Even without launching a missile or creating a nuclear earthquake, the North Korean state certainly knows how to pull off a surprise. An event last Wednesday at the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang, announced by the Chinese Foreign Ministry and North Korean state-run outlet KCNA, was a case in point.
The unexpected event was the celebration of the 57th anniversary of the Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance – a document first signed in 1961, which, like the suddenly-fragile NATO alliance, commits the signatories to aiding the other in the event of an external attack.
Since the treaty played no role whatsoever in the public readouts of the Kim-Xi summits, and since relations had reached such a low point in the prior year, many analysts had assumed the treaty would lapse when it came up for renewal in 2021.
Lu Chao of the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences told the Toronto Globe and Mail that China was no longer bound by the treaty to protect North Korea – doing so, no less, at the height of the very alarming April 2017 noise around a possible American “bloody nose” strike on North Korea. Pyongyang’s ears were surely listening carefully to Lu, and any related sounds coming from Chinese think tanks and Party intellectuals, to divine China’s intentions with respect to the treaty.
Historian Shen Zhihua in Shanghai garnered conspicuous attention when he spoke out openly against the treaty in March 2017. While Shen is really no one’s mouthpiece on the North Korea issue, his effort to remove some of the ambiguity surrounding the treaty and lobby for the PRC to rethink its relations with North Korea and not to re-sign the treaty when it came due certainly made waves at the time.
The event, as described by the PRC Foreign Ministry, is a signal that that the treaty between the two countries remains viable and that Xi and Kim have likely discussed it, along with its renewal. China has long sought to get North Korea to accept its tacit or explicit security guarantees (whether or not in exchange for relinquishing or reducing its nuclear capability is unclear).
Pyongyang’s Representatives: Heavy Old Guard and Light Industry
The DPRK seems to be throwing its rhetorical weight behind treaty renewal in a significant way, if the presence of Yang Hyong Sop as the DPRK representative at the meeting is taken as meaningful, which it should be.
Yang’s position in the Workers’ Party might be compared to that of Kim Yong Nam; he is 92 years old and emerged near the top of the Party ladder in the early 1960s. Yang was a key official tasked with coordinating with and convincing Deng Xiaoping’s CCP in the early 1980s to accept Kim Jong Il as Kim Il Sung’s successor, travelling to China between a Kim Jong Il and a Kim Il Sung visit in 1983.
Lest he be depicted as a sidelined figure or merely a figurehead today – as if to argue against Kim Jong Un’s general reluctance to retire wholesale the oldest generation of comrades – Yang has appeared a number of times with Kim Jong Un and participated as one of the top ten members at a key meeting of the the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Political Bureau just prior to the announcement of the “new strategic line” (for more on this 19 April 2018 meeting, see Michael Madden).
To get into the details: Yang’s speech at the Chinese embassy hardly revealed a developed blueprint for a renewed security relationship, and no Korean People’s Army (KPA) officials were reported as being present at the event. And, as in many cases, the Chinese readout was more expressive than the KCNA version.
For example, while the version of Yang’s speech as reported by the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang stated explicitly that he “highly valued the historical significance” of the treaty, the North Koreans left this detail out. The key phrase, however, is included in the North Korean report: namely that the relationship (shown in the Chinese version to be stated within the context of the treaty) is “further developing in line with the requirements of the new times thanks to the deep trust and intimacy of the supreme leaders of the two countries.”
Economic matters surfaced twice in comparing the differences between Chinese and North Korean versions of both Yang’s speech and the roster of North Korean attendees to the event. The KCNA omitted what Yang told his Chinese comrades about PRC prosperity, namely that the North Korean people could themselves “feel China’s glorious successes as if they had themselves experienced them” (朝鲜人民对中国取得的辉煌成就感同身受), a metaphor which evokes a palpable understanding of China drawn from northern border regions with China or even workers in the PRC.
Far less speculative, however, was the economic meaning of some of the attendees. Left off the North Korean list but included at the event were North Korea’s Vice-minister of Foreign Trade (具本泰/Ku Bon Tae) and the heads of various Chinese capital enterprises in North Korea (驻朝中资机构). While the presence of Chinese capitalists at such an event should not be surprising in the least, Ku Bon Tae’s presence is a clear indicator of ongoing coordination and Sino-North Korean progress on looking towards the dissolution of sanctions.
That is to say, Ku was reportedly just back from a four-day visit to Beijing whose purpose had been to coordinate on light industry and textile cooperation with China, in apparent anticipation of a loosening of sanctions in the near term. The visit itself was acknowledged without any further details by the PRC Foreign Ministry on 2 July, along with an admonition not to disrupt the current “positive momentum” on the Korean peninsula.
The Chinese model and North Korea
So, Yang Hyong Sop was at the PRC embassy to deliver an important message about the security alliance, but there was also clearly an economic component at work. The economic element came into greater focus with the remarks by Zhang Chenggang, the number two at the Embassy. Zhang used some Xi Jinping-inflected language of “new era, new circumstances (新时期新形势)” for the alliance. He then appeared to liken Kim Jong Un’s new post-April 2018 strategic line of “concentrating forces to advance socialist economic construction” (which Zhang praised and “positively assessed”) to China’s decision 40 years ago to open up and reform.
Apart from sharing the Chinese experience, these comments are along the lines of those offered by Xi Jinping at his third meeting with Kim Jong Un, where Xi praised the decisiveness of the North Korean leader for focusing on economic activities, and promised Chinese support. If it is possible to stay on these lines until Xi is due in Pyongyang in September 2018, North Korea could make significant headway in their quest to have sanctions removed and see an influx of Chinese investment.
But Zhang’s remarks, coming at a celebration of what is ultimately a security alliance, also demonstrated how economic and security concerns are bound together for the North Koreans. Observers are again reminded of the existing substance, numerous channels, and governmental foundations of Sino-North Korean relations, in contrast with the still-floating character of the post-Singapore US relationship with North Korea.
Whichever potential model of economic reform and external investment to which one subscribes for North Korea’s future, it is nearly impossible to dispute that China is going to play a highly important role in the process. The events of the last six months have generated a tangible sense of external excitement around the North Korean economy and its potential, including in China’s border areas with the DPRK.
In this context, Chinese security guarantees for North Korea and making clear that any US attack on the North would be grounds for Chinese involvement appear to strengthen Kim Jong Un’s new developmental focus. But there is still a very long road ahead, with opportunity for many misunderstandings, incompletions (see: Sinuiju-Dandong bridge), missed connections, and arbitrary changes.
One final caveat: Yang Hyang Sop’s most important propaganda appearance in the recent era bears revisiting; it was an interview with the Associated Press in January 2012 when the world was looking desperately for direction from Kim Jong Un. Yang surprisingly pledged that the young Kim was deeply interested in Chinese-style market reforms.
Six and a half years later, Yang is back as the key player at an event that suggests yet another reboot or consolidation of Sino-North Korean relations will allow for North Korea to finally unshackle itself from the heavy industrial, military-first emphasis in its economy, turn to Chinese comrades and enterprises for both security and capital, and allow the North to finally experiment in earnest with a Chinese model that its leader has been fascinated with all along.
But for all the surprise of Yang’s renewed promotion of North Korea’s public commitment to the alliance with Beijing, as always, caution is in order.
Edited by Colin Zwirko
Featured image: Eric Lafforgue
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