Considering a Reset of China’s ‘Special Relationship’ with North Korea: Huffington Post Live

By | December 19, 2012 | No Comments

Adam Cathcart with Abby Huntsman

Abby Huntsman, pictured with SinoNK’s Adam Cathcart, leads a conversation about the past, present, and future of the Chinese-North Korean relationship.

Considering a Reset of China’s ‘Special Relationship’ with North Korea: Huffington Post Live

by Roger Cavazos

This afternoon, host Abby Huntsman (daughter of former US Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman) led a roundtable that dealt squarely with a number of issues that concern us here at SinoNK, and which included our own Editor-in-Chief, Adam Cathcart.

The other North Korea literati on the virtual roundtable included Michael Mazza (American Enterprise Institute), Brian Fung (The Atlantic) and Gabriel Mizrahi (The North Korea Blog).  This ensured a nice diversity of views paired with significant background knowledge.

The engaging discussion was as needed as a quenching rain on a parched South Hwanghae ricefield and as broad as the Anbyon plain where the Red Crown Cranes, stubbornly impervious to any ideology, often winter. Of course, the main subjects of discussion were China, North Korea and the U.S.  The thirty minute discussion was more of an airing of North Korea issues than they received during the entire series of Presidential debates, the long primary season included.  However, even a five person roundtable with a superb moderator simply isn’t enough to address every subject.

Some of the more important points that were addresses included: What does China get out of the relationship? Why don’t we (US, China, North Korea) have a conversation on the subject of planning? and What can be done to make this relationship work better?

However, in the following coda to the conversation, I wanted to lay out a short list of some topics that were skirted in the roundtable and remain unresolved.

North Korean defector Eunsun Kim is fluent in Chinese -- but will her story change minds in China?  | Image via Paris Match

North Korean defector Eunsun Kim is fluent in Chinese — but will her story change minds in China? | Image via Paris Match

–What about human rights, and specifically refoulement of refugees back to the DPRK?

Surely, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does not see the humanitarian angle as key to improving or disintegrating relations; China can barely take care of its own citizens.  As for Chinese rendering aid to hungry border-jumpers, it bears noting that China has an extremely inane law that whoever finds someone in distress must have caused the distress. Along these lines, simply locating North Koreans in distress requires admitting North Korea has problems severe enough to warrant people leaving. The PRC has seen more media about this topic in spring 2012 than in the previous ten years combined, but the discourse on North Korean refugees within China itself remains nascent at best.

If China recognizes a large problem, that only invites what China likely considers an even larger problem: pesky NGO’s.  There’s no reason to believe this will change anytime soon and as a pragmatic consideration the quieter, the whole matter, the more flexibility China has to assimilate the North Korean refugee flow.  Even 100,000 refugees is a statistical rounding error in the populations of Liaoning, Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces.

It's all hugs and smiles in Pyongyang, but when will the North Korean leader venture to Beijing?

It’s all hugs and smiles in Pyongyang, but when will the North Korean leader venture to Beijing? | Image via KCTV

–How long until China allows Kim Jong-un to visit?

Kim Jong-il often ended his visits by embarassing his Chinese patrons and proving that China really has little control over DPRK or proving that China does not want to exert what control it does have.  (The ultimate example was the DPRK’s claim that it had achieved “cold nuclear fission” — a nuclear holy grail — two days after Kim Jong-il returned from China in May 2010.)  Either way, DPRK has shown that Chinese interests are not fundamentally aligned with Western interests either by strength or weakness.  How soon China allows Kim to visit will likely tell us something about China’s views.  Too soon, and the perception could be that China is thumbing their nose at the rest of the world.  Too late, and what little influence China may have diminishes even further.

Kim Jong Un seems unlikely to retrace Jang Song Taek's precise "footsteps" in China, but deciding on the itinerary for Kim's first formal visit abroad is likely the source of some consternation in Pyongyang.

Kim Jong Un seems unlikely to retrace Jang Song Taek’s precise “footsteps” in China, but deciding on the itinerary for Kim’s first formal visit abroad is likely the source of some consternation in Pyongyang.

–Will China in fact be the first foreign visit for Kim Jong-un?

It’s always been a presupposition that Kim Jong-un would go to China first, but if he’s feeling too much overt pressure from Beijing, Mother Russia would likely welcome home the son of a native-born Russian (Kim Jong-il’s official bio says he was born at Mount Paektu [Chang Bai Shan], but Soviet records indicate he was born in Russia.)  The North Korean press has sent quite a few signals that a trip to the Russian Far Eastern provinces, via Rason, could be in the offing.  Russia just built a brand new highway and railway to Rason.  What better way to do an on-site inspection of that almost always forgotten North Hamgyong province than stopping en route to or from Russia?

–What are the Chinese doing to prevent a third North Korean nuclear test?

Stanford’s Xue Litai (薛理泰) published a rather stunning op-ed in the Huanqiu Shibao that is as frank a discussion as we are likely to see in the Chinese press about the negative outcomes associated with a third North Korean nuclear test. It may be that we will be seeing more such views, including translations of those expressed by Sig Hecker, entering the Chinese commentary sphere in the coming weeks. This is a very ginger issue in the Chinese press, and one that we plan to continue to track at SinoNK.

Watch the Huffington Post’s full 30-minute roundtable here. Host and moderator Abby Huntsman can be followed on Twitter.  

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