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Chinese Views of Korean History in the Cold War Era
Author: Jin Linbo
Published August 13, 2018
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This chapter draws a rough sketch of the evolution of Chinese views on Korean history in the Cold War era in three parts. The first focuses on the formulation of Chinese views of the Korean War in 1950 and the mainstream assessment of the war after Sino-South Korean diplomatic normalization in 1992. The second focuses on China’s attitudes and policies toward the two Koreas in the Cold War years. The third deals with the changes and limits of perceptions on Korean history after diplomatic normalization and their impact on bilateral relations between Beijing and Seoul.

For centuries many Chinese have firmly believed that the relationship between China and the Korean Peninsula is like that between lips and teeth, they are not only close to but also dependent upon each other. If the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold. From the middle of nineteenth century, the geopolitical proximity and interdependence between the two have become the determining factors in formulating Chinese perceptions towards Korea. Since then the national security concerns symbolized by the sense of lips and teeth had been frequently stressed by some Chinese intellectuals and officials when both China and Korea were exposed to the growing imperialist expansion and geopolitical competition in East Asia. In order to maintain the traditional tributary relationship between China and Korea, China fought the first Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95. Although it was miserably defeated, and Korea was consequently annexed to the Japanese empire in 1910, the Chinese sense of lips and teeth remained undiminished. Rather, it was further strengthened among ordinary Chinese when the Cold War began and especially when the Korean War broke out in 1950.

After the end of World War II, China faced a new situation on the peninsula. Korea was liberated from Japanese rule but soon divided into the Soviet backed socialist North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and the U.S. backed capitalist South Korea, the Republic of Korea (ROK). As a newly established socialist country, China naturally allied itself with the Soviet Union and viewed the DPRK as a close friend while regarding the United States and ROK as hated foes. The intensified Cold War confrontation between the two camps and two Koreas triggered the outbreak of the Korean War. In order to safeguard its own political, ideological, and security interests, China quickly got involved in the war by sending the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (CPVA) to fight together with its DPRK friend against their common enemies. The war ended with a cease-fire armistice and created a friend and foe Cold War framework, which the new China was compelled to face even beyond the Cold War era. Under these circumstances, the majority of Chinese held the view that it was the capitalist enemy rather than the socialist friend who started the Korean War with a view to overthrowing not only the socialist government in Pyongyang but also the similar one in Beijing. Therefore, it was against this background that China’s attitudes and policies toward the two Koreas in the post-Korean War era were doomed to be ideologydriven and DPRK sympathetic.

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