On June 17, at 8pm, DPRK and Chinese official news outlets reported that President Xi Jinping would make a state visit to North Korea by the end of the week.
It was pretty short notice, given that the visit was set to begin on June 20, but it was remarkable that the news was released simultaneously. It implied a high level of coordination between Pyongyang and Beijing.
One might suspect that the main goal of this visit was to demonstrate to the outside world, and especially to the United States, that such high level of coordination exists.
It was the first visit by a top Chinese leader to North Korea in 14 years. In 2005 Hu Jintao appeared in Pyongyang and, to the displeasure of his hosts, delivered a speech in which he extolled “reform,” traditionally a term of abuse in North Korean political vocabulary.
The first years of Kim Jong Un’s rule were a time of thinly-veiled tensions between the two countries, even though China, due to strategic considerations, never stopped aid flow to the North. Between 2012 and 2017, North Korean media often attacked China.
When Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un’s uncle and one-time mentor, was purged and executed, one of the theories aired in media was that the fallen politician was punished for being “too soft” on China.
And on the other hand, the super-tough sectoral sanctions, introduced by the UN Security Council in 2016-2017, would never have happened without Chinese diplomats’ active endorsement. Now, as a trade war is waged between the U.S. and China, Beijing has different views on the subject, but until a year ago it maintained a united front with the U.S. in dealing with North Korea.
GETTING THE BAND BACK TOGETHER
Now things look very different. After five years in hiding, Kim Jong Un has engaged in hyper-active summit diplomacy, meeting Xi Jinping four times. Talk of “eternal friendship” between China and North Korea is everywhere, and Xi Jinping was greeted in Pyongyang last week with lavish celebration.
Officially, this is not a “goodwill visit,” as was the case with Hu Jintao in 2005, but a more prestigious state visit. Xi’s new residence was, reportedly, built in a great hurry just to host him, he attended “mass games” in which thousands of people, largely students, held placards forming both the Chinese flag and Xi Jinping’s own portrait.
The Chinese President even had an article published in the Rodong Sinmun – a truly unprecedented gesture. As far as symbolism and appearances were concerned, both sides (and the North Koreans in particular) stopped at nothing to create a celebratory and syrupy mood.
However, little of substance has emerged from the talks so far. The KCNA informed the world that the leaders had “reached important consensus” during the Pyongyang summit, but did not give us any specifics.
On the one hand, it is possible that something important was indeed agreed upon: after all, diplomacy has always been a secretive activity, and neither China nor North Korea are known for their openness in conducting affairs of state.
The lavish show of comradely friendship, however insincere, delivers an important message to the outside world
However, irrespective of what was or was not decided behind closed doors, the major goal of the summit was to have the summit itself.
The lavish show of comradely friendship, however insincere, delivers an important message to the outside world and, above all, President Trump. Indeed, the current tenant of the White House might be the major audience for all these activities, and is certainly the most important spectator of the show.
For North Korea it is important to show that in the new situation, defined by the trade war between Washington and Beijing, it can, to a large extent, count on Chinese assistance.
Even if Chinese authorities follow all regulations and rules in regard to UN sanctions, there are many efficient and perfectly legal ways to assist Pyongyang at their disposal.
For example, Beijing can significantly increase food and other humanitarian assistance to North Korea. This means that the U.S. efforts to corner the North Korean economy will never fully succeed: Chinese aid, if sufficiently generous, will keep the country afloat even under the hardest sanctions imaginable – and could even be 100% legal.
By hosting Xi, North Korea is sending Washington a message. That message tells U.S. hardliners, currently waiting for sanctions to provoke a deadly crisis in North Korea, that they can wait forever: with the Chinese covering Pyongyang’s back, it can withstand pressure indefinitely.
Needless to say, if both sides discussed ways to get around sanctions (and this is possible), the same message will be even more relevant.
However, it is not only the North Koreans who are sending signals: the Chinese are doing it, too. Once, they eagerly cooperated with the U.S. in tightening the screws in regard to North Korea. But as the ongoing trade war has shown, Washington did not appreciate Beijing’s help.
For China, North Korea is once again an important card for dealing with the U.S. Beijing has demonstrated that it has an asymmetrical way to respond to the challenges: while the Americans are beating Huawei, they are showing their will to assist North Korea, rendering all U.S. policy meaningless.
For China, North Korea is once again an important card for dealing with the U.S.
There has been speculation about the two leaders discussing a “road map” which will soon be presented to Donald Trump by Xi Jinping at the upcoming G20 summit. But, the show was vital — even, and this is unlikely, if it had no substance whatsoever.
There are suspicions that the two sides were looking for loopholes in the sanctions regime, or discussed ways to run what is, essentially, a government-run smuggling network. All this is possible, but even if the summit consisted of a simple “mass games,” banquets, and exchanges of niceties, it was still a good diplomatic move.
So, we will soon see how the Americans react to this new challenge. Given that the G-20 summit is just few days ahead, we won’t have to wait very long.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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