Salvaging a Misstep? Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae in Beijing

By | June 05, 2013 | No Comments

Was Choe's meeting with Liu Yunshan a pre-Xi test? | image: CCTV screen capture

Was Choe’s (R) meeting with Liu Yunshan (C) a pre-Xi test? | image: CCTV screen capture

On May 23, Sino-NK analyst Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga provided a detailed and timely readout on the possible impact of KPA General Political Department head Choe Ryong-hae’s trip to Beijing. Channeling the multi-faceted back catalogue of  Stevie Wonder, he wondered whether Choe was merely “dressing up for a dressing down” or could, in fact, be about to perform the kind of diplomatic cartwheels needed to seal the deal on a Beijing summit for Kim Jong-un himself. Now, Nathan takes a look back at the Choe show, the Mandiant Intelligence Center Report, and ponders how Choe’s pseudo-tributary diplomatic outreach might affect the impending Xi-Obama summit in California.- Christopher Green, Co-editor

Salvaging a Misstep? Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae in Beijing

by Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga

Choe in China: A Short Summary of the Trip | Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae’s three-day visit to Beijing was widely seen as the first step in repairing Sino-North Korean relations, but obvious disagreements remain over the future of North Korea’s nuclear program. The highlight of the visit was Choe’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, during which he gave Xi a handwritten letter from Kim Jong-un.

China did make progress toward enticing the North back to the negotiating table, and there were no public announcements of agreements rewarding the North for this concession. Choe met several high-profile Chinese leaders, including International Liaison Department head Wang Jiarui, Party School President Liu Yunshan, Vice Minister of the Central Military Commission Gen. Fan Changlong and, most importantly, Xi Jinping. China also kept up with past precedent by dragging Choe to an industrial park in Beijing; an obvious, if so far fruitless, attempt to encourage the North to adopt Chinese-style economic reforms.

The two sides signed off the visit in differing tones on the North Korea nuclear issue, in spite of the last moment face-to-face meeting. The Chinese press relayed comments from Choe whereby “The DPRK is willing to make joint efforts with all parties to appropriately resolve related issues through multilateral dialogue and consultations like the Six-Party Talks, and maintain peace and stability on the peninsula.” Choe first signaled a willingness to return to talks in his meeting with Politburo Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan, and followed-up those comments in conversation with Xi the next day. The meeting with Xi was not announced until it was over, suggesting the possibility that the meeting itself was conditional upon a satisfactory performance in earlier meetings with Wang and Liu. If so, Choe’s statement to Liu on talks likely bought him the meeting with Xi. Continuing his strongly worded statements since the North’s third nuclear test, Xi told Choe that “The denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and lasting peace on the peninsula is what the people want and also the trend of the times.”

Stiff-armed handshake: Choe Ryong-hae meets Xi Jinping in his civilian clothes | image via Xinhua

Stiff-armed handshake: Choe Ryong-hae meets Xi Jinping in his civilian clothes | image: Xinhua

At Their Lowest Ebb: Chinese Academics Explain the Significance of Choe’s Visit | However, this apparently positive step toward the negotiating table seemed to stop at the border, as the North Korean media did not echo the renewed willingness to resume negotiations over the DPRK’s nuclear program. In a sense it was reminiscent of the failed “Leap Day agreement” between the United States and North Korea, when the two nations published differing accounts of the February 29, 2012 agreement to freeze the North’s missile and nuclear programs in exchange for US food aid. Thus, while the comments in the Chinese media are a welcome sign of both positive steps by North Korea and the reappearance of successful Chinese leverage, substantial action by North Korea is needed before we can start writing talking points for the next round of Six-Party Talks.

Chinese academics continue to be skeptical of the North’s goodwill and the sincerity of its offer to return to dialogue. Renmin University Professor Shi Yinhong, following initial reports that Choe would not be meeting with Xi, said that the visit had been “downgraded” and was “primarily aimed at repairing ties which are at their lowest ebb since the Korean War ended in 1953.” Shi’s colleague, Professor Jin Canrong, forecast that China would push for North Korea to return to the negotiating table, which is exactly what happened.

Peking University Professor Zhu Feng did not expect the visit to yield an invite for Kim himself because of China’s firm stance on denuclearization: “A precondition for the [Xi-Kim] summit would be Kim vowing to abandon the pursuit of nuclear weapons and return to the Six-Party Talks, which he wouldn’t do.” After Choe left Beijing, Professor Zhu said that the visit didn’t even mend relations, and insinuated that China is conditioning Kim Jong-un’s visit on the DPRK actually returning to denuclearization talks.

If true, this will provide a good test for both Kim’s assessment of his need for Beijing in comparison to his need for nuclear weapons, as well as Beijing’s willingness to hold firm on its demands—if North Korea never returns to the Six-Party Talks, will Kim ever be allowed to visit Beijing? Furthermore, the absence of agreements or statements on economic cooperation may reflect China’s continued displeasure at North Korea, and suggests that it will take another high-level visit to finally arrange the new North Korean leader’s long-awaited inaugural visit to Beijing.

However, Professor Zhang Liangui of the Central Party School had possibly the most important statement of all the Chinese academics as he appraised Choe’s visit. He saw it as the North trying to salvage its misstep:

The North’s provocations backfired and have pushed China and the US closer together, resulting in more frequent high-level exchanges between the two countries. So it is trying a new way to sabotage Sino-US ties.

More importantly, Zhang believes that “The former administration always put ensuring the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula in first place, while the current administration sets the denuclearization of the peninsula first.” This is a strong signal from a party insider that the Xi administration is approaching the North Korea issue with a different set of priorities than the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao administration. Placing denuclearization first on the agenda has long been the US stance and would be a welcome, if unexpected, change in China’s approach, although this would still not amount to China “abandoning” North Korea.

Xi Jinping meets President Obama again later this week, but this time as president | image: White House capture

Xi Jinping meets President Obama again later this week, but this time as President Xi | image: White House capture

Engaging North Korea, Cyberattacks Be Damned: China’s Efforts to Get North Korea to the Negotiating Table | The Chinese government’s renewed diplomatic push on North Korea seems tied to Xi Jinping’s upcoming visit to California for his first official meet and greet with President Obama. While we initially expected the Pentagon’s report directly accusing the Chinese government and military of cyberattacks on the United States to stop any Chinese cooperation on the North Korea issue, China’s unexpected response may reveal Beijing’s priorities in the US-China relationship. Further, we predicted China would be indignant over the accusation and seek to exact some revenge on the United States, pinpointing cooperation over North Korea as an easy target for Chinese displeasure. However, evidently this was wrong because China appears to be very forcefully trying to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table.

What explains this unexpected response? One explanation is that the Chinese government was actually not that upset over the cyberattack accusations, while Xi Jinping does have a genuine desire to pressure North Korea towards denuclearization. Another is that China has decided to ignore the Pentagon’s allegations and wants progress on North Korea as a sign of goodwill in improving US-China relations.

A more pessimistic explanation is that the PLA has judged that cyberattacks against the United States as so vital to China’s security that the PLA must continue them. Indeed, the PLA has reportedly restarted the attacks after a lull following the Mandiant report. In order to continue the cyberattacks without damaging overall US-China relations, the Xi administration may have decided to trade progress on North Korea in exchange for the United States turning a blind eye to the cyber issue. The Obama administration will no doubt reject this attempt to use North Korea as a bargaining chip and will press China over the cyber issue. It remains to be seen if the Xi administration’s newfound pressure on North Korea will continue after Xi Jinping’s summit with President Obama, which would indicate a true change in policy, rather than a mere change in bargaining tactics.

Further Reading:

Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, “A Choe in the Land of La La: Reviving China-North Korea Relations,” Sino-NK, May 23, 2013.

Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, “Bargaining Over North Korea,” CHINA-US Focus [online], May 21, 2013.

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