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The Yalu River and its Security Implications for China

Case Number: 71

Case Mnemonic: YALU

Case Author: Dong Jun Na, May 12, 1998


1. Abstract

Although not recognized as a major point of international dispute, the changes that are taking place in the Korean Peninsula and the security implications attached to the Yalu River make it a potential spot for a near-future conflict. Because of the warm relations China has shared with North Korea, the Yalu River has lacked the needed policy considerations it deserves as a security concern all the actors of the Northeast Asia region. However, what makes the Yalu a potential spot for conflict goes beyond the Sino-North Korean relations and involves a larger complex web of actors whose interests both coincide and collide. The constant erosion of North Korea's economy has contributed to the chances of Pyongyang's collapse. If North Korea is integrated into a process of a peaceful Korean reunification, then China must deal with a new security threat of having a different and also a more powerful neighbor. A united Korea with U.S. or even ROK forces above the 38th Parallel (the current line of division in the Korean Peninsula known as the Demilitarized Zone) or especially along the Yalu will cause major greater security concern for Beijing. However, if the belligerent Pyongyang leaders decide to engage in war and military hostilies break out, China will once again have to decide whether or not to assist its North Korean comrades as it did in 1950 during the Korean War. If Beijing decides to assist North Korea, that conflict can intensify into a full-blown war. If China decides not to assist its long-time ally, ROK forces combined with U.S. military strength will most likely defeat North Korea in a matter of days. In this scenario, the Chinese will have to accept the reality of sharing its borders with a pro-American Republic of Korea. In either case, the Yalu River represents a key political as well as a physical territorial boundary for China. This issue needs to be examined as what occurs on the North Korean side will certainly have a significant effect on China's security posture along the Yalu in the future. Even if war does not break out, the Yalu River remains a potential spot for conflict considering the vast natural resources largely unexplored. Ownership of the numerous islands in addition to the already established facilities along the Yalu will likely become points of contention as North Korea's economy continues to erode.

2. Description


The Yalu River both as a political boundary and a physical territory has many attractions that would most likely represent potential points of conflict for warring or unfriendly nations. However, history has for the most part defied the human instinct of power and greed. China and North Korea (formally recognized as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea) have shared intimate and supportive relations since the People's Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949. Establishing diplomatic relations on October 6, 1949 and the signing of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance on July 11, 1961 shaped the future that these two countries would share in the common socialist drive that has been "cemented in blood." (1) The Chinese remember the assistance North Koreans provided in PRC's victory over the KMT forces during China's civil war. Likewise, North Korea annually commemorates the support China offered the DPRK during the Korean War as a token of its appreciation. The close relationship the two countries valued continued for the decades to come. In fact, the Chinese became one of North Korea's main sources of political, economic and military support. North Korea had secured a mutual assistance security pact with China. In addition, over the period from 1954 through 1980 alone, North Korea received approximately $845.1 million in economic aid from China. On the political front, Chinese representatives at the United Nations time after time supported North Korea's position in regards to the Korean Peninsula. Even when relations cooled off in the early 1990s, China acted with complete caution and sensitivity toward North Korea, doing as much as possible not to upset Pyongyang. The rewards of this cautious approach to Pyongyang is evident by North Korea's limited negative responses to the Sino-ROK diplomatic relations in 1992 compared to North Korea's furious and uninhibited reactions to the Soviet Union's normalization with the ROK in 1990. North Korea, in return, has displayed the highest level of respect and loyalty to their Chinese comrades. Consequently, North Korea was one of the very few countries that expressed support of China during the 1989 Tianamen Square incident while other nations criticized Beijing's actions.


With the replacement of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution with Deng Xiaoping's drive for modernization, China has sought to improve its domestic economic conditions by opening up and expanding trade. This change in policy has necessitated Beijing to secure stability in the region, especially with its immediate neighbors such as the two Koreas. In doing so, China normalized relations with South Korea to gain the benefits of trade with this rising power. On the flipside, North Korea now understands that China will ultimately put forth its own priorities even at the expense of North Korea. Therefore, with the growing distrust of the Chinese in addition to the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea has taken its own initiatives to "defend" itself. Pyongyang questions the extent to which China will assist North Korea in the event of warfare and regards its security alliance with the former Soviets as nothing more than mere words.

One of the main reasons and results of the cooled Sino-North Korean relations is China's improved relations with South Korea. Sino-South Korean trade represents the major thrust to this practical maneuver. Bi-lateral trade now stands at $20 billion while South Korean investment in China is valued at over $1 million. (2)


Despite North Korea's disappointments, China's willingness to prop up the Pyongyang regime has led to improvements in China-DPRK relations. Simultaneously, with Beijing's sustained trade with the ROK, although the current economic crisis has decreased overall volume, China has manufactured better relations with the Koreas than any other world power. These conditions have given China the best position among all the actors in the Korean Peninsula to handle instability in Korea today. How China decides to use its political, economic and miliary leverage in the Korean Peninsula will be a culmination of both its interests and abilities. The following outlines China's main security priorities and its most likely course of action.

•China entered the Korean War in 1950 because U.S. and ROK forces above the 38th Parallel represented a threat to China's security. In this regard, North Korea is still a buffer zone for China. Security reasons alone are enough to force China to continue propping up the Pyongyang regime.

•China will prop up the Pyongyang regime, but times of "blank check" diplomacy is over. Beijing is interested only on Pyongyang's survival and will attempt to carry this mission out at the lowest cost possible.

•One of China's main foreign policy priorities is to secure stability in the region to promote trade and economic growth. In this perspective, China desires to a lasting peace in terms of an absence of a war. To Beijing, a lasting peace does not necessarily equate a Korean reunification. Therefore, a Korean reunification falls down on the list of Beijing's priorities. As a result, China's short-term interests will be to extend the status quo as long as possible.

•Although China will probably not contribute towards a Korean reunification, China will allow a Korean reunification to take place, but only on peaceful terms. In other words, China will not sit idly by and watch the South absorb the North. In any case, China is in no hurry to expedite a Korean reunification. In fact, a Korean reunification may create new security problems for China. For instance, a unified Korea may adopt a unfriendly posture to China and initiate territorial disputes. Also, a security pact between Korea and the U.S. may threaten China's growing status as a regional leader in Asia.


Despite the fact that no conflicts exist over the Yalu River at the present time, this should not discourage foreign policy practitioners to begin thinking about the possibilities of conflict around the Yalu in the future. For the Chinese, the Yalu River represents a political boundary that must be respected. If other states do not conform to this point of view, a strong potential for military hostilities does exist. Until such a day arrives, the Yalu River will not pose as a point of contention between China and North Korea. Historically, North Korea has relied on China for assistance in all areas. Considering North Korea's declining economy today, Pyongyang has nothing to exchange for China's aid. As a result, it has been forced to take as much of an accomodating stance toward China as possible. In the past, this has meant granting China full access to the Yalu and its resources. Although the two countries have experienced minor skirmishes along the Yalu, the importance of their political, economic and security relations as neighbors and socialists have not allowed any hostilities to develop into major conflicts. These two countries have realized that sustaining friendly relations is to the advantage for both nations. This is evidently the case, as China has stepped up its food aid to North Korea while Pyongyang has allowed China own and operate electric power facilities even on the North Korean side of the Yalu.

3. Duration

1945 - Present

Since the defeat of the Japanese forces in WWII and the Soviet Union's military occupation of North Korea in 1945, the Chinese have consistently regarded the Yalu River as a political as well as a physical boundary of their national sovereignty.

4. Location

Continent - Asia

Region - East Asia

5. Actors: China, North Korea (DPRK), South Korea (ROK), and the United States

II. EnvironmentAspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem

China and North Korea have not disputed over issues of ownership and the utilization of the Yalu's resources. Without much capital in either countries to develop the Yalu, these two socialist planned economies have left the Yalu practically untouched, preserving Yalu's natural habitats. If instability in this region produces security threats, this natural national boundary may became another point of military installations at both sides of the Yalu.

7. Type of Habitat: TEMPerate

8. Act and Harm Sites: Definitely the Korean Peninsula and possibly China and Northeast Asia

Because only the potential for outbreak of hostilities exists at this time, it is difficult to gage exactly which sites will be affected. An outbreak of hostilities in the Korean Peninsula with security implications for the Yalu River or battles along the Yalu will definitely include the Koreas. Fighting between U.S. and Chinese forces in Korea may have spillover effects that can include China and and other parts of Northeast Asia.

III. ConflictAspects

9. Type of Conflict: International [War]

If a war erupts in the Korean Peninsula, the two states most affected by it will obviously be North and South Korea. However, as the international community learned from the Korean War, the Korean Peninsula contains the interests of more than North and South Korea. If war does erupt, each actor will have some of its own interests at stake and will probably make its impression felt accordingly.

10. Level of Conflict: HIGH

Although the 1994 Agreed Framework produced by U.S. and DPRK representatives in Geneva put a freeze on North Korea's known nuclear weapons program, the DPRK does not have to come into full compliance of the demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency until all the components of the light water reactors (LWRs) have been installed. (3) Even without nuclear weapons, North Korea still has tremendous non-nuclear weapons capabilities which includes Scud missiles, chemical warfare and the one million-man army. These destructive elements in addition to ROK and U.S. forces in the South will certainly create a high level of conflict.

11. Fatality Level of Dispute: 0

Considering the potential for vast destruction of today's sophisticated weaponry, a military confrontation in the Korean Peninsula especially South Korea, a well populated and industrialized, may produce the highest level of fatalities and destruction of infrastructure man has ever witnessed.

III. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

Kim Il Sung, the first president of the DPRK, created the Juche Ideology, a self-reliance doctrine, to deal with economic problems in North Korea during the earlier years of his reign. Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung's son, inherited all the political and military posts of his father after he died in 1994. Along with his father's power base, Kim Jong Il has also inherited his father's political beliefs and economic policies which include the Juche Ideology. Where loyalty is held in the highest honor, Kim Jong Il has had no choice but to practice this failing self-reliance doctrine created by his father. Any deviation from his father's policies would in itself represent disrespect to his father and jeopardize his powerbase. Thus, Kim Jong Il does not yet seem to have found a way to correct North Korea's declining economy without jeopardizing his political autonomy.

During the course of North Korea's economic difficulties, the North Koreans themselves have found it increasingly difficult to find food. As a result, many are looking towards the Yalu and what China's side has to offer. If this situation is not handled properly, the Yalu River may represent a key trafficking area for mass immigration. Although the potential possibilities for conflict are numberless, the most immediate concerns would be Pyongyang's reactions to such an event and China's ability to respond in a cooperative manner.

13. Level of Strategic Interest: Regional

14. Outcome of Dispute: To Be Seen

IV. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE Cases



16. References

1. Lee, Chae-jin. China and Korea: Dynamic Relations. (Hoover Press, 1996), 99.

2. Manning, Robert A. March/April 1997 "Will the Koreas Play the China Card" International Economy, 11:19.

3. ________. "The United States and the Endgame in Korea: Assessments, Scenarios and Implications" Asian Survey 37:601.

Hao, Jia and Zhuang Qubing. December 1992. "China's Policy Toward the Korean Peninsula" Asian Survey 37:609-622.

Kim, Dong Sung. 1994. "China's Policy Toward North Korea and Cooperation Between South Korea and China" The Korean Journal of International Studies 25:29-46.

Prasso, Sheri. May 26, 1997. "Catastrophe in North Korea: The Only Hope is China" Business Week 11:20.

Ross, Robert S., ed. East Asia in Transition: Toward a New Regional Order. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1995.

Tian, Zhongquing. 1994. "China-ROK Relations in the New Asian-Pacific Context" The Korean Journal of International Studies 25:65-74.

Wehrfritz, George. July 14, 1997. "Rethinking the Korean War" Newsweek 130:50-51.

Whiting, Allen S. China Crosses the Yalu: The Decision to Enter the Korean War. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1960.

Yi, Xiaoxiong. 1995. "China's Korea Policy: From 'One Korea' to 'Two Koreas'" Asian Affairs

Zhao, Quansheng. December 20, 1997. "Chinese Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era" World Affairs 159:114-129.