Trouble Ahead? Chinese-Korean Disputes May Intensify

As Cold War glaciers melt, Chinese-Korean tensions may grow more pronounced.

The Christmas release of The Interview, however coarse in depiction, underscores the Korean peninsula’s tremendous geostrategic importance and potential for disruptive change. Brookings scholar Jonathan Pollack aptly terms it “the East Asian pivot.” Historically, it has been an important battleground—the latest major instance being the still-unresolved Korean War (1950-53). The current status quo is unsustainable, the future uncertain but surely dynamic. It therefore matters greatly that significant resource-rich peninsular land and proximate seas have attracted intense debate and contestation. These differences, primarily between China and South Korea today, are likely to involve other parties such as North Korea or a successor state and Russia in the future. Pointed disagreements, deeply intertwined with painful, contested history, will likely resurface as peninsular conditions shift and Chinese and Korean capabilities, particularly maritime, grow. Considering the historical basis and subsequent evolution of continental, maritime, and riverine disputes among China and the Koreas, and how all sides have thus far attempted to mitigate discord, offers insights into future developments in a vital but vulnerable region.

Overlapping Claims

China and the two Koreas enjoy some areas of convergence and cooperation. In the early 1960s, China compromised with North Korea over their disputed land border and riverine islands and shoals to counter Soviet pressure. More recently, China and South Korea have attempted to resolve overlapping exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and fisheries claims, and reduce illegal fishing. China and North Korea have developed trans-border infrastructure, and share electricity from the Yalu River’s Sup’ung Dam. All three nations, with Russia, are attempting to develop the border region’s economy.

Nevertheless, even these modest measures remain restricted by a troubled past. The Koguryo/Gaogeli kingdom’s history and border demarcation resulting from Japan’s annexation of Korea leaves many Koreans dissatisfied. Beyond arguing that Koguryo was an independent Korean kingdom, not part of the Chinese empire—which has broad symbolic resonance among the Korean public—some Korean nationalists and scholars question the very basis for the 1909 Gando Convention, under which Japan demarcated Korea’s border with China. Additionally, some Korean nationalists maintain that the territory now known as the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China’s Jilin Province belonged to the Korean kingdom of Chosŏn since 1392, and was transferred to China at a time when Korea was repressed.

Certainly, only small numbers of Korean activists and scholars argue that territory currently administered by China should return to Korean jurisdiction. In the case of symbolically redolent Mt. Paektu/Changbaishan, for instance, it not the mountain itself that is contested, but the border around it. Because Beijing and Pyongyang split jurisdiction over the mountain itself in 1962, with part now under Korean administration, few Koreans holds grievances against China for “taking Paektu.”

While the Yalu and Tumen rivers influenced the larger boundary demarcations between China and North Korea, they are also some of the peninsula’s few navigable waterways, containing strategic islands. The Tumen, landlocked northeast China’s only potential waterborne access to the East Sea/Sea of Japan, is literally obstructed by history and neighbors’ rights. Here China was originally forced to compromise under pressure from imperial Russian expansion, beginning with the 1858 Treaty of Aigun, which effectively transferred over one million km2 of territory. While China retains rights to navigate the waterway, the value of direct autonomous access will only grow as Arctic ice melt increasingly opens a summer Northeast Passage offering a more direct Asia-Europe route. North Korea and Russia rarely adopt cooperative attitudes on this issue. Living within present realities, China currently pursues access to the Tumen’s northeastern outlet through DPRK ports. Given Chinese historical grievances against Russia, China’s rising maritime capabilities, North Korean sovereignty concerns, and Russian determination to deny China strategic advantage in the Pacific, Tumen access issues could generate tensions.