Delegations Galore: Signs of a Continuing Rift in Sino-NK Relations

By | May 20, 2012 | No Comments

Delegations Galore: Signs of a Continuing Rift in Sino-NK Relations

by Brian Gleason

Although China and North Korea have maintained strong bilateral ties for decades, North Korea’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons, advanced missile systems and “satellite launches” has continued to take its toll on the relationship. In the aftermath of North Korea’s failed rocket launch on April 13, China joined the other members of the UN Security Council in a unanimous condemnation of the launch – a marked divergence from China’s previous stance of “urging calm and restraint” in the wake of North Korea’s 2009 launch of the Unha-2 rocket.

Kim Yong-il with Hu Jintao, right, in April 2012| Image via NKLeadershipWatch

Eight days after the botched 2012 launch, North Korea sent the secretary for international affairs of the North Korean Workers’ Party, Kim Yong-il, to Beijing for a high-level strategic dialogue with Wang Jiarui, the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s international department. Hu Jintao also met with the North Korean delegation, affirming the strong friendship and cooperation between China and North Korea but simultaneously emphasizing the need to make “unremitting efforts to maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula” and to realize the “long-term security of Northeast Asia.” Hu Jintao’s platitudes nevertheless hinted at Beijing’s growing irritation with Pyongyang’s regional provocations, and in case Hu’s implicit nudge went unnoticed, a subsequent report in Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun surely grabbed Pyongyang’s attention.

Reading Between the Lines | The April 19 report in the Japanese daily, which cited diplomatic sources working for Chinese and North Korean authorities, claimed that China had suspended the repatriation of North Korean refugees in the wake of the North’s failed rocket launch.

The Chinese government has suspended deporting North Korean defectors in accordance with a request from the South Korean government, according to sources working for Chinese and North Korean authorities.

Diplomatic sources said the move indicated Beijing’s displeasure with Pyongyang for ignoring China’s demand to refrain from internationally problematic actions, such as last week’s long-range ballistic missile launch.

Some contend that the report is inaccurate,[1] and while it is highly unlikely that the Chinese government would announce a major policy shift through a Japanese newspaper, its possible that the report was an indirect message from Beijing to Pyongyang regarding China’s displeasure with the North’s international antagonism and lack of consideration for its Chinese ally. Since North Korea initially “kept China in the dark about the details of its missile launch plan” and then ignored China’s calls for restraint, the leadership in Beijing may have sent a subtle reminder to their friends in Pyongyang that the relationship is a two-way street.

Sensitive Border Issues | Adding to the tension, the April 23 murders in Hyesan sparked a manhunt that led North Korea’s 10th Corps across the border into China, despite the PRC’s dwindling patience with the North in the wake of the rocket launch. After three days without any arrests, the DPRK dispatched a delegation from the Ministry of People’s Security (MPS), headed by General Ri Song Choi, to meet Chinese Vice Minister of Public Security Meng Hongwei. During the initial meeting on April 27, the Chinese border patrol announced that they had arrested the two men from Hyesan, and repatriated them the following day. The North Korean delegation returned home on May 1, but despite mutual commitments to continue cooperation in law enforcement and security, the incident underscored the highly sensitive nature of border issues during times of political friction.

The Hyesan incident reminded observers that China has numerous reasons to seek a secure border and prevent an influx of North Korean refugees (or rogue border guards) into China — it is virtually inconceivable that China would ever enact an open border policy. Thus, one can juxtapose the evident desire of Beijing to use possible changes in refugee policy as a lever against Pyongyang versus the very hard limited room for maneuver that actually exists, barring wholesale reevaluation of the refugee policy.  Thus it appears that the Yomiuri Shimbun method allows for more lateral, or indirect, confrontation with Pyongyang, allowing the leadership in Beijing to get the message across without either side “losing face” because the sources can always be denied.

China Seeks Use of Leverage over the DPRK | North Korea relies on China for diplomatic protection and support via China’s permanent membership in the UN Security Council and its chairmanship of the Six-Party Talks. In this regard, China usually accommodates the North, utilizing its position within the UNSC to protect North Korea on numerous occasions. For example, China reportedly blocked the publication of a February 2011 UN special report that accused North Korea of violating sanctions on its nuclear program, effectively shielding North Korea from the sanctions committee.[2] In general, China is often reluctant to support punishing North Korean provocations, opting instead for strategic dialogue.

North Korean Delegation meeting Valerie Amos, via Chosun Ilbo

In return for China’s multifaceted assistance to the North, China also expects to use its special relationship with the DPRK as leverage in bilateral and multilateral negotiations. By demonstrating its unique ability to influence, persuade or coerce North Korea, China endeavors to prove that it can play a leadership role in facilitating positive outcomes with the DPRK when other countries fail. For example, in March 2003, China reportedly cut off oil supplies to North Korea for three days during a nuclear dispute with the US, prompting Kim Jong-il to briefly slow down reprocessing in favor of dialogue; China was thereafter credited with jumpstarting the Six-Party Talks in August. Three years later, U.S. President George Bush specifically thanked China for brokering the diplomatic breakthrough that once again restarted the stalled Six-Party Talks.

Of course, China’s willingness to use its leverage with North Korea is not entirely motivated by goodwill — Beijing is well aware that its unique ability to influence the DPRK can enhance its negotiating position in Northeast Asia vis-à-vis other regional actors, and it can also potentially draw South Korea further into its sphere of influence, despite the ROK’s strong alliance with the US.[3] Indeed, a 2006 United States Congressional Research Service report entitled, The Rise of China and Its Effect on Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea: U.S. Policy Choices, echoed this sentiment, stating that “China holds a large wild card in the security relationship because of its influence with Pyongyang.”[4]

A Juche Year Late and a 1,000 Short? | Thus, it’s critical to understand that if North Korea defies China and denies it the ability to exercise its strategic leverage over the DPRK, China loses a key negotiating tool in the region. Pyongyang’s apparent disregard for Beijing before the failed 2012 rocket launch has clearly irked the PRC leadership, which may have already begun debating the future of Sino-North Korean relations.

Lee Myung-bak’s meeting with Hu Jintao during the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit apparently played a role in shifting Beijing’s strategic focus South, since it decided to allow numerous North Korean refugees to quietly leave Beijing soon after the summit ended. Until that time, China had not previously released any North Korean defectors to the South during Lee Myung-bak’s presidency. This break from standard repatriation protocol, as well as China’s pledge to dissuade North Korea’s rocket launch, signaled an increasing deterioration in relations with North Korea. To many South Koreans, these are welcome signs that China’s attitude toward North Korea is changing.

Hu Jintai and Lee Myung-bak, via Global Times

Unless North Korea demonstrates a willingness to promote positive changes in its relationship with China, the PRC might eventually come to the conclusion that the relationship is more of a liability than an asset, especially in light of the negative worldwide reaction to China’s policies on North Korean refugees, the unexpected enhancement of bilateral security ties between South Korea and Japan, and the unfavorable security architecture in Northeast Asia, which currently serves to isolate the PRC-DPRK alliance. Ultimately, if North Korea wants to maintain strong ties with China, the leadership in Pyongyang is going to have to do a lot more than send a few delegations to Beijing when China feels slighted.


[1] The Daily NK contradicted the claims made in the Yomiuri Shimbun, but it’s unclear why the Daily NK article unequivocally denies the report based solely on interviews with NGOs that cite anonymous Chinese sources.

[2] In May 2011, China blocked another UN report accusing North Korea of sharing ballistic missile technology with Iran. This report, however, also accused China of being the transit point for the illegal shipments, which Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Hu Zhengyue denied.

[3] See Kim Byung-kook, “Between China, America and North Korea: South Korea’s Hedging,” in Robert S. Ross and Zhu Feng eds., China’s Ascent: Power, Security and the Future of International Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008), 191-217

[4] Dick K. Nanto and Emma Chanlett-Avery, The Rise of China and Its Effect on Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea: U.S. Policy Choices. United States Congressional Research Service, CRS report number: RL32882. January 13, 2006.

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