Does a New Ambassador Mean a “Reset” In China-North Korea Relations?

By | March 27, 2015 | No Comments

Ambassador Li at his inauguration as 11th Ambassador of the People's Republic of China to the Republic of the Philippines. | Image: PRC Embassy to the Republic of the Philippines

Ambassador Li at his inauguration as 11th Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to the Republic of the Philippines. | Image: PRC Embassy to the Republic of the Philippines

While Swedish diplomats certainly play an important intermediary role for people and governments (e.g., the United States) who wish to engage with Pyongyang, China’s ambassador to the DPRK might be the most important foreign dignitary in the country. So when a new ambassador is posted, heads turn. Among of flurry of other diplomatic appointments last week, Beijing designated Li Jinjun the new ambassador to North Korea. Basing the bulk of his analysis on a close reading of relevant Chinese-language sources, Sino-NK analyst Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga unpacks Beijing’s decision, providing rich context and sound analysis in the process. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Does a New Ambassador Mean a “Reset” In China-North Korea Relations?

by Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga

On March 18, Li Jinjun was announced as the new ambassador to Pyongyang to replace Liu Hongcai, who had been Beijing’s envoy to North Korea since 2010. The announcement was officially based on a decision by the National People’s Congress (NPC), which met earlier this month, and enacted by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xinhua separately announced another eight ambassadorial changes the next day, but Li was certainly the most high-profile appointment in a group that included new ambassadors to Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Burundi and the Fiji Islands, among others.

When it comes to North Korea policy, it is hard to say that anything is particularly “routine,” but the announcement of the change in the Pyongyang embassy was very much handled in a bundle with other bureaucratic moves.

A European Expert Cast to North Korea| Ambassador Li Jinjun holds the rank of Vice Minister in the International Liaison Department (ILD). He is a Europe specialist who previously served as ambassador to Burma (2001-2005) and the Philippines (2005-2007). Unlike many of his cohort in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (including Xi Jinping and Zhang Dejiang), he was fortunate in that his education was not interrupted by the Cultural Revolution; he joined the first big class of college students to attend university in 1972 at age 16, an impressive feat.

Li studied abroad in East Germany right before joining the ILD a year later in 1975, where he spent his entire career and rose through the ranks. Li worked in the German embassy from 1987 to 1991 and spent 20 years of his career focusing on Europe, first on the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe and then eventually running the ILD’s Western Europe bureau. His one exception was a year spent in the Shandong countryside in 1993-1994; a common detour for Chinese diplomats to gain limited governing experience. Interestingly, he spent nine years in the ILD before he joined the CCP in 1984. Of note, Li was former leader Deng Xiaoping’s translator during Deng’s first visit to Germany in 1984, over three decades ago.

A Long Line of Ambassadors | Li appears to fit the general mold of an ambassador to North Korea much better than his processor, Liu Hongcai. Liu (2010-2015) was a career ILD official who had only spent three years abroad in Japan, based in the Chinese embassy in Tokyo, and had no previous ambassadorial experience. This was in stark contrast to Liu Xiaoming (2006-2010), a Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) official who had earned a master’s degree in the United States at Tufts University and rose through the ranks in the MFA’s United States division, eventually becoming Deputy Chief of Mission in the Washington embassy.[1]

Liu Xiaoming had also spent time in Zambia as a young official and was ambassador to Egypt before heading to Pyongyang. Liu is now infamous for his op-ed campaign against his Japanese counterpart in London, writing in the Telegraph last year that “If militarism is like the haunting Voldemort of Japan, the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is a kind of horcrux, representing the darkest parts of that nation’s soul.” It seems doubtful that Liu Hongcai, although surely a wonderful companion for a Spring Festival feast, would ever write anything so memorable.

China’s previous envoys to Pyongyang have had diverse backgrounds. Wu Donghe (2001-2006) was a career Africa specialist, spending time in Togo and Madagascar and as ambassador to Niger and Mali before serving in Pyongyang in the lead-up to North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006. Wang Guozhang (1999-2001), who had likely the shortest tenure as ambassador, was largely an anti-corruption and discipline specialist, serving in the MFA’s Discipline Inspection Committee, but also spent time in Tunisia and Macao. None of these ambassadors had any experience with North Korea, or any other socialist states. Thus it is not surprising that China did not elevate its charge d’affaires in Pyongyang, Tian Baozhen, to Ambassador, even though he has massive experience in both Koreas and speaks the language fluently.

Most importantly with respect to policy continuity and the new Ambassador, Li becomes the second International Liaison Department (ILD) veteran in a row to become ambassador to North Korea. According to Sina, this marks a reversal of a trend since the 1970s of Chinese ambassadors to North Korea coming from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Li’s status as a Vice Minister reinforces North Korea’s symbolic importance to China, as (by Sina’s count) only nine countries have such senior officials—the United States, Japan, Russia, Brazil and India, among other big powers. Sina noted that, like Li, other ambassadors also had local governing experience, including Pan Zili (1955-1956), who served as Party Secretary of Ningxia and Shanxi province, as well as others who were Party secretaries of Chengdu and Shenyang.

Liu Hongcai is now back at the ILD in Beijing as a Vice Minister. While some may question why he has not been reassigned to a more prestigious position, it is more than possible that returning to his old post will allow him to continue playing a role in China-North Korea relations. Liu is one of the few senior Chinese officials who have met young leader Kim Jong-un, famously riding a Ferris wheel with him in 2012. With Zhou Yongkang, who effectively introduced Kim Jong-un to the world in October 2010, having been not just sidelined but effectively purged, China needs all the continuity it can get with North Korea.

Sino-NK profiled Liu’s role in the bilateral relationship extensively in its Dossier No. 4, by Nick Miller. Liu’s new role in Beijing was uncovered by a Chinese reporter who noticed that the ILD had updated their website to re-include Liu on their roll of Vice Ministers.

Ambassador Liu Hongcai on an unpaved sporting ground in Sinuiju, DPRK, on October 20 2014. Image: PRC Embassy in Pyongyang.

Ambassador Liu Hongcai on an unpaved sporting ground in Sinuiju, DPRK, on October 20 2014. Image: PRC Embassy in Pyongyang.

Chinese Media Coverage | With such intense global media scrutiny of North Korea and of the Sino-North Korean relationship, one might imagine that such a significant appointment would garner a significant response. In the PRC, such was not the case. The only in-depth coverage and analysis of the appointment in the Chinese media was from Southern Net, a news portal for Guangdong province. By comparison, most other major portals and news sites simply carried the bare announcement from Xinhua or rehashed Li’s bio from Chinese state-run mixed with some content from Southern Net. Chinese scholars did not appear in any Chinese language coverage of the appointment, even though Yang Xiyu, a former senior MFA official, on the March 17, the day before, and March 19, the day after the announcement.

This may be due in part because the Chinese government appears to have worked to downplay the change, waiting until the Dandong government revealed Li’s new title on March 17. People’s Daily Online even cited the Dandong government as part of its coverage.

The Southern Net article was the most explicit, explaining Li’s appointment as advantageous insofar as it continued the precedent of having the ambassador be an ILD official, which would lead to “easy counterpart contact and bilateral communication, meaning there is hope for a return to better Sino-North Korean relations.” Southern Net also rather explicitly noted that the ILD is responsible for foreign relations with the North. Li was described as a straight-shooter, having recently discussed in an interview the “sensitive” Myitsone Dam issue, which China had agreed to build in Myanmar but the project was suspended by Myanmar in 2011 due to domestic political pressure.[2]

Li’s tenures in Myanmar and the Philippines were cast as successful exercises in “trouble-shooting,” and the Philippines Minister of Foreign Affairs reportedly applauded Li when he left in 2007 for his work to jointly develop the South China Sea and maintain stability.

The other notable Chinese media article on the appointment was in China Daily’s English language edition, suggesting that this narrative is a signal for how the Chinese government wants the appointment to be interpreted by the English-speaking world, namely the United States and Europe. The article quoted Yang Xiyu as saying that the “new ambassador is both senior and seasoned” and that “Li will be tasked with the improvement of relations by strengthening economic ties and stepping up efforts to stop the country from pursuing nuclear weapons,” in part through “[facilitating] nuclear talks.” Yang added that “Li is trusted because of his ability to ease tensions with neighboring countries,” echoing Southern Net.

Central Party School professor Zhang Liangui also told China Daily that North Korea’s recent outreach to Russia and South Korea “will be limited if the country does not drop its nuclear weapons ambitions,” concluding that “China’s relations with the DPRK may undergo ups and downs, but it is not affected by any single events,” likely meaning Kim’s purge of his uncle, Jang Song-taek. Kim’s fateful decision still reverberates in China today, as Global Times reran a December 2013 article about Jang’s purge on March 10, just a week before Li was appointed the next ambassador. Yang’s comments about denuclearization and the Six Party Talks dovetail well with the Chinese government’s continued push to revive the dormant forum, but Li faces an uphill climb with U.S. government resistance to restarting talks without certain conditions.

Uncovering Li’s Policy Positions | Li Jinjun may come from the same institution as his predecessor has, but, to put it bluntly, he is neither obligated to imitate his predecessor in every single aspect nor is he to be considered immune from the very clear messaging which has been put forth by President Xi in the past year with respect to China’s diplomacy. One immediately apparent difference between Li Jinjun and his predecessor is their welcome messages on the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang’s homepage, where Li has taken a more strident stance in line with a bolder approach to the relationship under President Xi.

Li Jinjun’s message does not repeat Liu’s emphasis on “close high-level exchanges” and “maintaining communication and coordination on the international stage and regional affairs,” but notably adds that China will work to “maintain peace and stability on the peninsula,” a Chinese term for restraining aggressive and destabilizing actions by both the North and South. Liu Hongcai’s message has already been removed, but a cached version reveals a more positive tone and highlights “deepening cooperation.” Sino-NK is unable to compare these messages to that of Liu Xiaoming or other earlier ambassadors. The Chinese embassy also failed to update at least one page during their apparent rush.

In his meeting with Dandong officials, Li indicated he “would pull all the resources together to promote the opening-up of the border city,” suggesting that China will likely continue to support greater trade and investment in the North and advocate for Kim to pursue his own version of China’s “Reform and Opening,” all intended to help spur the local economy of China’s northeast provinces. However, despite the Chinese government’s best efforts for over 15 years, Jilin and Liaoning provinces have little to show.

Xiangqi, or Chinese chess, requires as much strategy as does diplomacy. | Image: Brian Hirschy

Xiangqi, or Chinese chess, requires as much strategy as does diplomacy. | Image: Brian Hirschy

Implications for China-North Korea Relations | From the perspective of Southern Net’s positive coverage, Li’s first task an ambassador could very well be to get the relationship back on track, but that would assume a coherent vision from the Chinese leadership for where the bilateral relationship should go. The Chinese leadership under President Xi appears uninteresting in maintaining high-level political contacts simply for the sake of “normalcy,” but is also largely unable to influence Kim Jong-un into behavior more favorable to China. Liu Hongcai was obviously ineffectual at reining in Kim Jong-il during the 2010 inter-Korean conflicts or Kim Jong-un during the 2013 nuclear test and several missile tests, but he was not removed from office for those failings. Indeed, Liu did oversee the succession to Kim Jong-un, fought for the safety of Chinese tourists in trouble in North Korea, and maintained at least some contact with the North Korean government when relations turned cold under President Xi. The question is if Li will provide more than just a fresh face for the relationship, and afford the Xi administration the forceful advocate it needs to create a receptive audience in Pyongyang for Chinese messages and signals.

The timing of the appointment officially falls with the Chinese political calendar during the NPC meeting, and Liu Hongcai’s four years in Pyongyang do fit the general trend of ambassadors’ tenures lasting between four to six years going back to 1956, with the aforementioned exception of Wang Guozhang. It is therefore unwise to read the present change as evidence that President Xi and his fellow Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) members desire an immediate change in the personal dynamics of the Sino-North Korean relationship. There are no noteworthy recent events in the Sino-North Korean relationship that would explain a speedy exit for Liu, and Sino-NK can find no foreshadowing by Chinese experts or officials that suggest a tectonic change has been in the works.

It is also unlikely that this is part of preparations for a Xi-Kim meeting in Moscow in May for Russia’s commemoration of its defeat of Germany in WWII. A series of meeting and shuttle diplomacy between senior officials from both sides would likely be evident before such a meeting, and that has not yet happened publicly. Of note, Liu’s predecessor, Liu Xiaoming, a MFA veteran who is now ambassador to Great Britain, was reportedly requested to be recalled by North Korea when North Korean intelligence services been eavesdropping on the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang overheard him tell a group of Chinese investors that they should take their money elsewhere and not invest in North Korea. However, Sino-NK has heard no similar admonitions of Liu’s personal handling of the relationship in Pyongyang and Li’s background as another ILD official suggests the change is more procedural than indicative of a power struggle over North Korea policy in Beijing.

Several indicators to Li’s reception in Pyongyang include: 1) how soon he meets with any senior North Korean official, and especially when he meets with Kim Jong-un; 2) how many site visits Li is forced to attend for publicity photos versus how many significant meetings he has in the first months; and 3) how his comments on the standard issues of bilateral political relations, economic cooperation and denuclearization are framed in the North Korean and Chinese state media. There is also the matter of his appointment being confirmed in the North Korean media, which has gone quite cold toward China in every area–state television as well as, oddly, the Chinese-language website of the Rodong Sinmun.

For analysts, Li’s appointment should confirm that the ILD will maintain control of the bilateral political relationship and day-to-day interactions for the foreseeable future, despite this responsibility ostensibly falling to the MFA. However, the ILD has been somewhat sidelined recently in its ability to influence policy-making as President Xi has consolidated power to himself, including on North Korea issues. Ambassador Li may indeed present an opportunity for the ILD to regain some influence over policy in Beijing and generate momentum for the relationship in Pyongyang.


[1] There is conflicting information about Liu Xiaoming’s exact dates in Pyongyang, since his UK embassy page says he left in 2009 but his North Korea embassy page says he left in 2010.

[2] Sino-NK was unable to find the original interview with Li about the Myitsone Dam.

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