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Seungmock Oh was an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
On November 20, Xi Jinping’s envoy Song Tao returned from a trip to North Korea. While the visit was framed as being strictly about party business – Song was due to brief Workers’ Party officials on the recent Communist Party of China National Congress – all eyes were on whether Song would meet with Kim Jong Un.
He didn’t, and just nine days later North Korea test-launched the Hwasong-15, a new missile which, it claims, can strike the entire U.S. with a nuclear weapon. The timing was not lost on U.S. President Trump, who tweeted: “the Chinese Envoy, who just returned from North Korea, seems to have had no impact on Little Rocket Man…”
Relations between China and North Korea have soured since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011. The execution of his uncle Jang Song Thaek, who had led DPRK-China joint economic development projects and was widely seen as close to Beijing, was among many incidents that have brought North Korea and China’s relations to their most icy in the history of their alliance.
So with the common refrain from Washington these days being that China “must do more,” but with relations at their lowest point in years, how much leverage does Beijing really have over Kim Jong Un?
Just hours after North Korea announced the launch of the Hwasong-15, NK News caught up with Dr. Adam Cathcart, a lecturer in Chinese History at Leeds University and founder of Sino-NK, to discuss the state of DPRK-PRC relations, Chinese ruling party attitudes towards Kim Jong Un, and where “lips and teeth” goes from here.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and readability
NK News: What scenario do you see for the future of North Korea and what will be China’s role in this scenario?
Adam Cathcart: I think China would like to see the gradual change, the raising of the living standards, very much like in their own model – raising their standard of living so that social stability is less of a problem inside of North Korea: humanitarian disasters, people moving because of lack of food.
Basically, they don’t want to have a repeat of the 1990s with the great famine/the Arduous March but I think in terms of the collapse scenario a lot of western analysts will talk about China moving in to occupy North Korea but I think it is much less likely than it was in 1950.
Now we have so much more coordination with China, within the United States, South Korea, even Japan, so there is more discussion so I think it is unlikely.
China doesn’t want the North Korean provinces, they don’t want the humanitarian issues, I think they will block the border, they will not allow the refugees in mostly, and then they will try to… but they certainly don’t want political control over North Korea or even parts of North Korea.
There is a chance that North Korea will collapse and I think China is prepared for both scenarios.
NK News: If the U.S. were to take military action against North Korea, how would China react?
Adam Cathcart: A lot of it has to do with the question of coordination and the de-confliction, for example, as we see in Syria between the United States and Russia.
A lot of it has to do with the politburo – who is making the decisions. I think when we look back at the Korean War, you realize there was never a perfect consensus inside the Communist Party about how to approach the crisis in North Korea in 1950, so even now, I don’t believe there is a perfect consensus.
“They certainly don’t want political control over North Korea or even parts of North Korea”
If Xi Jinping had said, “let’s be activistic, let’s move all the way to the 38th parallel,” you’re still exposing yourself to huge risks, not just from a military standpoint, but from the internal party cohesion and the leadership, it is a huge gamble and these guys are quite conservative so I don’t think you would see major gambles.
I don’t think China wants to use the Korean peninsula to show its strength to the United States. It would rather much do that in the maritime areas like the South China Sea and other places further away from the core of the Chinese mainland.
NK News: And what do you think of the possibility of China abandoning North Korea as a partner?
Adam Cathcart: We are trying to read the signals and we are looking for that to turn the corner but again, it is fairly unlikely because China has a very conservative foreign policy because of the long continuity with North Korea.
You have to remember that this party, even Xi Jinping, supported the succession on Kim Jong Un. So they may not like Kim Jong Un, they may wish he would meet with them, they would wish that he was more reformist, more flexible, more open to Chinese ideas as well as influence, but I don’t think that because of that frustration, that does not translate into abandonment.
And also the relationship with South Korea, they need the various kinds of hedges there and with the United States. There are some serious disadvantages to going along with the American line and before you know it, you are talking about moving the People’s Liberation Army troops back to Shenyang.
I saw that recently in an academic paper, kind of saying “oh China can just move its troops back from its North Eastern border.” Now the neutral zone becomes the Liaoning province in Jilin but it doesn’t make any sense from the Chinese national interest standpoint.
NK News: China is building infrastructure on the North Korea-China border. What are the political implications of this development?
Adam Cathcart: I think the North Koreans have already made that irrelevant in a sense that they don’t connect to the bridge, they are not using the customs houses on the Chinese side with any kind of rigor.
And China is building infrastructure all over its frontiers. This is true in the India-Tibet area, this is true in Pakistan, they have infrastructure there, the One Belt One Road, there is a huge amount of money flashing around and it needs to be spent somewhere.
I’m not suggesting that their border posts and the infrastructure to the frontier, whether it is Changbaishan, Paektusan or Dandong or Hunchun. Of course it has applications for China’s strength, even its military deployment could be very fast, but I don’t think that it is aimed at the subordination of North Korea.
There are Chinese papers about yuanization inside North Korea, I think they can see that they have some influence obviously in the consumer goods going into North Korea so there are dependencies that they have.
But China knows how to deal with the North Koreans. The more you show that North Korea that you have the whip in the hand, it’s going to get a negative response. So I don’t believe that it is about intimidation.
Also, there is coordination; they at least discuss these things with North Korean side, at a provincial level. They have some shared committees and there should be in future discussions. If China wants to open a bridge for example, it has to be done in coordination with their comrades on the other side.
And there are committees where these things are supposed to be discussed. Now, the North Koreans need to show up to discuss these things with the Chinese. The same thing with the regional level kind of coordination on tourism, environmental protection, etc.
“I think they can see that they have some influence obviously in the consumer goods going into North Korea”
There are many regional forums and I feel that if the North Koreans participated more in those, and it is not even high profile so there is no toadyism in doing that. It doesn’t look bad to the rest of the world if they would participate more regularly in those forums, I think then there is less nervousness about Chinese domination.
I think China wants to convene the region together and this goes back to the early 90s – the great Tumen Initiative and that kind of thing, now it is mixed up with One Belt One Road and with the Chinese gaining in power and prominence and confidence. But I don’t believe that that infrastructure on the frontier with North Korea is meant to scare them. They want to invite them in.
NK News: What about the infrastructure inside North Korea, such as the harbors at Rajin and Sonbong?
Adam Cathcart: I know that the Chinese would love to have more access to Rason (Rajin-Sonbong), I think there has been some development there in terms of making it easier. Again, that is just one of those areas where North Korea has more power and influence than we often imagine.
China would love to have access to the sea just like the Russians did back in the 1950s – they wanted to have quick access to Rason and Chongjin as well. But the North Koreans have sovereignty so ultimately it is their decision to decide how much influence to give to the Chinese in those areas.
NK News: Some people say the Kim Jong Un is unfriendly to China to defend against Chinese attempts at subordination.
Adam Cathcart: Again, it is a two-way street. I think the Chinese are pretty clear about what they have on offer for North Korea, I think they are very clear about what their goals are, I don’t think they are interested in social instability.
I think the stuff about Kim Jong Nam, there is so much we don’t know and it is easy to speculate, and even I have speculated in print. I wrote something for The Guardian saying ‘oh you know China will be probably upset and Kim Jong Nam is a reformer’ but we don’t really know so much about why he was killed.
So the idea that China is getting ready to put some new regime in place of Kim Jong Un because he made them so angry I think is overplayed.
China has a long experience dealing with the Kim family. Mao didn’t get along with Kim Il Sung, but he still said ‘when you are in North Korea you should respect Kim Il Sung. The North Koreans like to have their portraits, so just go along with it’. He compared Kim Il Sung to the Dalai Lama of Tibet – it’s kind of the custom, it’s a little feudal and backward but it doesn’t mean that we break our relationship.
There have been times when the North Koreans have helped the Chinese and the Chinese have helped the North Koreans. I don’t know if Xi Jinping is reading all the history books but I think he is in tune with the traditions of the party.
“The idea that China is getting ready to put some new regime in place of Kim Jong Un… I think is overplayed”
And to think that the party (the Chinese Communist Party itself, the Workers’ Party is different entity) but to think that they have changed so much that they would throw the Workers’ Party away, this long relationship, I think it is over reading the evidence that we have. It doesn’t mean that they are the best of friends, it doesn’t mean that pragmatism doesn’t occasionally turn into frustration and anger.
I guess the question is how much will the North Koreans feel as if they are being pressed or as you said being kind of dominated.
You know the Chinese have the heavy hand and will they push back and does the pushing back create more negative spiral inside the Chinese Communist Party? So maybe it is not this year or next year, maybe it is a five or ten year period, maybe it is the people underneath Xi Jinping that we need to be talking about. Are these guys going to turn against North Korea 15/20 years from now? We don’t know.
As a historian I have to be a little careful playing games with time, but I think this is a long-term shift by the Communist Party and it never happens as fast as we want. But we do see small signs of change. The Chinese don’t show their guns necessarily to the North Koreans but they will show their displeasure.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun