Sixty years after the end of the Korean War, China is still North Korea’s biggest ally, although the relationship under the cover of shared political ideals has not always been smooth.
Today, Chinese veterans of the war recall that they made all efforts to help Korea, while protecting their own country from perceived threats of American imperialism.
Zhang Kuiyuan joined the war when he was 18 years old. As a member of the first group of Chinese volunteer soldiers sent to the front lines at the end of 1950, he drove a supply truck delivering food, gasoline and equipment.
Zhang said conditions were harsh and Chinese soldiers had few encounters with their Korean allies. “We didn’t have many contacts with the North Koreans unless we were cooperating in the same hills,” he recalled. “In general, we would head to one direction and they would go another way.”
More than one million Chinese soldiers crossed the Yalu River into North Korea to help Pyongyang fight against the Americans. They also brought relief to local people by building houses, erecting bridges and engineering roads to improve communications.
However, the Chinese had little access to the locals. Zhang Yuzeng, a war veteran, said Chinese ethnic Koreans were brought along to help deal with their brothers-in-arms. “We had only a few translators with us, mainly we didn’t understand each other,” he explained.
When time came to join forces, “the North Korean army would go first and we followed; we stopped where they stopped,” added Zhang.
Zhang Yuzeng recalled that on the front line the Chinese would mainly fight alone, under command of their marshal, Peng Dehuai. North Koreans, he said, “were few and badly equipped and were not as good at fighting.”
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Kim Il Sung gathered troops in the north-east to go and fight in Korea. But, for as much as he fought it, "it all ended up in a stalemate and the country was divided into two parts,” said Zhang Yuzeng.
Chinese troops remained in North Korea long after the end of the conflict, marked by the signing of a ceasefire on July 27, 1953. Until five years after, China helped with reconstruction and technical aid.
Zhang Kuiyuan, however, did not leave any friends behind. Chinese volunteers were told to avoid any close connection with North Koreans. “There was such a strict discipline that we were forbidden to have contact with the locals," he said. "Ordinary communication was allowed but not mingling and having Korean friends. We were worried it would create problems.”
Even though China and North Korea were on the front lines of the global socialist movement and their relation was as close as “lips and teeth,” there was a strong mistrust between their two leaders.
Mao Zedong, who ruled over China since 1949, and Kim Il Sung, who was leading the North Korean army, argued often.
Shen Zhihua, Korean War historian, said Soviet leader Joseph Stalin intervened several times to solve disputes. “During the war the Chinese army and the North Korean army, Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung had opposite and conflicting views on all basic strategic questions,” he said.
Conflicts arose about who should lead forces in battle, where the front line should be established, and who should be in command of the railways.
Despite those differences, the war cemented a relationship that has lasted for decades. During the years of strained relations with the Soviet Union, China was keen on playing a fatherly role in helping neighboring North Korea.
It all changed when Beijing and Washington normalized diplomatic ties, in the late 1970s. Shen Zhihua said North Korea started to feel frustrated at the new common strategic views shared by China and the United States.
In the years since, Pyongyang has at times escalated provocations toward South Korea, Japan and the United States. More recently, Beijing appears to be experimenting with a tougher stance toward its historical ally.
This year China joined the United Nations in implementing a Security Council resolution against North Korea. A Chinese state bank has frozen transactions with Pyongyang, and high level contacts have slowed down. “North Korea is pushing it too far. They make China lose face. They make a nuclear test and tell China only twenty minutes in advance, all the others know beforehand. How can we still call this a special relationship?” said Shen Zhihua.
Today, for many Chinese, North Korea is more of a weird tourist attraction than a close national ally. Grandchildren of those who fought to liberate Korea, Shen said, would rather see China freed from its historical bond with Pyongyang.