A surprise Sino-North Korean meeting: what can we expect?
There remains a major gap between what Pyongyang wants and what Beijing is willing to give
The North Korean leader’s train has left Beijing. With no commentary provided by Chinese or North Korean state media, rumors abound that a high-ranking North Korean official – maybe even Kim Jong Un himself – visited China. Eventually, it has been confirmed by the KCNA that it was, indeed, Kim Jong Un, who traveled in China with his wife Ri Sol Ju.
Normally, a state visit to China is announced after the fact by DPRK state media, and this is what happened this time as well.
Although this visit comes after very soon after the news of John Bolton’s appointment as National Security Advisor to President Trump, it is unlikely that the two events are connected.
A recent report by Daily NK indicted that the Chinese authorities in a border city of Dandong have been erecting shade walls around Dandong station to cover an incoming train. The activity started before Bolton’s appointment was announced, so the meeting was likely negotiated weeks or even months in advance.
The summit comes amid a marked decline in relations between China and North Korea in recent years.
The peak of “Sino-Korean friendship” in the 21st century happened after Kim Jong Il’s visit to Shanghai in 2001. Impressed by Chinese economic success, Kim reportedly directly endorsed a policy of liberalization and openness and began to pursue major reforms:
- Pyongyang recognized and legalized marketplaces inside the country with the “July 1st measures,” implemented in 2002.
- Pyongyang endorsed visits by South Korean tourists to Kaesong and Kumgang mountains.
- Pyongyang agreed to the opening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
- Finally, Pyongyang tried – although unsuccessfully – to turn the city of Sinuiju into a Macau-style Special Administrative Region.
This policy did not last. After the Ryongchon explosion, which appeared to some to have been an attempt on Kim Jong Il’s life, Pyongyang’s reforms were reversed and the hope of North Korea following China was gone.
But relations between China and North Korea continued to be amicable. Before his death in 2011, Kim Jong Il visited China six more times: in 2004, in 2006, twice in 2010, and twice in 2011. The later visits were speculated to be related to Kim Jong Un’s succession of power, as by that time the DPRK had already launched a campaign hailing the “Young General” – as Kim Jong Un was called at the time.
In 2010, Kim “informed Chinese authorities that Pyongyang is still committed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”, reiterating a previous statement to a Chinese envoy in 2005 that Kim Il Sung’s apparent dying wish was “the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
But under Kim Jong Un the situation quickly changed. Since 2011, he has not visited China (or any other other nation), meaning that this is likely the first time he exited North Korea since he came to power.
There were some attempts to attract Chinese capital to North Korea, seemingly lobbied by Jang Song Thaek, but after Jang was very publicly purged, they likely stopped.
Moreover, in recent years North Korean media has begun to criticise China for its lack of support for their nuclear program, support for sanctions, meddling in what the DPRK considers to be its internal affairs, and spoiling the atmosphere of inter-Korean cooperation. Some Chinese state-run media, such as Global Times, China Central Television and even Renmin Ribao, were subject to direct criticism from Pyongyang (responding publicly in turn).
China’s increasingly strict compliance with the sanctions regime has seemingly brought relations between two countries to their lowest point in decades.
Beijing has supported sanctions against the DPRK and voiced more and more vocal concerns about the country’s testing of strategic weaponry.
Any meeting, then, would be held in a tense atmosphere, where, as analysis shows, the goals of both sides are quite different.
What does North Korea want?
The primary short-to-mid term concern for Pyongyang now is preventing a United States attack. Be it a surgical strike on the DPRK’s strategic facilities, or a full-scale invasion to facilitate regime change, North Korea wants to prevent military action by all means necessary: a fear that grew sharply in the final months of 2017.
While any immediate attack is highly unlikely given upcoming summits, it is possible that Kim Jong Un hopes to ask Xi Jinping’s opinion about the upcoming summits and recent developments – and seek to gain his support.
Kim Jong Un may be unsure of the upcoming summit with Donald Trump. In a recent report, a relatively credible source CNN often use to inform stories on internal DPRK news said that while Kim Jong Un had “verbally agreed” to the summit, he had not thought “it would be publicized or happen so soon, and was even more surprised that the United States and South Korea made a big announcement.”
If this is the case, Kim may want to discuss perspectives on the summit with the leadership of North Korea’s most powerful neighbor and biggest benefactor.
Another topic will likely be negotiations on some kind of sanctions relief – the primary medium-term concern for Pyongyang.
China, which controls 92.5% of North Korea’s foreign trade, is a decisive factor when it comes to sanctions. Pyongyang wants them weakened – especially in critical sectors, like allowing DPRK coal to be exported to China.
Next, as was recently demonstrated at December’s Party Cell Chairmen Conference, Pyongyang is concerned with foreign influence in the DPRK. A very significant amount of this influence is coming from China.
North Korea will likely hope for Beijing to organize a crackdown on NGOs and individuals working in China against the DPRK, as well as more Chinese cooperation in securing the border and returning defectors to the DPRK.
As for long-term goals, Pyongyang wants Beijing to support and recognize its nuclear program – like it did decades ago for China, as well as supply the country with aid and not interfere in domestic affairs.
All this would fit the standard framework of the North Korean diplomacy: attempting to use the differences between the neighboring great powers to negotiate maximum benefits for itself. This happened during the Cold War, when the country was relying on Soviet and Chinese protection against the United States, during the Sino-Soviet split, when the DPRK supported whichever power provided more assistance, and in the 2000s when Pyongyang reached out to the South.
This week’s meeting was likely an attempt to appeal to China’s interests, which run contrary to those of the United States, with the purpose of negotiating some concessions for Pyongyang.
What does China want?
Beijing’s position is clear. In the short term, China wants the DPRK to stop its nuclear and missile tests, as the country has stated multiple times.
The PRC would also like to see the DPRK back at the negotiation table, which, they hope would eventually lead to a fulfillment of their medium to long-term goal: for the DPRK to surrender its strategic weaponry. This also, theoretically, helps accomplish another short-term Chinese goal: preventing a war.
Furthermore, because negotiations continue amid poor Chinese-U.S. relations (fueled by recent “trade war” talk between Beijing and Washington), it cannot be discounted that Beijing may have some short-term tactical interest in using the DPRK to frustrate U.S. policy.
The outcome of the meeting would likely depend on which of these two tendencies prevails, but there are also medium and long terms goal of Beijing to consider.
China would also like to gain access to the Sea of Japan, which it is currently denied – both for trade and military reasons, as such an access can strengthen Chinese position in the region and weaken those of Japan and Russia.
Some Chinese businessmen in the northeast of the country would also like to see some sanctions reversed to allow for more DPRK-PRC trade. However, it is unlikely this lobby would be strong enough to influence decision-making in Beijing, though the poorer economic fortunes of the northeastern provinces remain a concern.
In term of long-term planning, Beijing would like the DPRK to pursue a policy of reforms and openness and become a reliable economic partner to China.
There is also the issue of a small diaspora of Chinese citizens in North Korea, and Beijing would like to ensure that their rights are protected.
In order to achieve this, the PRC would also like to exercise more control over North Korea, to prevent the DPRK from destabilizing the region and eventually pushing Pyongyang to follow the Chinese way of reform and openness.
What can North Korea give?
The DPRK cannot offer much to China above and beyond tactical information, such as informing Xi Jinping about what it intends to do at the upcoming summits with the United States and South Korea.
They can promise to stop nuclear and missile tests (as they did to the United States) and any purges of pro-Chinese politicians, they can offer a lofty commitment to denuclearisation – like Kim Jong Il did in 2009. They can also offer Chinese companies access to their country’s resources.
It is unlikely that the offer of resource access will be enough to sway Beijing. While some local Chinese businessmen may welcome access to cheap coal and seafood, their concerns would not be enough to influence the entire policy-making process.
Recent history shows, however, that Pyongyang tends to retract its promises as soon as it considers it profitable. China would very much like negotiations to resume, but they would likely want some reassurances that these negotiations will not end like the Six-Party Talks did.
Possible North Korean concessions may include the termination of missile production and the closure of some strategic areas like the Yongbyon plutonium reprocessing facility, as happened in 2008. However, the DPRK later reopened the facility, and could happen again (as can any agreement of partial suspension or reversal of the program).
Concessions large enough to satisfy China would include a dramatic reduction of the DPRK’s strategic weaponry under Chinese or international control – which is nearly impossible to achieve, given the economic and ideological investment the DPRK had made in its nuclear program.
What can China give?
Beijing’s position in the current crisis is critical. Theoretically, Beijing could provide good guarantees of security for North Korea – like threatening to intervene in some way in the event of an American attack on the DPRK. Theoretically, China is bound to do so by the 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, but there have been many concerns that in case of an emergency, the PRC would not uphold this obligation. Asserting that the treaty is still in force and that any attack on North Korea would lead to Chinese intervention would be welcomed by Pyongyang.
China could relax the sanctions regime under a humanitarian pretext and intensify a crackdown on the border. Economic assistance is also another option, as China may supply North Korea with fuel, electricity and other products the country needs.
Beijing could also agree to veto further sanctions in the Security Council, call for the reversal of existing ones, or quietly sabotage the existing sanctions regime.
There are, therefore, two most likely potential outcomes:
The first scenario is that no agreement is reached. The sides will sign some diplomatic protocol to save face, but talks will not yield any outcomes.
This would mean that the DPRK will start looking for other places to guarantee its security, potentially South Korea and Russia. Should this be the case, Pyongyang will be more flexible with Seoul at the upcoming summit in April. As for Moscow, there have been reports that DPRK foreign minister Ri Yong Ho plans to visit Russia in April: should negotiations with China fail, Pyongyang will pin a great deal of hope on Moscow.
Currently, this scenario appears to be the most likely one. There is little the DPRK can offer to China on a short-term basis and it is unlikely that Pyongyang is prepared for major concessions, giving its recent criticism of China and the explicit rejection of “reforms and openness” by Kim Jong Un at the Seventh Congress.
Some minor agreements
A minor deal would involve Chinese security guarantees in exchange for North Korean promises, such a formally stated commitment to the suspension of tests.
This would mean that Pyongyang, has, once again, successfully played on Chinese geopolitical interests: Beijing does not want a war and would like to avoid seeing Korea unified under the ROK banner, and this may be enough to facilitate China’s agreement.
This would mean a major diplomatic victory for North Korea, as it would gain security while offering nothing in return. Pyongyang would be able to cancel all its promises – be they about strategic weaponry, reforms or investment – at any time. This is also the reason China is not likely to agree to it.
Currently, there is very little known about the meeting: all that is known is that a high-level delegation from the DPRK visited China and left the following day.
China has a lot of leverage on North Korea, maybe more than at any other moment in a long time: it controls an overwhelming majority of the DPRK’s foreign trade, and sanctions are beginning to impact the North Korean economy.
Beijing may use this leverage to try to negotiate serious concessions from the DPRK, though stumbling blocks to any major concessions from the North on its program remain: the nuclear issue is, after all, one between Pyongyang and Washington DC.
The more likely outcome is that no agreement was reached at the meeting, and the sides will depart after exchanging greetings and the usual diplomatic protocols – and likely China’s blessing on upcoming DPRK-ROK and DPRK-U.S. talks.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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