Frozen Spring: Sino-Korean Diplomacy in 2022

By | May 07, 2022 | No Comments

In winter, recollecting unfrozen days of greenery and commerce: Japanese television coverage of a North Korean nuclear test at Punggye-ri on January 6, 2016, and speculation on its effects on Sino-North Korean relations. Screengrab from the author’s collection.  

A sense of remoteness and disconnection has inflected life since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, and this sense has been amply reflected in the respective endeavours of North Korean and Chinese diplomacy. But with the coming inauguration of Yoon Suk-yeol as President in Seoul on May 10, and US President Joseph Biden to visit South Korea and Japan from May 20-24, things seem to be picking up in the region. Are we in for an extended frozen spring, or will the paths of dialogue warm sufficiently to allow for movement? 

Yesterday’s State Department press conference seemed to argue for urgency. In its Korean aspect, the event was a convergence of Eunjung Cho (Voice of America) questions and spokesperson answers — all of which ultimately served as explicit confirmation of US government-sourced CNN reports dating back to early April that satellite images of a key North Korean nuclear site indicate a nuclear test may be in the works.

Observers of China’s special envoy on Korean Peninsula issues, Liu Xiaoming, will already be aware that someone in Beijing appears to have sat up straight about the activity. Liu’s reference upon his arrival at Incheon to “increasingly tough North Korean nuclear and missile activities (升级示强和朝核导活动)” got one elephant out of the room immediately, although he was borrowing a page from Huanqiu Shibao’s book and attributing the phrase to South Korean reports so as not to directly criticise North Korea. Liu’s English version of the statement is here; and Chinese here.

It is unlikely that during his years as Ambassador to DPRK that Liu would have posted a photo where Kim Jong-un’s face is cut into by slabs of reflected South Korean fluorescent light (as is the case above), but presumably no one in Pyongyang is going to not take his calls over that minor detail. 

Liu’s trip to Seoul and his battery of meetings with ROK officials there gave the impression that connectivity might prevail in 2022 after all, even if the spring calm is shattered by a North Korean nuclear test and Joe Biden takes an unscripted walk along the DMZ. 

Although the war in Ukraine rapidly placed it in the rear view mirror, one 2022 exhibit for disconnection occurred at the Munich Security Conference, an annual rite in southern Germany. This year, at Munich, the PRC was represented by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who beamed in from Beijing, gave a speech, ran out the clock with two exquisitely long answers to moderator’s questions, and logged off unsullied by any informal hectoring or structured bilateral meetings.

The North Koreans never attend Munich, and concerns around their nuclear programme were muted at  this year’s conference anyway. (Whomever was monitoring the relevant panels from Pyongyang might have gotten a chuckle out of the Indian Foreign Minister’s statement that Western principles of collective security, on display with reference to NATO’s approach to Ukraine, were so universal so as to have been useless in Afghanistan in 2021.) There was no equivalent to Fu Ying’s 2018 Munich appearance on an arms control panel.  

The North Koreans failed to send any delegation at all to the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February 2022, making their deeds less useful to the CCP than those of the US and UK,  who quietly put forward a “diplomatic boycott” while sending politically muffled cohorts of athletes.

As for the PRC’s efforts in North Korea, China has appointed a new ambassador to Pyongyang for the first time in seven years, but the new candidate has yet to arrive in post. Sun Hongliang continues to hold down the fort at the Embassy. 

Shortly after the Munich Conference and just prior to the Russian assault on Ukraine, Sun attended a meeting of military attaches and Russian diplomats in Pyongyang. (Image via Russian Embassy in Pyongyang; the Chinese Embassy did not publicise the event).

Finally, there were some less pleasant shades of pre-pandemic methods of intimidation and state-encouraged boycotts of South Korean companies in China, as exemplified PRC Ambassador to the Republic of Korea Xing Haiming’s meetings in mid-April. 

The PRC is working hard to encourage domestic consumption and its attentiveness to its citizens with respect to food supply this year, for obvious reasons. But a lazy state media television “investigation” amounting to a CCTV reporter in Seoul pointing at an expiration date on a packet of Samyang noodles, starting a minor online campaign to criticise Samyang as not caring about the safety of Chinese consumers seems not to have been done with consumer safety in mind. Samyang called for the meeting with the Ambassador, and they got it, but the South Korean corporate leader also got an earful from Ambassador Xing. 

And as ever, regional food supply issues retain utmost salience when it comes to North Korea.

From noodles to nuclear rumblings, to Munich and to Incheon, communications appear to be picking up, even if the Sino-Korean land border is again more or less shut down (a topic for another day). If the long years of 2020 and 2021 have taught us nothing else, however, they have taught us that we will always have the past. The furrows of diplomacy on the peninsula may be cold or frozen, but they may already be thawing ever so slightly, and we can prepare as farmers might for the planting season again by readying our tools.

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