This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army (CPV) withdrawing from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). On the occasion of a drastic change in the situation of the Korean Peninsula, it is of great significance to review such an important move.
China advocated the withdrawal of all foreign military forces from the DPRK after the Korean War. China withdrew its CPV from the DPRK on October 25, 1958. The delegation of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army representing the concerns of the DPRK and China in the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission (UNCMAC) returned to China on December 15, 1994. Since then, China's military presence in the DPRK became a history.
The withdrawal of troops from the DPRK was a decisive move full of wisdom for China, Korean Peninsula, and even Asia. The significance of this move is as follows.
Firstly, the withdrawal of troops is a decision reached by the leaders of both China and the DPRK. This demonstrated the strategic common consensus and mutual trust between the two countries. It not only was in line with both countries’ rights and interests, but also conformed to the strong will to maintain the stability and peace of East Asia and the whole world. Although both countries' traditional friendship went through ups and downs, the friendly exchanges can never be shaken.
Secondly, the DPRK became a highly independent country after the withdrawal. China and the DPRK are friendly neighbors following the principle of mutual respect and equality. The China-DPRK relationship is normal relations between countries.
Of course, the two countries have obtained a better friendship than ordinary neighbors, since China and the DPRK had fought shoulder to shoulder in the Korean War and had signed the China-DPRK Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty in 1961. However, the relationship between China and the DPRK is different in nature from the alliance between the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the US. The US maintains its military presence in the ROK, which comprehensively influence their alliance relation.
Thirdly, it demonstrates that China has always been the irreplaceable defender and promoter who has put consistent effort to maintain the peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. While having the moral high ground and the political and diplomatic initiative, China avoided direct confrontation with the United States and the ROK.
If China maintained a military presence in the DPRK, it would be impossible for China to establish diplomatic relations with the US and the ROK or maintain the current situation in East Asia. Regarding the DPRK nuclear issue, China is the major promoter and the key coordinator for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which contrasts sharply with the US that has been in passive situation as the primary liability party for the nuclear conflict.
In retrospect, what the US had done was in complete contradiction with China’s withdrawal of troops. The US opposed the request for the withdrawal of the troops in the joint statement between China and the DPRK. The US completely avoided the mention of withdrawal of their troops, and they merely mentioned the election on the Peninsular in the hope of using it as an excuse to station troops as a long-term presence to control the region. After the withdrawal of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army, the US continued to manipulate the United Nations and refused to discuss the withdrawal of troops.
During the 40 years of the Cold War, the US had maintained its military presence in the ROK for controlling the Peninsular and safeguarding its strategic interests in East Asia. Taking into account its nuclear protection for the ROK and ongoing deployment of the “THAAD” system, the military presence of the US in the region has been constantly developing and strengthening.
It is evidently shown that the US has been strengthening its military presence for 60 years in the ROK since the withdrawal of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army from the DPRK. The US military presence is an important part of its global strategy. While maintaining its dominance in the Korean Peninsula and the Northeast Asia, it is of vital importance for restraining China and Russia. However, the disadvantages far outweigh the benefits for the overall situation.
One of the major negative impacts is the serious imbalance of military forces between the south and the north which results in the path of the DPRK to develop nuclear weapons for self-protection. The essence of the DPRK nuclear issue is the contradictions between the US and the DPRK.
The second negative impact is to turn the ROK into the accessory to the hegemony of the US. It is controlled by the US in almost every aspect from military to even politics and diplomacy. This intensifies the contradictions between the north and the south and seriously hinders the peaceful and independent reunification of the Peninsula. It can be said that the ROK has lost its independence and sovereignty to a considerable degree.
Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defense, publicly acknowledged at the Pentagon in 2003 that “the US military presence in the ROK to a certain extent is the remnant of the Cold War and it is a de facto violation of the ROK’s sovereignty”.
President Trump also stated in the US election in July 2016 that “if the US troops were withdrawn from the Korean Peninsula after the signing of armistice agreement in 1953, we might see a unified country...We might have maintained peace, yet the DPRK has become stronger and stronger and developed nuclear weapons.” The comments from both Rumsfeld and Trump indicated the essence and vicious outcomes of the US military presence in the ROK.
As Confucius said, “He who by reviewing the old can gain knowledge of the new is fit to be a teacher”. Sixty years later, we are facing a crucial moment for the peninsula.
Withdrawal of the US troops in the ROK and the denuclearization of the Peninsula will be the two key issues that can never be avoided at the summit meeting between the US and the DPRK.
Whether the US can withdraw its troops, related military deployments (especially nuclear umbrella and THAAD）and large-scale military exercises in the Peninsular is undoubtedly another key issue to the success of the summit meeting. Therefore, withdrawal of military presence has become a major political, military, and diplomatic challenge that the US should face.
If the US blindly demands the “unconditional” denuclearization of the DPRK while adopting unilateral principle to maintain its military presence like 60 years ago, how can the DPRK be convinced to abandon its nuclear program? How can we achieve the transformation of the peace mechanism for the Peninsula?
A person of insight like Dr. Henry Kissinger has suggested for the White House to withdraw the US military presence from the ROK in 2017 and President Trump has recently made remarks on withdrawal of its troops. It is hoped that these can be put into practice. The issue that hasn’t been solved for over 60 years should come to an end.
Disclaimer: The author is Chen Fengjun, professor of the School of International Studies in Peking University. The article is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military online. The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of eng.chinamil.com.cn. Chinamil.com.cn does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. If the article carries photographs or images, we do not vouch for their authenticity.