Friday, Jul 28, 2017, 8:49 PM CST – China


North Korea and the UN


The rarely-told story of how prominently North Korea figured in China’s attempts to establish relations with the US in the 1970s offers a valuable insight into both historical and contemporary issues affecting all parties with interests on the Korean Peninsula

A photo of the US delegation led by Henry Kissinger with their Chinese hosts before a meeting, October 20, 1971 Photo by Xinhua News Agency

Former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai meets Kim Il-Sung on a visit to Pyongyang, April 1970

Before Henry Kissinger’s groundbreaking secret visit to China on July 13, 1971, a watershed which paved the way for China-US rapprochement, China’s then-premier Zhou Enlai had to ensure at least nominal diplomatic support from China’s only three international allies at the time – North Vietnam, Albania and North Korea.

Zhou first flew to the North Vietnamese capital Hanoi on July 13 and then rushed back to meet with the Albanian ambassador in Beijing. His last stop was Pyongyang for a July 15 audience with North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Il-Sung.

North Vietnamese leaders, still at war with US-supported South Vietnam, expressed great dissatisfaction with China’s outreach to the US. Beijing’s former Southeast Asian ally would not only go on to deepen its ties to the Soviet Union but would also face Chinese support for the anti-Viet Cong Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and even a brief border war in 1979.

In Europe, the Central Committee of the Albanian Communist Party sent a letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China to voice their “strong opposition” to Sino-American “collusion,” accusing China of “opportunism” and leading to an acrimonious and ultimately unresolved diplomatic split between Beijing and her only European supporter.

As a result, from the corridors of power in Beijing, assuring the support of North Korea, now China’s sole international ally, seemed all-important.


 During his first closed-door meeting with Henry Kissinger, then President Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Zhou Enlai had raised the question of the US withdrawing its troops from the bases in South Korea they had occupied since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Kissinger responded by declaring that if the Sino-US relationship improved as both sides hoped it was “conceivable” that the US would pull “a majority of its troops,” if not all of them, from South Korea once hostilities in Vietnam were concluded.

In a communiqué to Kim Il-Sung delivered July 15, Zhou reiterated that China “had not changed its original proposition” and “would not barter away its principles.” Kim Il-Sung immediately agreed to the continuation of talks, but reportedly “showed surprise and anxiety about the situation.” Hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops had assisted the North during the Korean War, and this seeming about-face by Pyongyang’s sole international ally unnerved the military establishment.

Kim said Nixon’s imminent visit to China was “a new question” for North Korea, and that the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) “would have to explain it to the Korean people.” His concerns were apparently assuaged by his generals, who saw improved Sino-US relations as their best chance at achieving the North’s goal of reunification of the Korean Peninsula through diplomacy rather than by force.

On July 30, Kim Il, then Deputy Premier of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), visited China and met with Zhou, saying that the WPK understood that the opening of Sino-US talks was “extremely beneficial in promoting world revolution,” and the WPK’s belief that “the Chinese Communist Party will not change its anti-imperialist stance.” Zhou in turn promised that he would relay North Korean demands to Kissinger on his next visit to Beijing.

These demands were included in a new program for “peaceful reunification” drafted by the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly on April 12, 1971. Central were demands for the withdrawal of all foreign troops in South Korea, immediate cessation of US shipments of nuclear weapons, missiles and other arms to South Korea, dissolution of the US-South Korean military alliance, dissolution of the United Nations Commission for the Unification and Rehabilitation of Korea (UNCURK) and unconditional representation of the DPRK in UN debates over Korean issues.

From August 18 to September 7, a military delegation of 26, led by O Chin-u, then Kim Il-Sung’s chief of general staff, was invited to visit China. Aside from formal engagements such as meetings concerning ongoing bilateral military cooperation, on September 6 an agreement was signed promising “free military assistance” to the DPRK. Soon, another North Korean military delegation of 29 would visit Chinese armament factories all over the country. The agreement received front-page coverage in the People’s Daily, China’s leading State newspaper, and was subsequently viewed as a move to placate North Korea over the US issue while also demonstrating ongoing Chinese support for the Kim regime.

On September 12, 1971, North Korea’s State media released a statement to urge the upcoming twenty-sixth plenum of the UN General Assembly to include on its agenda two matters relating to the Korean Peninsula, namely the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea and the dissolution of the UNCURK, which the country saw as “a prerequisite for the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula.” The People’s Daily came out in support of North Korea’s demands with a bombastic editorial on the subject, but the global response was lukewarm, and on September 25th the UN General Assembly decided that discussion of the Korean problem would be postponed until the following year.

Perceived rejection from the UN led Pyongyang to throw its full weight behind China’s planned rapprochement with the US as its best hope of securing reunification. During interviews with Japan’s Asahi Shimbun and the Kyodo News Agency on September 25 and October 8, Kim Il-Sung publicly expressed his feelings on the subject. Henceforth, he claimed, North Korea would “stick to its independent foreign policy which would be unaffected by changes in Sino-US relations;” DPRK-US relations would “depend solely” on changes in American attitudes toward the DPRK; Kissinger’s public visit to China “signaled the retreat of the vanquished, not the advance of the victor;” and expressed his belief that “China is a socialist country and could not compromise on matters of principle.” While he hailed the Sino-US dialog “if it relaxed international tensions,” adding that the DPRK did not intend to protest the talks, Kim stated that Korea needed to “remain vigilant to the US’ two-pronged strategy.”

During his public visit, from October 20 to 26, 1971, Kissinger met with Zhou Enlai a total of 10 times, with the two men spending 23 hours and 40 minutes together, mainly in discussion over the proposed text of the China-US joint communiqué that would be released during the upcoming State visit by President Nixon.

Kissinger also relayed Zhou’s position that, in terms of issues relating to China’s direct interests (Taiwan was given as an example), Beijing “could wait,” but issues relating to “minor allies,” such as Indochina and Korea, were “immediately pressing.” Nixon was also told that, while China “was interested” in giving equal status to both Koreas, perhaps the question of reunification should be left “for another time.” 

Soon after Kissinger left China, Kim Il-Sung conducted a secret three-day visit to Beijing beginning November 1. Kim met both with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. While both China and the DPRK denied such meetings took place, Soviet officials publicly declared that not only had Kim met with China’s top leaders, he hadn’t even ruled out the possibility of North Korean officials meeting secretly with Nixon during the president’s upcoming visit.

While it is now established beyond doubt that Kim Il-Sung spent three days in Beijing in November 1971, the transcripts of his meetings have yet to be published. A speech made by Kim shortly after his return, however, demonstrated a softening of his stance on China-US relations. While he repeated his “vanquished” remarks about Kissinger’s visit, Kim stated that the Communist Party of China “would never abandon the revolution nor do anything to undermine the interests of socialist countries.” In other words, Kim was satisfied of ongoing Chinese support.

Despite Kissinger’s advice to skirt the issue of North Korea with the Chinese, transcripts of Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972 show that Zhou Enlai openly discussed the Korean problem with the president. After complaining that North and South Koreans were “both extremely emotional,” Nixon expressed hope that China and the US could mutually pressure both Koreas into avoiding further conflict.


When the Sino-US Joint Communiqué was signed on February 27, both parties reiterated support for their respective allies, while the two Koreas issued their own responses. While pushing for the cancelation of the UNCURK, China did not demand the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea. The US statement made no mention of the UNCURK, and also skirted the issue of its military bases in South Korea, a move roundly condemned in an editorial by the WPK mouthpiece the Rodong Sinmun that was otherwise supportive of the talks. While many North Korean newspaper articles were reprinted in China’s People’s Daily at the time, this editorial was studiously avoided.

Nixon’s visit led to the greatest thaw in relations between China, North Korea and the US since the beginning of the Korean War. International media called 1972 the “Year of Korea.” In January, Kim Il-Sung proposed a substitution of the Armistice Agreement with South Korea with a formal peace accord. In February, a Soviet diplomat in Pyongyang inferred that North Korea’s opposition to the US was mainly due to the presence of US troops. On May 26, Kim told a New York Times reporter that Washington should “not only improve relations with big countries but also with small ones.”

On June 22, Kissinger returned to Beijing, where he reportedly clashed with Zhou Enlai over the question of whether or not to allow debate over the cancelation of the UNCURK to reach the floor of the United Nations. Kissinger was concerned that any debate could derail the fragile commencement of dialog between the two Koreas, while also perceiving that despite its public opposition, China saw the presence of US troops in South Korea as preferable to potential Japanese military involvement in the defense of Seoul.

Behind closed doors, however, bilateral dialog between both Koreas was proceeding faster than either the US or China could have expected. On July 4, North and South Korea issued a joint statement announcing “three principles of reunification” which enshrined the doctrine that reunification would be achieved “beyond ideological and institutional difference,” by “peaceful means” and “without external interference.”

 In response to this acceleration of affairs on the Korean Peninsula, on July 19, Huang Hua, China’s chief representative to the UN, wrote to the UN Secretary General saying that the Chinese delegation supported a proposal tabled by Algeria and 12 other member states to have Korea listed as an “emergency issue” on the agenda of the 27th UN General Assembly.

On July 26, Kissinger met with Huang in New York and told him that the US did not want the UN General Assembly to discuss North Korea in 1972. Kissinger said that the US would use its influence to promote the dissolution of the UNCURK if direct confrontation between the two Koreas on the floor of the UN could “be avoided.” Huang, however, remained noncommittal.

North Korea continued its attempts to force the issue. On, July 31 Pyongyang issued a statement supporting the Algerian proposal, with China coming out in open support. On August 4 Huang met Kissinger and asked the US to change its official stance, but in an election year, Kissinger was determined not to have the issue raised, again hinting that, if China played along, the UNCURK could be dissolved as early as the following year.

In response, Beijing switched its stance and began attempts to placate Pyongyang. From August 22 to 25, during another secret visit by Kim Il-Sung to China, both Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai attempted to convince the North Korean leader of the need to engage directly with the US while offering China some flexibility in its relations with both Pyongyang and Washington. Some sources claim that these entreaties were sweetened with a reiteration from Zhou that China was ready, if necessary, to support the North in a second Korean War, though US archives do not support this account.


What was clear in 1972 was that while the Korean issue would not be immediately resolved on the floor of the UN, North Korea was about to find an international voice. What also became clear was that China would be a decisive figure in securing Pyongyang a place in ongoing international attempts to resolve the Korean question. By the time the 28th UN General Assembly was convened, China had replaced the Soviet Union as de facto spokesperson for North Korea. By April 1973, more than 10 countries had established formal diplomatic relations with North Korea, which had even begun a tentative outreach to former arch-enemy Japan. On May 17, the World Health Organization accepted the DPRK as a full member, and Pyongyang announced on June 4 that it would establish a formal presence in Geneva.

On June 23, South Korean President Park Chung-hee said in a statement that his country “did not object” to being admitted into the UN alongside North Korea as separate political entities. On the same day, Kim Il-Sung made a speech to propose a “Federal Republic of Koryo” – a reunified, centralized Korean nation.

Then, on September 26, Huang met Kissinger again, newly appointed as US Secretary of State, and was told that the US had agreed to dissolve the UNCURK, but that the United Nations Command Headquarters, a peacekeeping organization whose presence on the Korean Peninsula was strongly opposed by Pyongyang, would remain deployed for at least a year until a diplomatic alternative could be found. Huang suggested Washington dissuade South Korea from joining the United Nations, while hinting that China might also similarly pressure the North, however Kissinger refused to state an official position.

Shortly afterward, two draft resolutions on the Korean issue were presented to the UN General Assembly. One, proposed by China and Algeria, demanded the dissolution of the UNCURK and revocation of the United Nation Command headquarters along with all US military deployments in South Korea. The second, proposed by the US, UK and Japan, mandated the maintenance of the United Nations Command Headquarters and the immediate and simultaneous admission of both Koreas to the United Nations.

On November 14, the United Nations Political and Security Committee began formal debate on the Korea issue, with representatives from more than 50 countries engaging in the heated sessions, including North Korea, for the first time.

On November 21, the Political Committee of the UN General Assembly adopted a declaration that determined the immediate dissolution of the UNCURK. Chinese and North Korean State media immediately printed editorials expressing satisfaction with this outcome.

However, according to a report leaked on November 22, 1973, apparently issued by the Hungarian embassy in North Korea to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, Vietnamese diplomats stationed in Pyongyang had learned that a senior Chinese military delegation, visiting the North in secret, had promised to provide the North Korean military with an unprecedented array of high-tech arms, perhaps even including tactical nuclear warheads.

It appeared that after a promising start, the damage to a diplomatic resolution to the Korean question had already been done. Talks between the North and South stalled in the summer of 1973, and meanwhile domestic upheaval in Cultural Revolution-hit China and the Watergate scandal surrounding the Nixon administration development hampered development of Sino-US relations. With Zhou Enlai sidelined in the Party after being attacked by leftists during a session of the Politburo, and Nixon facing impeachment, two key players in this fledgling diplomatic relationship were largely powerless to further their ambitions.

With the US public turning against an active and interventionist foreign policy, on his seventh visit to China in November 1974, Kissinger deliberately avoided discussing the Korean problem. Chinese leaders largely saw Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford as a poor replacement for the man credited with bringing the two former enemies together. China withdrew almost entirely from attempts to resolve the disputes between the two Koreas.

On December 17, 1974, the 29th session of the UN General Assembly passed a US proposal on resolving the Korean issue, with 61 votes in favor, 43 against and 31 abstentions.


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