A Choe in the Land of La La: Reviving China-North Korea Relations
A special envoy departs for Pyongyang, stealing a march on a growing line of leaders waiting for their own audience in Beijing. With the arrival of Choe Ryong-hae, two allies that have been at their dysfunctional best for months now appear to be jaw-jawing their way onto a slightly different footing. It’s hard to say what will come of it, but if anyone can appraise the Chinese perspective, it’s Sino-NK analyst Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, who recently turned out more top class analysis at China-US Focus. And with music, too!- Christopher Green, Co-editor.
A Choe in the Land of La La: Reviving China-North Korea Relations
by Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga
The Special Envoy Is in Town | Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae’s visit to Beijing provides a good opportunity to reappraise the current status of China-North Korea relations as pundits attempt to guess the narrative, tone and substance of talks between the Chinese government and Choe. With Chinese media emphasizing Choe’s desire to ameliorate relations, very little specific information about his delegation’s conversation with CCP Central Committee Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan was forthcoming.
Just how bad are China-North Korea relations right now? What can Choe possibly expect to receive from Beijing after the North’s continued blatant disregard for Chinese calls for calm and restraint, even just last weekend with the launch of six short-range rockets from its East Sea coast? What can we read into Choe’s visit, and will it finally lead to a Kim Jong-un visit to Beijing? Following in the tradition established by Marcus Noland, Sino-NK has decided to set this essay to music, because only Stevie Wonder could possibly capture the multi-faceted relationship that China and North Korea share. In a song about asking for forgiveness, no less.
Like a fool I went and stayed too long,
Now I’m wondering if your love’s still strong.
Dressing Up for a Dressing-Down | Most importantly, this trip represents the first high-level discussion between the two governments since Chinese Politburo member Li Jianguo traveled to Pyongyang last November in a failed attempt to dissuade Kim from conducting his December missile test. Prospects had seemed bright for relations between the two new leaders after Kim’s talk of reforms in June last year (6.28방침; June 28 Directive) and Jang Song-taek’s economics-heavy visit in August, but Kim’s congratulatory message on the occasion of Xi assuming the top post in Beijing now seems perfunctory. Relations between the two countries deteriorated with the December test, and have yet to improve.
Aside from Liu Yunshan, Choe has also met with Wang Jiarui, head of the International Liaison Department and primary Chinese interlocutor with the North Korean regime. Notably, though, he is apparently not scheduled to meet with Xi Jinping, after Jang Song-taek met with China’s previous leadership team on his visit last year.
Choe must have flown in prepared to answer for the North’s actions and receive an undiplomatic dressing-down from his Chinese hosts. Under Xi, China has adopted its strongest response to the North’s provocations since Hu Jintao called the North’s first nuclear test “flagrant” in 2006. China condemned both the December 2012 missile test and February 2013 nuclear test, and allowed tougher sanctions for both, the first time the North has been sanctioned for a missile test and the first time that specific luxury items have been defined in the sanctions. China also cooperated to an unprecedented extent with the United States to draft UN Security Council Resolution 2094 in response to the nuclear test, although Beijing undoubtedly still worked to limit its scope. China is still not fully enforcing existing sanctions, either, but has at least signaled a greater willingness to do so, notably with the Bank of China’s decision to cut ties with the DPRK’s Foreign Trade Bank (with a slight nudge from U.S. unilateral sanctions).
Yet Xi has also made it clear that China will not abandon North Korea, and that China does not appreciate the United States using the North’s actions as an excuse to build up military presence in China’s backyard. Xi admonished an unnamed country, saying “no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains,” while Premier Li Keqiang said, “Provocations on the Korean Peninsula will harm the interests of all sides and it is the same as picking up a rock to drop it on one’s feet.” While the background suggests the comments were aimed at North Korea, they could equally have been a warning to the United States to avoid exploiting the North’s actions for U.S. gain in the region.
Then that time I went and said goodbye,
Now I’m back and not ashamed to cry.
Bilateral Action Everywhere You Look | Choe’s visit comes against the backdrop of increased diplomatic activity across the region. The United States and China have finally set a date for Xi Jinping’s first meeting with President Obama, so Kim knows he will be a topic of discussion early next month. The same can be said of the second half of June, when President Park Geun-hye of South Korea comes to town. Indeed, South Korean commentators have been quick to point out that Choe has, for want of a better term, “pushed in.”
Recent visits by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey yielded nothing more from Beijing than ambiguous platitudes and the hosts’ “assurance that they are working on it,” but the talks were important and likely worried Kim that his patron may finally be growing tired of North Korea’s tantrums. Conversely, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a delegate to Pyongyang last week in an effort to revive discussions between the two nations, offering a reminder to all that North Korea also has other options besides Beijing and Washington, and that Japan, which has its own issues with China, is still a player in the ongoing Korean drama. China’s reception of the Japan-DPRK talks was rather cold, suggesting that North Korea was simply playing Japan for a fool, and uninterested in a broader regional detente.
Here I am baby,
Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m yours.
(You got my future in your hands.)
So, where does this leave Choe’s visit? Choe will likely cover the typical range of topics favored by North Korea—stronger economic cooperation and smoothing over political differences. He will seek to reaffirm Chinese interest in the special economic zones along the border the two share, and possibly request access for more North Korean workers in northeast China now that Kaesong has closed. He may also ask for food aid, although North Korea’s harvests are said to have improved this year. Chinese media have been bolder than ever in linking North Korea’s parlous food situation with the government’s desire to test weapons, but this surely won’t stop the request.
Equally if not more importantly, he will also seek a summit meeting with Xi, something that is badly needed to feed the propaganda mill back in Pyongyang. Kim is marketed domestically as a great world leader, but this mythical fire burns fuel fast. In other words, Kim needs Xi’s handshake.
In return, Choe’s hosts will likely embark upon a frank discussion of China’s frustrations with North Korea and opposition to their nuclear program, along with strongly suggesting the utility of a return to the Six-Party Talks and economic reforms. Beijing is still interested in economic cooperation, but may also see it as leverage to force some concessions from Pyongyang.
The public agreements released at the culmination of Choe’s visit will be a good gauge of China’s appraisal of the relationship going forward, as well as Xi’s willingness to forgive (if not forget) the North’s intransigence over the last five months. If Choe can return to Pyongyang with a public reaffirmation of continued cooperation over the special economic zones, which both sides want, this is a win for the North and likely the bare minimum for Chinese support. If Choe can secure more food aid, this would be an even bigger win and would again reaffirm China’s commitment to the survival of the Kim regime, though it was never actually in question. In return, China would be pleased for the North to voice a willingness or at least openness to return to the Six-Party Talks, but that is unlikely to happen. China may also ask for an apology for the second kidnapping of Chinese fisherman by North Korea in a year, but the North Korean government is unlikely to openly admit responsibility.
I’ve done a lot of foolish things,
That I really didn’t mean, didn’t I?
Summitry Over the Rainbow? | Realistically, an announcement of an upcoming Kim visit to Beijing would be a surprise, albeit not a shock, but rumors of a visit for later this summer or fall will circulate in the South Korean press regardless once Choe returns to Pyongyang. We must remember that this is not an outlandish concept: while the United States has to have a cooling down period between North Korean provocations and U.S.-DPRK talks, China has no shame in inviting the Kim family over for tea—indeed, Kim Jong-il’s first of three visits to Beijing towards the end of his life was a mere month and a half after North Korea sank a South Korean naval corvette, killing 46 sailors.
While Xi Jinping and the Chinese government are undoubtedly and understandably frustrated with North Korea, China’s decision to continue supporting the North requires some amount of high-level dialogue merely to keep the relationship going. At a minimum, this visit revives that dialogue and seeks to put the relationship on a firm footing—an unfriendly and dysfunctional union of no better alternatives. Watching from afar, the United States, South Korea and Japan must hope that relations between the two communist allies improve enough for Beijing to regain some leverage over North Korea and restart efforts to encourage economic reform under Kim Jong-un.
Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, “Bargaining Over North Korea,” CHINA-US Focus [online], May 21, 2013.