North and South Korea, created by the splitting of the Korean Peninsula into communist and non-communist regimes, have been in a technical state of war ever since the end of the Korean War (1950-1953), which ended in a ceasefire, not a peace treaty.
The reason why North Korea exists as an independent nation today is because communist China sent troops to its aid in 1951, as American-led UN forces were on the cusp of achieving total victory after North Korea had invaded South Korea in an attempt to unite the whole nation under communism.
Yet decades later, on Sept. 20, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un held a summit with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in at Mount Paektu, an active volcano and the mythical birthplace of the Korean people.
Before 1962, China owned all of the sacred mountain, but turned over half of Paektu to North Korea, including half of its picturesque Heaven Lake, in a secret treaty.
“The Chinese envy us because they can’t go down to the lake from their side, but we can,” Kim told Moon as the two leaders stood on a beach at the lake.
The Chinese side of Heaven Lake is all cliff, which prevents South Korean tourists who want to see the landmark from getting close to the water. For this reason, President Moon’s visit to the North Korean side signals a possible change in relations between Seoul and Pyongyang.
Just a year ago, however, North Korea was testing dozens of ballistic missiles and boasting about its claimed ability to land nuclear warheads on cities in the eastern United States.
But after several tense months during which the North Korean regime threatened its neighbors and the United States with nuclear war, a combination of tough diplomacy by the U.S. Trump administration and guarded Chinese cooperation with UN sanctions seems to have compelled North Korea to come to the negotiating table.
In previous years, the North Koreans had employed a strategy of making threats until it got concessions from the international community, such as the lifting of sanctions or humanitarian aid. After a period of calm, it would provoke new crises and repeat the strategy. But throughout 2017, as North Korea tested ever more powerful ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads, the United States maintained its firm demands and the UN sanctions were not lifted.
Kim Jong-un met Moon Jae-in for their first meeting in April, becoming the first North Korean leader to set foot on South Korean territory. A second summit followed, and Moon expressed his wish to see Mount Paektu while standing on Korean soil. The third summit, in which Moon made the trip, began on Sept. 18 in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.
While North Korea’s totalitarian dictatorship can hardly be reconciled with the Western-style parliamentary democracy that exists South Korea, recent events are a signal that both sides may be willing to sign a peace agreement, and that North Korea may follow through on its commitments to dismantle its nuclear arsenal.
The China factor
For the more than 60 years since the Korean War, China has had generally warm relations with North Korea. For decades, the shared interests of the communist regimes have led the countries to set aside their disagreements:
At the end of the Cold War, both Beijing and Pyongyang faced crises that threatened continued communist rule. In 1989, at a time when the communist regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were collapsing one after another, the Chinese government massacred protesters at Tiananmen Square rather than risk the same fate.
In the 1990s, following the end of Soviet aid, North Korea suffered economic collapse. Over a million people died of starvation, and the death of its leader Kim Il Sung in 1994 further damaged morale, but the regime did not give in. Instead, it continued its repressive, isolated rule, and focused on the development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
China tacitly aided North Korea in this work, knowing that the North Koreans would create diplomatic headaches for its main geopolitical rival, the United States.
While Kim Jong-un has met with President Moon and attended a summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in June, there have been several times in the last year that North Korea has appeared uncertain about whether it actually intends to denuclearize. This may be related to the North Korean government’s relations with China.
Kim Jong-un has traveled to China three times starting in March to meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Later, as the trade war between the United States and China escalated throughout the summer, North Korea appeared to restart its weapons testing facilities following the summit with Trump.
But in September, South Korea media reported that Xi Jinping had canceled a trip to Pyongyang for North Korea’s National Day celebrations, and instead sent another high-ranking Chinese Communist Party official, Li Zhanshu. And instead of showcasing missiles, the North Koreans put on major propaganda displays to promote economic growth.
Such events, as well as Kim and Moon’s joint visit to Mount Paektu, show that North Korea may be trying to stake out a new path in order to gain more freedom from China’s influence and open up more options for cooperation with the rest of the world.