China and the Soviet Union

North Korea Table of Contents

North Korea owes its survival as a separate political entity to China and the Soviet Union. Both countries provided critical military assistance--soldiers and matériel--during the Korean War. From that time and until the early 1990s, China and the Soviet Union both provided North Korea with its most important markets and were its major suppliers of oil and other basic necessities. In turn, China and the Soviet Union were reliable pillars of diplomatic support. The demise of the Soviet Union and the former communist bloc in Eastern Europe, combined with the gradually warming relationship between Beijing and Seoul--which resulted in the establishment of diplomatic relations in August 1992--significantly altered P'yongyang's ties with Beijing and Moscow.

More out of economic necessity than ideological compatibility, North Korea sought to maintain good relations with China, despite the latter's increasingly close economic and diplomatic ties with South Korea. In October 1991, Kim Il Sung visited China for ten days, reportedly to ask for economic and military assistance, and to persuade Beijing not to establish diplomatic ties with Seoul. Predictably, North Korea and China reaffirmed their commitment to socialism, but at the time China did not express clear signals for North Korea's other agenda.

Close Sino-North Korean ties continue, but Beijing is striving to maintain a balance in its relationship with the two Koreas, a far cry from its previous four decades of dealing solely with P'yongyang. China welcomed the Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, making clear its preference for a non-nuclear Korea. Beijing also urged P'yongyang to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Although China remains a crucial trade partner for North Korea, Beijing's former willingness to assist P'yongyang economically by extending easy credit is increasingly giving way to no assistance and less and less extension of credit.

The Soviet Union stunned North Korea in September 1990 when it established diplomatic relations with South Korea. Since that time and since the collapse of the Soviet Union in August 1991, North Korea has worked to build a relationship with Russia's new political leaders. North Korea's efforts to recapture some of the previous closeness and economic benefits of its relationship with the former Soviet Union are seriously hampered, however, by Russia's preoccupation with its own political and economic woes. Trade between the two nations has dropped dramatically since 1990. North Korea cannot compete with the quality of goods South Korea can offer. Whereas the Soviet Union had extended credit without problems to North Korea, Russia has demanded hard currency for whatever North Korea purchases. Russia also has signalled North Korea that it intends to revise the 1961 defense treaty between North Korea and the Soviet Union. The revision will most likely mean Russia will not be obligated to militarily assist North Korea except in the event that North Korea is invaded.

North Korea was diplomatically, politically, and economically far more isolated in mid-1993 than at any time since 1945. Although a member of the UN since 1991, North Korea's relations with its two closest allies--China and the former Soviet Union-- have undergone a fundamental shift unlikely to revert to previous patterns. This shift poses a dilemma for North Korea. Will it persist in the pattern of conduct that has made it an international outlaw, or will it set out in a new direction aimed at integrating itself into the international community? In mid1993 North Korea appears to be on a dual track. On the one hand, P'yongyang's signing of the Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, Exchanges, and Cooperation, and the conclusion of a nuclear safeguards agreement with the IAEA point to its striving for greater acceptance in the international community by measuring up to internationally desired norms. On the other hand, P'yongyang continues to act as an international outlaw by selling ballistic missiles abroad, refusing to sign the convention on chemical and biological warfare, and refusing to comply with the terms for nuclear inspections.

More about the Government of North Korea.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress