Amid the welter of diplomatic moves that have occurred in and around the Korean peninsula in 2018, the two meetings in quick succession between the North Korean leader and China’s eternally-consolidating leader, Xi Jinping, have been one of the more curious elements.
After a six-year hiatus from meeting foreign leaders at all, Kim’s mode of turning so suddenly back to China was indeed extraordinary. The Dalian meetings on May 7 and 8 included a beach walk in an area famous locally for wedding photos, giving the summit the feeling of a wedding party or perhaps a reunion of long-estranged mates. (Although, it must be noted, most honeymoon Facebook posts or missives home do not include phrases like “an in-depth exchange of views on important issues of mutual concern,” as the long-form PRC Foreign Ministry readout of the Dalian meetings did.)
In general, both countries’ state medias portrayed the summit both as confirmation of their previous summit’s pledges for close coordination and as a heady fresh beginning to what would be a long and successful relationship.
The immediate temptation is to frame the meeting as preparatory to Kim Jong Un’s upcoming scheduled meeting in Singapore with Donald Trump. Certainly, the Chinese leadership will have strong views about North Korea breaking off meetings with South Korea and potentially suspending the Singapore summit, as the end of this essay acknowledges. However, there are benefits to placing the most recent Sino-North Korean summit in a longer frame.
From a Chinese standpoint, the recent break in the inertia coming from the Korean Workers’ Party in terms of setting up bilateral summits has been a long time coming. Chinese analysts were openly complaining back in late 2012 and 2013 that Kim Jong Un was not making himself available to the CCP, and that a meeting was already then overdue.
In the intervening years since Kim came to power, a huge amount of water has gone under the proverbial bridge of relations between the two countries, including the premature political and physical deaths of North Korean elites either in the top leadership (Jang Song Taek) or potential rivals for power (Kim Jong Nam) who were under Chinese protection.
Kim Jong Un did meet with CCP Politburo members in Pyongyang in the intervening years, but when an analyst like Bonnie Glaser predicted in January 2016 that Xi Jinping would probably not meet Kim Jong Un at all prior to 2022, it made sense.
But China has continued to make efforts to keep the door open for a Kim visit, even to the point of praising cultural production under his aegis in a series of articles in the PRC Foreign Ministry-sponsored magazine, Shijie Zhishi, early in the year, and adding the Cultural Revolution-era ballet “Red Detachment of Women” into the mix of female-dominated stage performances for the Kim family.
READING THE SIGNS
So what happened in Dalian? As always, the official sources provided to reporters and analysts by North Korean and Chinese state media outlets are flawed and obviously partial, and one has to glean additional details from video footage. Much of the verbiage put out by both sides can be boiled down to Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang’s pithy answer on 8 May, which didn’t even confirm Kim Jong-un was in the country, but noted that “China and North Korea are neighboring countries, and the two states maintain regular communication and exchanges.”
Far more interesting was Xi Jinping’s somewhat excitable interactions with Kim Yo Jong, and Kim Jong Un’s generally awkward interactions with Chinese diplomats like the PRC Ambassador to North Korea Li Jinjun, with whom Kim seems to have formed no real interpersonal bond in spite of the recent close work together to get the remains of a group of high-profile Maoists back to China after a recent bus crash between Kaesong and Pyongyang.
If Kim was in Dalian to look for relief from sanctions, it was hard to tell as much from the rhetoric. At both this meeting and the prior Xi-Kim summit in Beijing, vague pronouncements about prosperity and peace on the peninsula flowed freely. There was no indicator, and there have been few in the following week, that North Korea was going to jump-start its SEZs on the Chinese frontier in coordination with Beijing as well as Chinese provincial governments.
Since Kim came to power, a huge amount of water has gone under the proverbial bridge of relations between the two countries
Discussion about real estate values jumping in Dandong should not ipso facto mean that the CCP is eager to send Chinese business leaders back into North Korea pell-mell, apart perhaps from one new tour being organized by Michael Spavor. Instead, the language around economic development is likely to include yet more “feeling out” visits of selected North Koreans to Chinese sites of technological and economic development which are more easily backed away from than they are to arrange.
Much has been made of China’s need to retain its centrality to the diplomatic efforts in northeast Asia, and the anxieties of the Chinese Communist Party of being left “out of the loop” with North Korean negotiating — in effect, freelancing — with the United States. But this is all not terribly unusual in the region. Chinese analysts have previously expressed anxiety that China could be left out of the loop if North Korea were to freelance its way into a suddenly improved relationship with Japan.
Here, ironically, CCP analysts are reprising South Korean anxieties of the Syngman Rhee years when Japan when it tried warming up to North Korea in the months just after the Armistice of 1953. For his part, Xi Jinping repeated his four points from the March meeting with Kim which centered on the need for close coordination between the two countries.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s three-way meeting with ROK and Japanese leaders concurrent to the Xi-Kim meeting were a good indicator that China’s desire not to be sidelined is in a sense a red herring — Beijing, in fact, is well plugged-in and has a huge agenda with the peninsula, and wants to push for “One Belt One Road” of the peninsula in spite of North Korea’s rather active disinterest in that framework.
Not only that, but in terms of understanding Trump’s intentions, the CCP does not need an infusion of information from Pyongyang, since China is likely getting quite good intelligence from its embassy in Washington about the leak-prone Trump administration’s activities and outlook.
CLOUDS OVER THE DIPLOMATIC HONEYMOON
A week after Kim returned home from China, one line from the Dalian summit seems especially apropos: “Chairman Kim thanked the Chinese side for its important achievements in regional security and stability which have, since a long time ago, been helping to realize the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
This may be another instance of Kim thanking the Chinese for their efforts while managing not to precisely agree on the goal, but this language (again from the PRC foreign ministry readout) points to both solutions and possible turbulence on the horizon.
Published responses by Chinese scholars to Wednesday’s cancellation of an inter-Korean meeting due to U.S.-ROK military drills would appear to indicate that North Korea will have some support in Beijing for doing so.
Zhang Liangui, a scholar at the Central Party School in Beijing who has at times been harshly critical of Pyongyang, said in an interview that the “Max Thunder” American military drills with South Korea, under the current conditions of inter-Korean reconciliation, were clearly aimed at North Korea and would inevitably stimulate a response of some kind.
In the same interview, Zhang went on to speculate that divergences were emerging between the U.S. and North Korea in their high-level summit preparation dialogues about the specific steps that would constitute denuclearization (including the role of nuclear scientists), and that North Korean discomfort with the process (as well as possible mixed messages from the State Department and National Security Council) may lead the DPRK to use the military drills as a pretext to cancel or forestall the talks with Trump.
Xi Jinping is likely to be publically quiet about “Max Thunder” – but it does seem clear that there are plenty of clouds, both new and old, over his budding relationship with Kim Jong Un.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA