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  • A Misunderstood Friendship: Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, and Sino-North Korean Relations, 1949–1976 by Zhihua Shen and Yafeng Xia
  • Adam Cathcart (bio)
Zhihua Shen and Yafeng Xia. A Misunderstood Friendship: Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, and Sino-North Korean Relations, 1949–1976. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. xiv, 357 pp. Hardcover $65.00, ISBN 978-0-231-18826-5.

Sometimes a book needs to be written to obliterate a single word in conventional discourse. In the case of Zhihua Shen and Yafeng Xia's new opus on Chinese-North Korean relations, the word (or phrase) is "traditional friendship." From the outset of their impressive and widely-sourced book, the authors endeavor to pry apart the building blocks of Pyongyang's connectivity with the Chinese Communist Party, and likewise to untangle how Mao and the CCP navigated their own needs while dealing with Kim Il-Sung's Korean Workers' Party. Their aim is, as they put it, a destructive one: "it is necessary to refute the historical myth, to tear off the veil, and to eliminate the special set phrases that have been used to describe the history of the relationship" (p. 2).

This is a tall order, given that so much of the discussion of North Korea in Chinese official sources of late consists of little more than set phrases, or at best displaces tired metaphors like "lips and teeth" with new but ultimately meaningless phrases about "beginning a new chapter" with Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping. Fortunately, the authors do not waste a lot of time complaining about the gaps in the field and get quickly to filling them instead with a welter of documents. Ultimately the book that results is aimed at a mainland audience where scholarship on Chinese-North Korean relations (really the Party-Party relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing) has been less than abundant. The Chinese version of the book, published by The Chinese University Press in Hong Kong, is accordingly longer than the present version and is likely to be even more influential given the ease with which Zhihua Shen can still fill—and amply entertain—any given university lecture hall.

Zhihua Shen is well known for his extraordinary archival reach, and this study generally does not disappoint in this realm. Shen and his co-author have combed through the wide array of documents and studies of the Korean War era which were published in the 1980s and 1990s, along with extensive work in [End Page 140] the Chinese Foreign Ministry Archives, readings of Soviet archives and published documents, memoir literature of participants, and even a few interviews. They also haul a number of their most fascinating anecdotes from Chinese provincial archives in Shanxi and Sichuan, from which we learn for the first time in detail about what precisely the Chinese state did with a number of North Korean elite exiles who fled from Kim Il-Sung after the now-infamous August 1956 plenum. (They ended up being labelled as ethnic Korean Chinese, working on state-run farms in Sichuan and other remote provinces.) The Cold War International History Project at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., provided a number of documents for the study, sourced out of Eastern European and German archives, and the authors make regular if occasionally baffling use of Central Intelligence Agency declassified electronic archives.

A simple read through the sources which form the fundament of the book should indicate to even a casual reader that this is very much a work of Cold War history. The concerns of the authors are geopolitical—they revolve around China and North Korea's mutual appreciation and attitude toward Soviet power, their attempts to come to grips with American policy in East Asia, and the views of a multitude of communist states and interlocutors of Mao's outlook on Kim Il-Sung and vice versa. In that sense it has been shaped by the "who started the Korean War?" debate and by nature spends a fair amount of pages on Stalin's outlook and activity in managing his two client states. North Korea's drive toward economic and political development is taken up, but almost exclusively in...


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