A Tale of Two and a Half Visits: Wu Dawei, and Rodman vs. The King

By | September 03, 2013 | No Comments

The orchestrator: North Korea's top nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan (left), in Beijing, 2008; image via Ria Novosti

The orchestrator: North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan (left), in Beijing, 2008; image via Ria Novosti

A Tale of Two and a Half Visits: Wu Dawei, and Rodman vs. The King

by Adam Cathcart

When it comes to China, the United States and their respective relations with North Korea, it is difficult to fathom the extent to which the North Korean side succeeds at keeping both of the big powers guessing. For a country often accused of treading the same unalterable Juche path, the North Korean state manages to create genuine befuddlement among American diplomats and frustration among Chinese counterparts.

What Chinese negotiators wouldn’t give for August 2013 to have been even a pale rerun of August of the prior year. Having seen Marshal Ri Yong-ho purged and the door to a seemingly reformist breeze come ajar, Jang Sung-taek, an undisputed North Korean heavyweight, was in Beijing and all over northeast China in August 2012, giving assurances and signing documents to the effect that North Korea was genuinely interested in Chinese advice. Not only that; Jang held out the prospect of a wider opening for foreign investment (read: Chinese companies) in North Korea; he also expressed an overt willingness to take huge strides forward with the Special Economic Zones that Wen Jiabao had helped to carve out in the mouth of the Yalu estuary some years prior. An implicit moratorium on testing of various kinds, and a late July ride on a happy fun fair roller coaster with Kim Jong-un, his gaunt but undeniably powerful aunt, and the Chinese Ambassador in Pyongyang, seemed to validate the optimistic undercurrent.

Fast forward to the end of August 2013, following the bumpiest year in Sino-North Korean relations since perhaps 1992, the year China normalized relations with South Korea. Today we witness a North Korea that has undertaken ballistic missile tests to great Chinese consternation (December 2012), a third nuclear test to further Chinese consternation (February 2013), flirted with a regional war (March and April, 2013), harassed Chinese fishermen in the West Sea (to extreme levels), and failed to even make an overt statement of support for the Six-Party Talks with high-level visits from Pyongyang to Beijing.

Choe Ryong-hae’s visit to Beijing in May 2013 saw the “special envoy” express Kim Jong-un’s “support for China’s efforts to restart Six-Party-type talks,” a semantic twist that was, when one reads carefully, rather distinct from support for restarting the actual talks themselves. (In other words, Kim Jong-un appreciates China’s efforts, but does not appreciate them enough to give in or even so much as utter the words “denuclearization.”) In late July 2013, China sent Li Yuanchao from the Central Committee, though not an occupant of one of the top seven seats in the all-powerful Standing Committee, to speak plainly to Kim Jong-un at the long negotiating table, where the young North Korean leader decided it was best merely to bring an interpreter and Kim Kye-gwan and the negotiating aspect of the visit was downplayed in North Korea’s central press. Finally, on August 25, Pyongyang undertook a propaganda push to further solidify the “Songun (선군/military-first) policy” by declaring the “Day of Songun (선군절),” which became an occasion for Kim Jong-un to offer up a long discursive lecture on the great import of his father’s legacy, while noting the justice of the “parallel line (병진로선)” of developing nukes and economy simultaneously. Suffice it to say, this was not music to Chinese ears.

Wu Dawei, center, with James Steinberg (left) and  Stephan Bosworth (right), at PRC Foreign Ministry in Beijing, June 2009; image via Zimbio/Getty.

Wu Dawei, center, with James Steinberg (left) and Stephan Bosworth (right), at PRC Foreign Ministry in Beijing, June 2009; image via Zimbio/Getty.

Wu Dawei in Pyongyang | On August 25, China’s main representative to the Six-Party Talks, Wu Dawei, arrived, as if out of the blue, in Pyongyang. While such a visit might have seemed an ideal moment for China to blare the trumpets and declare the efficacy of the PRC’s line of diplomacy with North Korea, a contrary response resulted: Chinese press coverage of the event was minimal. While some terse Xinhua dispatches were written in English, the news did not so much as break into the top Chinese-language foreign affairs dailies. As if to confirm how little remarked-upon the visit was, only the stalwarts at Daily NK offered up anything resembling a cogent or extended analysis in English of what Wu Dawei might be doing in the North Korean capital.

Interestingly, Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency noted that Wu had been invited expressly by Kim Kye-gwan, and some Japanese reporters managed to corner the Chinese diplomat on in a city hotel on August 29. He spent probably the better part of an afternoon at the colossal new Korean War museum, which seems as much a shrine to Kim Jong-un as to his grandfather, and upon which the Chinese media has refrained from unleashing the passions of nationalistic netizens, who would doubtless be re-enraged by the lack of representation of Chinese sacrifices in the conflict.

Only two days after Wu returned to China did the PRC Foreign Ministry confirm that, in fact, he had been in Pyongyang, and did so in a way that implied little concord: Wu had been there to “confer/consult [磋商/cuoshang]” with the North Koreans, with whom he had but “exchanged views [交换了意见/jiaohuanle yijian].” There would be no savage, triumphant, or mildly cautionary op-eds in the People’s Daily; the status quo had merely been maintained.

The Visit that Wasn’t: Robert King on the Airport Tarmac | As China and North Korea seem to be circling down into some kind of whirlpool of mutual understanding, the outcome of which remains unclear, the United States and North Korea are fumbling toward a dark accommodation that will allow both sides to retain some dignity and satisfy domestic concerns; or, at the very least, not inflame a regional war.

The gift of divine providence (or, if you like, US intelligence agencies) to Pyongyang’s leaders that is Kenneth Bae continues to give. After several months of tease, North Korea finally managed to arrange for an American diplomat of ample standing to come and discuss the prospect of Mr. Bae’s release. Robert King, a man who by rights should be energized greatly by recent UN investigations into North Korean human rights abuses but should certainly not be the propaganda prize filling in a prisoner release sandwich, was the official of choice.

On a long-planned (and long) tour of Northeast Asia, King’s colleagues at State had left him plenty of opportunity to spend a day or two in Pyongyang. And that, ultimately, is what was planned: At the agreement of the North, King was to fly to the North Korean capital on August 29, and leave the next day, flying in and out of Tokyo. The purpose was to collect Kenneth Bae, and, perhaps, to open up a further channel whereby US-North Korea relations might make some progress.

Unfortunately, the visit was cancelled by the North Koreans just before it was about to proceed. But why?

Most English-language media spent a great deal more ink on August 29 on a salacious rumor from Seoul of Bible-reading pornographers in the Unhasu Orchestra, and that writing, apart from Adam Taylor’s noble effort to contextualize the assertions, is, to put it generously, entirely useless. By contrast, in the present story involving American diplomats and hostages — and presumably verifiable facts — a few basic details as to why the King visit was cancelled still need to be spelled out. And they may well be consequential.

Why and how did North Korea cancel the visit? Did the US send nuclear-armed B-52s near North Korean airspace, as two ministries of the North Korean government seemed to assert, resulting in the King cancellation? And what did we learn from the entire process?

Clandestine in Foggy Bottom and Manhattan: Sunshine in Pyongyang | In a world where probably the vast majority of men and women in Pyongyang who write North Korean press material do not have access to the Internet, it is easy to assume that the burden of secrecy is always on Pyongyang. By contrast, our system is more parliamentarian, oppositional, discursive, and transparent. But occasionally the North Koreans turn the tables and disclose information that the Americans will not.

For instance: What channel was used for the North Koreans to arrange the King visit in the first place? State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, at a press conference in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 2013, was asked the question directly. Having plowed through 49 minutes of queries about Syria, chemical weapons, and the ostensible American desire to “take out” Bashar al-Assad as if he were some inanimate sack of rubbish, the incorrigibly chipper spokesperson was finally forced to turn to the back of her massive binder of briefing papers, where she proceeded to read a short statement about Kenneth Bae.

In the Q. and A. that followed, Harf refused to answer whether it was “the New York channel” whereby the North Koreans had arranged the exchange of Bae, or whether it had been through America’s Swedish allies in Pyongyang. (Lacking a diplomatic base in North Korea, the American government is forced to rely on the humanitarian superpower of Sweden to protect its citizens who fall afoul of North Korea’s ideas of legality, or health and safety.) Fortunately, after consulting Harf’s denial at 52:40 of the C-Span video linked above, we can confirm that it was indeed via “the New York channel” and not via Swedes that the King/Bae exchange was arranged, because the Foreign Ministry — via KCNA — appears to have divulged as much.

Score one up, if you wish, for North Korean transparency.

The Bombers that Weren’t? | Perhaps more consequential: Did the North Koreans really cancel the Robert King visit because, as they appeared to state, the Americans had sent B-52 bombers from Guam to participate in the late August military drills with South Korea? I workshopped this idea on Twitter this afternoon with Andrea Berger, a specialist in North Korean arms control at the Royal United Services Institute in London, who had previously predicted that the North might use the August US-ROK military drills as a pretext for scuppering whatever given diplomatic or cross-border initiative was under way. Through some Google searching, tweeting with Berger and correspondence from a respected Korea journalist slightly off his new regular beat, I was able to find out the following:

– On August 28, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel met with his South Korean counterpart Kim Kwan-jin on the sidelines of an ASEAN Forum in Brunei.

– The National Defense Commission, of which Kim Jong-un is the head, made a statement on August 29 complaining about American nuclear bombers:

The present chief executives of the U.S. and south Korea are loudly speaking about ensuring peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and building reconciliation and confidence between the north and the south. But in fact, they directly choreographed dangerous war racket and confrontation moves, quite contrary to their call. This is a stark reality today.

They started on August 19 the DPRK [North Korea]-targeted Ulji Freedom Guardian war exercises as before under the pretext of “annual” exercises. In mid-August they started the operation of scattering leaflets slandering the DPRK with the use of human scum. […]

During the recent war exercises they flied formations and flying corps of B-52H nuclear strategic bombers from Guam and the U.S. mainland to the sky above the Korean Peninsula round the clock, openly posing nuclear threat to the DPRK.

If the U.S. truly wants denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it should stop the nuclear blackmail against the DPRK. The present rulers of south Korea should drop the double-dealing attitude of tolerating outsider’s nuke while denying the nation’s nuke.

The reference to the bombers coming from Guam would appear to indicate that the NDC is reaching back to a common trope from last March..

– A spokesperson for the US Forces in Korea, asked directly about the B-52 assertion made by the North Korean NDC on August 29, did not deny it.

– On August 30, the North Korean Foreign Ministry cited the B-52 overflights as the trigger for the cancellation of the visit. No one, including Yonhap, the AP/Washington Post, the State Department, its spokesperson Marie Harf, has been able to discern whether or not the Americans actually flew B-52s this time around in some provocative action, or if this was purely a North Korean conjuring of reality.

– As if to provide an answer that obviates speculation about the B-52s and cloud over discussion of which institutions have control in Pyongyang, some anonymous State Department staffers supposedly close to Robert King sees the divine tattooed hand of Dennis Rodman, or rather, a North Korean dictator who loves basketball, behind the arbitrary volte-face. And the North Korean media, having celebrated the arrest of Kenneth Bae as an American tour operator in Rason, reminds the world (on August 29, no less), that foreigners can make big money by starting tourism ventures in North Korea.

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