Watching Kim Jong Un glide into Beijing for the fourth time since his New Year’s Day speech of 2018, there is an emerging feeling of familiarity around this diplomatic pattern.
The questions are increasingly familiar, too.
Questions like: is China going to lighten its finger on the United Nations scales or obliterate whatever is left of the sanctions enforcement regime along its long land border with North Korea and in the port of Dalian? (Quite possibly.)
Is Kim Jong Un in Beijing simply to poke the belligerent Americans on behalf of his Chinese comrades? (Answering this question with an unqualified ‘yes’ means one has to regard North Korea’s talks with the U.S. purely as a delaying tactic, imagine that Chinese leaders don’t mind nuclear earthquakes in Jilin province, and also willfully forget that the South Koreans exist as an American ally with a say in the matter.)
Do the Chinese people really respect the young North Korean leader, and does his wife Ri Sol Ju have a soft power function? (Are these real questions, or just clickbait?)
Etc., etc., ad absurdum.
Familiarity also comes from the extension of the ethos and patterns of 2018. The Americans may be walking around in figurative circles with the North Koreans after Singapore, but no one is talking yet or leaking plans to brandish B-2 bomber overflights or putting out patently insensitive reminders, as President Trump once did while in Japan, of the aerial pummeling that U.S. planes put on the North Korean people and economy during the 1950s.
Familiarity also comes from the extension of the ethos and patterns of 2018
The pressure on North Korea remains economic, and thus the sanctions become the core concern rather than, as felt alarmingly possible in 2017, a regional war brought on by American preemptive strikes.
However, with this visit, as with any ritual, it is the small alterations that heighten the experience. Wang Sheng, an academic at Jilin University who focuses on Korean issues, was part of just one alteration, a slight shift in the continuum of Sino-North Korean relations.
Dr. Wang took a call from the Huanqiu Shibao, or Global Times, and had a conversation about China’s central role in all of the recent diplomacy and peace on the peninsula, and ended up having his views form the core of the first big story released on the Chinese internet about the Kim Jong Un visit in something close to real time.
It is not that Wang’s views were themselves unusual: of course, they coincided perfectly with the government’s, and the paper’s, since the paper is the government’s and so is Wang’s job.
And it is not simply novel that Kim Jong Un’s visit was finally reported on the mainland or pseudo-reported by citing “foreign media reports” while it was still happening.
The change was in the fact that academics of any kind could comment on Sino-North Korean relations during the visit. After all, the quoted academic is no Shen Zhihua, a man so dangerous he could go on for hours about the various generations of Kim family leadership and how working with them has largely been a bad ride for China. But this was a welcome change from the past.
It was novel precisely because it was almost as if the whole thing was starting to become less novel, and possibly just a jot less guarded
The foreign ministry took more questions than usual about the visit, and the spokesperson, without ever losing the mantle of authority, even respectfully asked for a clarification about a term used by a reporter: “variant.” (When was the last time the White House Press Secretary did that?) It was novel precisely because it was almost as if the whole thing was starting to become less novel, and possibly just a jot less guarded.
The ethos of minor changes and relative freedom within restraint is becoming familiar, too, to the staff at the PRC Embassy in Pyongyang. The Ambassador there, Li Jinjun, got face time with Kim Jong Un about seven weeks ago during a Chinese cultural performance for the North Korean leader.
On December 27, Li met with the North Korean Minister of Culture and the director of the Sea of Blood / Pibada Opera for a performance of the Chinese revolutionary classic, “The White Haired Girl,” infusing new energy in an operatic relationship that was genuinely looked after by Kim Jong-un’s father and which both First Ladies in Beijing and Pyongyang seem likely to care about deeply.
Ambassador Li Jinjun’s staff recently gathered with a small group of Pyongyang’s most cosmopolitan elites (if sartorial choice and foreign language fluency is to be taken as such), the Foreign Languages Press, for a conference celebrating seventy years of DPRK-PRC relations. In some of the most joyful photos of a year of diplomacy, the PRC Embassy staff matched up for a comradely basketball game versus the DPRK Foreign Ministry.
One could almost forget for a moment that the man who brought Dennis Rodman and the beautiful game to share with Kim Jong Un so many years ago is sitting in a Chinese prison.
LIPS AND TEETH
As the inevitable official statements and readouts on the meetings are released, we are likely to see what we always see at such times: professions of gratitude from both sides for the ongoing close strategic communication, recollections that the two countries have a fraternal relationship, and encouragement by the Chinese side to keep going with peaceful solutions (containing with in it assurance that Washington is the key belligerent who needs changing, and South Korea the state that needs to rethink its relationship to American military power).
For audiences whose idea of fun involves working through footnotes in Congressional reports on North Korea or China with a fine ballpoint pen, there is always the CCP International Liaison Department and its unheralded role in maintaining relations with Pyongyang.
The makeup of the North Korean delegation is likely worth parsing, since it is reported to contain a longtime China hand for the previous two leaders and at least one former assistant and interpreter to Jang Song Taek on his ill-fated 2012 junkets through Liaoning and Beijing.
Kremlinology, although tedious (as the CIA underlining of this old gem can attest), still has a role to play.
Youth and vitality are rarely associated with Xi Jinping, but he is almost certain to be in power longer than Donald Trump, Mike Pence, or some combination of the two men. Kim Jong Un, too, seems likely to be around for a while.
The makeup of the North Korean delegation is likely worth parsing
As the historian Shen Zhihua likes to remind listeners and readers, the Soviets (rather than the Chinese) liked Kim Il Sung because he was young and could get things done.
If Xi perceives Kim Jong Un as a young but experienced leader who is able to feed his own people, able to keep Xi from needing to mobilize strike forces near the North Korean border, and able to get through 2019 – a period Jilin professor Wang Sheng called a “crucial year for North Korea’s domestic strategic line” – the DPRK leader may well be able to extend his familiarity with Xi Jinping for a very long time indeed.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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