The New Normal: Liu Yunshan in Pyongyang

By | October 18, 2015 | No Comments

Kim Jong-un is joined by senior Chinese official Liu Yunshan (Kim's right) and Choe Ryong-hae, who has emerged as North Korea's key PRC-DPRK relations point man. | Image: CCTV/YouTube

Kim Jong-un acknowledges the crowd from the podium in Kim Il-sung Square on the evening of October 10. Kim was joined onstage by senior Chinese official Liu Yunshan (on Kim’s right) and Choe Ryong-hae, who has emerged since the spring of 2013 as the North Korean leadership’s point man on relations with China and appeared to cement his authority in the role during Liu’s visit. | Image: CCTV/YouTube

October 10, the 70th anniversary of the Chosun Workers’ Party, was by far the most important event on the 2015 North Korean political calendar. The arrival of Liu Yunshan in Pyongyang for that event has generally been interpreted as a manifestation of China’s desire to mend some fences with its old ally, and North Korea’s reciprocity of that urge. Carrying a hand-written and comparatively effusive letter from Xi Jinping in his briefcase, Liu did everything his North Korean colleagues could have asked of him, up to and including bilateral hi-fives with Kim Jong-un above Kim Il-sung Square at the end of the Korean Peoples Army parade on October 10. 

With relations around the Northeast Asian region in flux and trouble in the South China Sea, North Korea again seems to be a useful diplomatic lever, one that Xi Jinping and his foreign affairs apparatus may have decided once again to covet.

Naturally, there is just cause for circumspection; a look back at news and analysis of Choe Ryong-hae’s trip to Beijing as Kim’s personal envoy in May 2013 points to a familiar dynamic in play. Back then, Choe had been charged with running defense following North Korea’s nuclear test in February that year, such that he was never likely to accomplish much. But irrespective of the thanklessness of his task, it remains the case that relations persisted in broadly the same manner — muddling through — thereafter. Who is to say things will be different this time around? — Christopher Green, Co-editor.

The New Normal: Liu Yunshan in Pyongyang

by Adam Cathcart

If international media reporting is to be believed, there is no such thing as an inconsequential trip to Pyongyang. No matter how staged the revolutionary capital or its events may be, no matter how many hours or minutes the reporter or tourist may spend on a bus or train, cocooned out from ostensible “reality” outside, such a trip can both stir and temporarily satiate the hunger for perspectives from North Korea. Perhaps the reality for China scholars in the 1970s has become that of the North Korea specialist in the 2010s, with the minor addition of the Internet, that perpetual machine of beckoning novelty.

Recall Jon Sweeney’s portentous spring 2013 documentary voice-over about construction going on at night next door to his Pyongyang hotel, an occurrence which the then-BBC reporter seemed to think augured some combination of mystery, mass psychosis, and possible upheaval. This was his data point, and it had to be brandished: In Pyongyang, buildings are being constructed — at night! While theatrical in the extreme, Sweeney’s mode of observation as a political tourist-journalist has its reasons: Perhaps every small detail does indeed merit going over, rather like a sheet of braille writing. After all, one just might encounter irregular configuration or rip in the proverbial paper such that a “truth” might be finally revealed.

Taking such an approach toward Pyongyang could be useful when a Chinese guest is in town, seemingly pretending that nothing has changed since the 1950s. Rather than fixating on the October 10 military parade as some kind of “message” about missile development or the allegedly fanatical hold of North Korean Songun ideology, we might turn a more detailed eye on the actual documents and images concerning diplomacy.

When Liu Yunshan met Kim Jong-un | As depicted on North Korean television, the sit-down bilateral headed by Kim Jong-un and Liu Yunshan was more or less dominated by the DPRK Supreme Leader, who held forth extemporaneously about traditional friendship. The fleshy slabs of scalp which Kim exposes to those lucky enough to get near him were never glistening with any nervous sweat; he did not appear to overdo the alpha-male gesturing such as he had at a dinner with Wang Jiarui in 2012. Instead, he was appropriately gregarious, flashing the grin of his which has been transposed posthumously onto images of his grandfather. Kim Jong-un did not appear to be any more overweight than previously, just his normal chubby self, and he moved well when he finally stood, long since having recovered his gait from an operation and long disappearance about a year ago.

The footage from a Chinese camera crew allowed into the same meeting is much more interesting. The Chinese footage shows Kim Jong-un receiving a letter from Xi Jinping in a burgundy folder embossed with the universal Communist Party symbol; the North Korean leader looked at the letter within for about a second before putting it down on the table. Handing something to Kim Jong-un without it having been checked first is unthinkable, so it can be assumed that the document was inspected prior to having been handed over the table. Kim Jong-un did pick up the letter again after the meeting, then quickly had it taken away so that he could marvel at a watercolour given to him by the CCP delegation, for whom this ceremony of gift-giving must have felt slightly feudal.

In some ways the most interesting aspect of the footage of the meeting released by the Chinese side were the parts revealing Kim Jong-un to be fairly wedded to his notes in discussions with the Chinese delegation. In other words, he was unable to hold the various catch-phrases or talking points, or names of the delegation members, in his head, and was forced to rely on written materials while he made remarks or responded to queries from Liu Yunshan. Does this detail really matter much at all? Certainly if you are concerned about the degree to which Kim Jong-un is a capable leader or able to do diplomacy without a safety net, perhaps it does.

Kim Jong-un as seen on Chinese Central TV reports.

Kim Jong-un as seen on Chinese Central TV reports. Kim Ki-nam is to his right; to his left is his translator, who also worked for Kim Jong-il. | Image: Chinese Central TV

One of the strange things that appears to be a pattern with high level bilaterals with Chinese counterparts in Pyongyang is the phenomenon of  the empty chair on the North Korean side.  In 2013, one chair had been filled by Kang Sok-ju, who took a rather well-publicized diplomatic tour to Europe about a year ago. But Kang has become quite ill of late, and was not seen at all during the Liu visit.  Having Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong at the meeting would have been a conventional choice, but perhaps that would have sent the wrong signal to China about being OK with having been “demoted” to a normal relationship rather than Party-Party. And given the high level of International Liaison Department representation on the Chinese side — with the facially nimble Wang Jiarui and the stodgy but amiable former Ambassador to the DPRK Liu Hongcai in attendance — perhaps that was it.

Another individual who had sat in on previous high-level Kim Jong-un meetings with Chinese reps, Kim Kye-gwan, was absent. Why? While perhaps an obvious point, it appears that there was little specific discussion of the nuclear and missile programs going on at this specific meeting between the two powers. Kim Yang-gon, however, was present at the table, indicating that discussion of South Korea policy and coordination in that sphere was very much on the agenda. (Both Kim Yang-gon and Kim Ki-nam, incidentally, had recently travelled to Rason with the Supreme Leader, and Kim Ki-nam had been attached to the young leader during the unveiling of a new luxury restaurant-barge in Pyongyang.) Finally, in search of areas of common ground, it would have been wise for Liu to let confirm that he had unleashed the censors on the Chinese discourse about Kim Jong-un, if indeed that step was calculated at currying favor with Pyongyang. It seems unlikely that there would have been hard discussion here — this mainly based upon the composition of the North Korean side — of things dealing with public security or business ties, such as the upcoming Dandong trade fair or the very stuck Hwanggumpyeong Island Special Economic Zone or the new but moribund Sino-North Korean Friendship Bridge outside of Dandong.

Liu Yunshan, left, with Choe Ryong-hae on October 9, 2015, in Pyongyang. Image via PRC Embassy in Pyongyang.

Liu Yunshan, left, with Choe Ryong-hae on October 9, 2015, in Pyongyang. | Image: PRC Embassy in Pyongyang

Choe Ryong-hae at the Center | Choe Ryong-hae led a bilateral meeting with Liu Yunshan and the delegation from Beijing shortly after the latter’s arrival in the North Korean capital on October 9, prior to Kim Jong-un doing the same, and then played host at a reception for the visitors. Choe has been representing the Kim government in its diplomatic dealings with China and Russia since at least May 2013. (Sino-NK covered Choe’s past cross-border forays here and here; an essay in The Diplomat pre-assessed his 2015 trip to Beijing). Liu was among those whom Choe met during his debut visit in the diplomatic role. He apparently received what one report called “red carpet treatment” in Beijing in early September, too, including facetime with an unnamed but prominent Chinese official during a brief stopover in Shenyang en route. Analytic focus on the false dichotomy of Park Geun-hye’s comparative prominence on the Beijing podium allowed Choe’s practical accomplishments to pass by totally unnoticed, but he does seem to have executed his responsibilities to the satisfaction of the North Korean state.

The only marked difference in Pyongyang was the clothing; Choe no longer has a formal military affiliation, and appeared in the sober business suit of a party secretary. This sartorial detail has no impact on either his practical or symbolic authority, though. His position seated at Kim Jong-un’s left hand for the 70th anniversary torchlight parade on the evening of October 10 provided a clear demonstration of the status his family line generates, especially in dealings with China, for whom Choe’s father was a “de facto member of the Chinese Communist Party.” DPRK news covered the Choe bilateral meeting with Liu with something under five seconds of footage, but the North Korean viewing public was not meant to be the audience.

The Chinese official readout on the meeting identified Choe as a member of the Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee Politburo, and the Central Secretary of the Party (中央书记). Liu Yunshan conveyed to him a certain satisfaction that “the Korean Workers’ Party and people have seen the domain of their economy and people’s livelihood obtain new heights under the leadership of First Secretary Kim Jong-un.” After Liu summarized the content of Xi Jinping’s letter to Kim Jong-un and received a logical response, Choe Ryong-hae noted his impressions of China as a result of having been invited to the 70th anniversary of victory in the War of Anti-Japanese Resistance and the Global Anti-Fascist War. The Chinese release quoted him as saying that “I saw and felt for myself the vigorous momentum of China’s development” while in Beijing for the September 3 event. Choe then “sincerely wished that China will achieve new successes in constructing a moderately prosperous society.” Choe proceeded to agree with Liu’s statements about the need for calm in relations with South Korea, which would benefit “world and regional stability,” noting that “there are no problems we [Koreans] cannot solve” and that peace would aid in a more prosperous environment for economic development.

There was no explicit mention at all of economic cooperation or cross-border security discussions between the two sides, but Choe’s meeting with Liu notably consisted of “both sides informing the other of the current internal situation” in their respective countries. If there was a moment during which recent cross-border violence was addressed (and there was a People’s Liberation Army representative in the room, to be sure), this would have been it.

Liu Yunshan with Kim Yong-nam, right; image via PRC Embassy in Pyongyang.

Liu Yunshan with Kim Yong-nam, right | Image: PRC Embassy in Pyongyang

Tombs and More Talks | On October 11, Liu travelled to Anju in order to lay a wreath at the Chinese Peoples Volunteers cemetery, a traditional site of pilgrimage for CCP leaders visiting North Korea which includes the tomb of Mao Anying, Chairman Mao Zedong’s son who was killed in the Korean War. Liu’s trip to the cemetery had been prepped by a visit a month prior by the PRC Embassy in Pyongyang, and his remarks there, as he said, “represented Chairman Xi Jinping” in their gratitude for the work done by North Korean colleagues to keep up the site, as well as a similar monument in Kaesong. About 200 Chinese were in attendance, ranging from diplomats and Chinese investors to overseas students; no North Korean counterparts were listed as attending. Not content to recall the Korean War only as a symbol of Sino-North Korean comradeship, Liu Yunshan insisted that the sacrifices made by Chinese soldiers in Korea should enjoin the living today to “actively promote economic development, improving the people’s livelihood, and work together to promote the peaceful development of Asia and the world.” The Chinese official summary about this section of the trip further mentioned that Liu had at some point earlier in his trip made a stop at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the tomb of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, to similarly pay his respects. Later in the day, Liu spent some time at a corn processing factory in Pyongyang.

Liu Yunshan’s itinerary for the final day of his journey was not clear, and the PRC Embassy in Pyongyang offered no clues — perhaps simply being pleased that the Ambassador Li Jinjun had at least finally met Kim Jong-un, that elusive target. Liu had, however, had one more public meeting with a ranking North Korean official, that being Kim Yong-nam, on October 10. According to the Chinese summary of the meeting, Liu told the elderly statesman that “it has been a long time between my visits to North Korea, and this time I’ve seen so many friendly people and changes, realizing that the successes of North Korean socialist construction have been not few, and this makes us truly happy.” Liu then added that the CCP wanted to see North Korea’s people and government “deepen a path of development suitable to this country’s national spirit,” under Kim Jong-un’s steady leadership, of course. Some subsequent discussion of “win-win” development ensured, along with reminders of the need for maintaining regular channels of high-level communication, pushing economic and trade cooperation, and strengthening cultural ties and people-to-people relations.

Somewhat surprisingly, after this conversation, Liu went to the refurbished Fatherland Liberation War Museum, in which the essential absence of exhibits about the PRC contribution to North Korea’s survival in the Korean War had seemed to irritate at least one CCP official in the past. But perhaps that is the tear in the fabric of “normalcy” which can be explored another time.

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