commanders (PLA only, especially Shenyang MR15); functional military dialog between foreign affairs bureau (especially the ministries of defense), logistic, and equipment-related officials; military academy/CPV goodwill visits; and port visits by naval ships. The PLA stressed the importance of this channel, given the resistance Kim Jong-il showed in the mid- 1990s to fully opening up political diplomatic channels, rejecting Chinese offers for a summit until 2000, when he visited Beijing followed by Jiang Zemin’s trip to Pyongyang in 2001.  However, it should be noted that the level of contact between the two militaries has remained hostage to the political relationship.16 From the PLA’s perspective, it has tried to foster a balanced relationship with the KPA, but has met with much resistance. The KPA only appears to be accommodating in times of crisis when North Korea craves Chinese political support. The PLA-KPA meetings, with a few notable exceptions, appear more symbolic than task oriented or providing venues for discussion of military and security issues on the Korean peninsula.17


The exceptions tend to occur in times of tension, when clarification and the passing of important information is an urgent prerequisite. This occurred in October 1991, when O Chin-u visited Beijing to hold talks with senior PLA officials about the fall of the Soviet Union. This trip paved the way for a visit by Kim Il-sung to seek China’s assistance in making up for the loss of Soviet economic and military support. Again in 1994, the KPA Chief of the General Staff, Mar. Choe Kwang, met with Chinese military and political leaders, including Jiang Zemin, to discuss strategy regarding the nuclear talks with the United States. China also used this meeting as a way of passing a message to the North Korean leadership that China was not pleased with North Korea’s handling of the IAEA inspections and believed that the crisis must be solved peacefully.18


The PLA has also had to wrestle with the Chinese bureaucracy to make its influence felt on North Korean issues. Several institutions have an interest in North Korea, and they do not necessarily share a similar vision. This often leads to debates on the best approach.19 There appears to be an intentional divide in the diplomatic approach to North Korea, whereby the Ministry of Foreign Affairs closely guards its portfolio for the four (and later six) party talks. PLA representation at these talks has been lacking. Its major sources of input into North Korean affairs appears to come via ad hoc working groups within leadership structures, where North Korean specialists from all sectors of the government get together (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, CCP, and PLA) to discuss critical issues. It is probably through this conduit, which seems to be issue driven, that much of the PLA’s information garnered as a result of its direct military ties is channeled. The danger, which has been voiced by several Chinese interlocutors, is that North Korea could be receiving conflicting information from China (via MFA and PLA channels) with regard to security issues.


The trend in China’s view of North Korea has gravitated to one of interested bystander. It has most likely resolved itself to the ethereal nature of its leverage over North Korean decision-making and has since given up a willingness to expend political capital in protecting its recalcitrant ally. How this impacts the PLA’s influence on North Korean policy is as yet unclear. But, if the noise coming from certain sectors of the military leadership on the need to support North Korea is any indication, the PLA is now probably facing strong opposition from the foreign policy establishment, which may support a more internationalist approach. North Korean supporters within the PLA may also be facing pressure from within the military by those who support a reorientation of the force posture away from the north to the east (Taiwan), where China’s military posture will ultimately be more offensive.20  The biographies of several of the new CMC members (Guo Boxiong, Liang Guanglie, and Liao Xilong) reveal a strong expertise in this direction.


At the same time, China has been afforded more opportunities to have direct input on the North Korean leadership as Pyongyang has come under increasing international pressure. Since 2000, the number of summits has increased dramatically, as North Korea has sought advice and insight into U.S. strategy with regard to the nuclear issue. Kim Jong-il has made three trips to China, the most recent being in April 2004, in which the discussion focused on the six party talks and U.S. intentions on the peninsula. It has been speculated that Kim sought Chinese assurances that the U.S. would not launch a military attack; something he could use in persuading the hard line within the KPA to adopt a more flexible negotiating strategy on the nuclear issue.21 This increase in summits may indicate a shift in Kim Jong-il’s thinking and a return to Great Leader diplomacy. But, this time it does not seem to be at the expense of the military. In the face of continuing U.S. pressure, North Korea may be interested in establishing closer military ties with China.22 The fact that Kim Yongchun (chief of the General Staff) attended this last summit suggests an elevation in the KPA’s profile in the relationship with China.


Connective Tissue between the High Commands

The connective tissue between the PLA and KPA has changed over the last two decades. In the 1980s and 1990s, the PLA’s expertise on North Korea transformed from the ranks of the revolutionary elders to the last generation with first hand knowledge of the Korean War. An examination of all three general departments in this period reveals career backgrounds during the Korean War, although with different levels of density. The General Political Department’s leadership was thin on Korean veterans. Yang Baibing did not serve in Korea. However, one of his principal deputies, Yu Yongbo, who later became head of the GPD, was a member of the 4th Field Army and fought in the Korean War as a member of the 42nd Corps. Korean War experience was much more prevalent in the General Staff and General Logistics departments (GSD, GLD). The GSD ties appeared to be   linked to the Third and Fifth field army patronage systems.23 Chi Haotian, a Third Field Army veteran, was a political instructor with the 27th Corps during the war before later becoming chief of the GSD and Minister of National Defense. Wei Jinshan also emerged out of the Third Field Army system and served as a division level deputy operations/training chief before embarking on a career in which he would become political commissar of the PLA Navy. Xu Xin, a deputy chief of the GSD under Chi, was a veteran of Yang Dezhi’s Fifth Field Army and was a division commander during the Korean War. He later became the GSD deputy responsible for intelligence, strategy, and operations. While Zhang Wannian, who headed the GSD in the early 1990s, did not serve in Korea, his successor, Fu Quanyou, was a battalion commander.


The GLD patronage lines were tied to the 2nd, 3rd, 4th field armies.24 Zhao Nanqi, who was director of the GLD in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was an ethnic Korean and was on Hong Xuezhi’s staff, which had responsibility for setting up the CPV infrastructure at the outset of the Korean War. Wang Ke, who held the post of director of the GLD until 2002, was a battalion commander and then concurrently commander and chief of  staff of an artillery regiment in Korea. He also served as commander of the Shenyang MR and led PLA delegations to North Korea.


In the other services (the PLA Navy and Air Force), patronage systems linked to the Korean War experience were more tenuous. Wang Hai, who was the father of the PLAAF faction within the high command until the early 1990s, served in Korea with distinction as a fighter pilot. He led the last PLAAF delegation to Pyongyang in 1987. Neither Liu Huaqing nor Lianzhong, the patrons of the PLAN faction, served in Korea. PLAN ties to the Korean War were at lower levels, in the backgrounds of second and third echelon members, such as Wei Jinshan. The last PLAN delegation to North Korea occurred in 1996 and was led by Vice Adm. Wang Jiying (commander, North China Sea Fleet). Within the Central Military Commission, Korean War experience existed at the second echelon. Yang Shangkun spent the Korean War within the CMC apparatus as its secretary general. One of his principal deputies, Li Jijun, however, spent his formative years in the PLA in the Korean War as part of the CPV. In the 1980s, Li headed the CMC’s General Office’s policy research section, which he used to put forth papers advocating a new local war strategy via the patronage of Yang Shangkun and Zhao Ziyang (first vice chairman of the CMC).25


The current PLA leadership, as reflected by the appointments at the 16th Party Congress, reveals less experience related to North Korea. It is a generation that grew up after the Cultural Revolution and whose operational experience stretches back to the conflict with Vietnam and Tiananmen, not the Korean War. This generational change is highlighted in the CMC membership. Guo Boxiong (CMC vice chairman), Liang Guanglie (Chief of the GSD), and Liao Xilong (Director of the GLD) all saw action in the 1979 war with Vietnam. All three have also served in politically sensitive military regions, but with the exception of Liang, who served as commander of the Shenyang MR from 1997–99, none apparently have a deep knowledge of North Korea. Li Jinai (Director of the GAD) and Cao Gangchuan (Minister of National Defense) have served their entire careers in the central military apparatus in posts that did not bring them in contact with issues related to North Korea. Xu Caihou (Director of the GPD), on the other hand, has strong links to the military regions, having spent a considerable portion of his career in the Jinan and Shenyang military regions before entering the GPD. He appears to be the CMC’s point man for North Korea, having visited Pyongyang in August 2003 when the re-opening of the US-China-North Korea three-party talks and the six-party talks, which would add Russia, South Korea, and Japan, were being sought. The fact that Xu is considered a Jiang Zemin protégé would add weight in the eyes of the North Korean leadership, which still prefers that the relationship with China be kept on the leadership level.


Below the CMC, the PLA connections to North Korea appear to exist at the deputy level. Within the GSD, Gen. Xiong Guangkai (deputy chief for intelligence) appears to have had the most contact with the KPA leadership. His relationship with North Korea stretches back to at least 1998, when he led a PLA delegation to Pyongyang. The Ministry of National Defense has maintained military contacts with the KPA through its foreign affairs office, currently headed by Maj. Gen. Zhang Bandong. Contacts at the service level are constricted and appear to run along political commissar lines. Contacts at the regional level are also constricted. Occasional visits by commanders and deputy commanders of the Shenyang MR have not been reciprocated. KPA field commanders do not travel abroad.


From the North Korean side, the KPA’s links to China are opaque. Cho Myong-nok and Kim Il-chol, both vice chairmen of the National Defense Commission, have visited China. Cho appears to be the conduit for most high-level discussions in Beijing, while he and Kim have split the duties of hosting PLA delegations to Pyongyang. Within the KPA, some ‘China hands’ are rumored to exist, based on their origin, educational background, known policy preferences, and observable interactions with Chinese counterparts. They are scattered throughout the entire government and operate in the penumbras of larger and more powerful political forces. They may or may not lobby certain policies with respect to the DPRK’s relations with China. Kim Sang-ik, deputy minister of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, Col. Gen. Yi Pyong-sam, Gen. Kim Chong-gi, Gen. Kim Chin-bom, and Gen. Kim Chongsik, have been referred to as leading China advocates within the KPA.



Leaders in both China and North Korea are fond of saying that the bilateral relationship between these communist allies is built on the foundation of blood shed by the old generations of revolutionaries. Because of this interpretation, many outsiders tend to attribute the fluctuation in this relationship to the passing of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Kim Il-sung. While Great Leader/Helmsman politics is critical to the relationship, the problems that both countries face in holding this relationship together have historical roots that can be traced back to the founding of North Korea. Despite overlapping histories, the two countries labour under very different internal dynamics and drivers, the bilateral military relationship being only one. China’s military relationship with


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