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Confusion Continues as China-North Korea Relations deteriorate

Dr. Rajaram Panda, C3S Paper No.2051


Through much of the years after the end of the Korean War, North Korea’s relations with China remained strong like lips and teeth relationship. Beijing continued to defend and protect Pyongyang even when the latter continued its nuclear weapon program and engaged in other provocative acts. Strategic and ideological factors contributed to this bonding. This has shown signs of strain after Kim Jong-un assumed power following the death of his father Kim Jong-il in December 2011, thereby perpetuating the dynastic succession. During this time, while Chinese President Xi Jinping visited South Korea before travelling to North Korea, the young North Korean leader has not even received an invitation to visit Beijing. Beijing seems to be frustrated with the behaviour of the young ruler, who has ignored the sound counsel of China whenever given. As a result, while South Korea’s ties with China are improving, with that between China and North Korea has worsened.

In recent times, the Chinese media have run a series of negative articles on North Korea. This is bit unusual. The publication of these articles in Beijing News, the Global Times, and in the personal blog of a prominent political commentator in China’s tightly controlled system demonstrate growing frustrations within Beijing over Pyongyang’s continuous confrontational stance with the rest of the world. The article in the Beijing News warned that people should remain suspicious of North Korea and its “flip-flop attitude”. It went on to say “because of the lack of integrity, its [North Korea’s] verbal statements are not going to convince any country … It tried to gain attention by planning the top official’s visit to Seoul, however, this is meaningless as the most important question is whether Pyongyang will give up its nuclear programme”. The article added that Beijing has repeatedly urged Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear programme and reminds the people that they should observe North Korea’s actions instead of its words as Pyongyang’s foreign policy is “usually inconsistent”.

In another article in the Global Times, a state-run tabloid, features an interview with Jin Qiangyi, an international affairs expert at Yanbian University. Qiangyi said that China is unlikely to offer meaningful support to North Korea because of the ongoing nuclear standoff. This diplomatic chill is pushing Pyongyang to reach out to with countries such as Russia, Japan, and South Korea.

Kim Jong-un’s absence from public view for over a month has led to speculation that there is instability in his leadership. Since 3 September 2014, Kim Jong-un has not appeared in public. Though it is reported that his 27-year-old younger sister Kim Yo Jong is now in command, the rumour that Kim Jong-un has taken ill could be true. If this is true, Kim’s absence is not a signal for any major political change in North Korea. On 25 September, the country’s Central TV made an official mention of the leader’s “indisposed condition”. But there are also rumours of a “palace coup” and that Kim Jong-un is kept under “house arrest”. Not much is known about Kim Yo Jong, the youngest of the leader’s six siblings, but if she is really making national decisions, that means there is something seriously wrong in the country and that she is just trying to fill some sort of void. Other rumours say that the leader is recuperating from a bout of gout or fractured ankles or has some infection because of his obsession to consume too much of cheese. Given the kind of system that exists in North Korea, all these are speculations at the moment.

The fact that Pyongyang is trying to diplomatically engage with countries like Russia, Japan and South Korea could be a reaction to China’s increasingly unfavourable view of its Korean ally. It sent a high ranking delegation to South Korea for impromptu talks at the end of the Asian Games which were held in Incheon, South Korea. It is engaged in dialogue with Japan over seeking a solution to the issue of abduction of Japanese nationals by the North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. With Russia, it is on talks over gas pipeline. Are such charm offensives pleasing Beijing? These are unlikely as long as Pyongyang does not return to the Six-Party Talks to address to the issue of denuclearising the Peninsula.

The fact that the North Korea leader has not visited China since coming to power shows that the North is quite not pleased that Beijing is putting pressure and warning over its nuclear programme. This does not mean to suggest, however, that North Korea and China have ceased to be allies. The relationship has become only frosty a bit and should a crisis breakout in the Korean Peninsula, Beijing will surely be on Pyongyang’s side. For the North, China remains as its primary trade partner, apart from being a strategic ally. Sensing Beijing’s displeasure, Pyongyang has at times responded in more belligerent manner. In April the regime allegedly released a memo encouraging officials to “abandon the Chinese dream.” The memo went on to criticize China for its closeness with “imperialists” because of North Korea’s belief that Beijing has sided with the US against their nuclear program. Then in August, North Korea moved its most advanced tank unit towards the Chinese border as it believed China conducted military exercises along its side of the border in April.

Despite Pyongyang’s recalcitrance, Beijing is not too much worried as it is convinced that Pyongyang is unlikely to lean to the side of the US ever. While the key difference between the two countries lies only in the nuclear issue, there are multiple conflicts among North Korea, South Korea, Japan and the US. Beijing knows that the ultimate aim of South Korea is to dictate the unification process of the Korean Peninsula on its terms. The US, however, longs for a revamp to North Korea’s system, which is unacceptable to Pyongyang. For Pyongyang, China remains and shall continue to remain as of “irreplaceable strategic significance”.

Despite the latest charm offensive by Pyongyang, its economic and military strengths are weak and therefore its diplomatic manoeuvrings remain limited. While the US and North Korea remain hostile, the former guarantees to protect South Korea from external attack under treaty obligation. Despite the latest chill in Japan-South Korea relations and diplomatic outreach between Japan and North Korea, Japan is unlikely to drift too far from the US and South Korea because of alliance relationships. Japan’s diplomatic initiative towards Pyongyang is solely to resolve the abduction issue as Prime Minister Abe Shinzo made this as a prime commitment to the electorate during election campaign. None of the regional powers would rejoice if subversive changes suddenly occur in North Korea as such a situation would present with severe challenges to each of them. The situation will become messy in such a situation.

In response to the editorial of 8 October 2014 in the Global Times, some reader came up with the bizarre and outlandish suggestion that Pyongyang might consider joining China or find a way to become an even more closely integrated part of China as with the Ukrainian and Russian during the Grand Soviet era. The reasoning is that with boundaries between China’s Jilin-Liaoning Provinces and North Korea (geologically and geographically) blurred, it would be in North’s interests to become closely integrated with China economically, culturally, and politically. The argument is that there is a historical precedent, as the land area and people of present day North Korea was deeply integrated with China during the Han Dynasty, and the North Korean people would again benefit greatly from closer political integration with China. Such suggestions are extremely unrealistic, in fact bizarre, as it is just unimaginable that in the event of instability and chaos in North Korea, Beijing can have a free hand in gobbling up North Korea while the US and South Korea will sit quiet and yield space to Beijing in silence.

According to Qiu Lin, a prominent political Chinese commentator, Pyongyang is trying to reach out to Europe and South Korea by sending officials in frequent trips but not to China because it is weary of China’s stance on its nuclear program. According to him, Pyongyang wants to get rid of the “outcast” image in the international community. Pyongyang’s charm offensive took the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, the Korean People’s Army General Political Secretary Huang Bing to visit Incheon to attend the Asian Games closing ceremony and met with South Korean Prime Minister Zheng. This was rather unusual and extremely rare as the officials were “heavyweights”, implying that North Korea was keen to improve relations with South Korea through sports and thereby enhance the country’s image.

With a view to end its isolation, North Korea is adopting this kind of diplomatic overdrive. After taking office in April 2014, North’s Foreign Minister Lee Yong-soo visited Middle East, Africa and the ASEAN countries. In mid-September, he travelled to New York to attend the UN General Assembly, the first time in 15 years the Foreign Minister of North Korea ever attended the meeting. In September, the Vice Prime Minister Kang Sok Ju visited Europe. While in Germany, he expressed his country’s keenness to restart the Six-Party Talks without conditions and blamed the US for coming on the way. North Korean officials have visited nearly over 20 countries in recent times but have not set foot on China, implying that trust between the two countries has broken to some extent.

Notwithstanding the strategic dimension that still would bind Pyongyang-Beijing together, North Korea considers China as a hard mediator but a painful middle man. China feels that the frequent visits of North Korean officials to foreign countries are on the behest of the leader of the regime and meant to circumvent China’s diplomatic priorities. Such diplomatic outreach initiatives, however, did not deter the North and South Korea’s naval patrol boats to engage briefly in exchanging fire near their disputed Yellow Sea border, just three days after a top-ranking North Korean delegation had visited South Korea, in what was seen as a constructive reboot in strained inter-Korean relations.

A South Korean naval ship fired a warning shot after a North Korean vessel crossed the so-called Northern Limit Line off the western coast. The North Korean ship returned fire before retreating. But neither ship intended to hit one another and that no injuries or damage occurred in the incident. South Korea’s boat is believed to have fired about 90 rounds in the exchange, which lasted about 10 minutes. Though such incursions are not uncommon since North Korea has never recognized the de facto Yellow Sea border which was drawn by the United Nations at the end of the 1950s Korean War, such incident raises tensions, especially when senior North Korean officials made a surprise visit to the South for the closing ceremonies of the Asian Games. The delegation was led by the North’s number two man Hwang Pyong So. He was joined by senior ruling party members Cho Ryong Hae and Kim Yang Gon.

Inter-Korean talks have a chequered history. Each time there has been an initiative, there has been sudden U-turn when either side has toughened position. Though the desire to resolve dispute and differences are there, there is always less room for flexibility. According to the Unification Minister of South Korea Ryoo Kikl-jae, reunion of families separated by the Korean War remains in the top agenda item as the ministry feels this matter is a “pressing and desperate issue”. Talks on this issue have remained suspended since February 2014 and are now expected to resume soon. Pyongyang has also demanded that the South lifts sanctions that it imposed on the North on 24 May 2010 after the sinking of the South Korean naval corvette Cheonan in waters near the disputed western sea border. The sanctions ban nearly all inter-Korean economic activities except those inside the Kaesong Industrial Complex. South Korea believes the sinking of the navy ship, which claimed 46 lives, was caused by a North Korean torpedo attack. North Korea has repeatedly denied any involvement in the incident.

It is a truism that North Korea’s foreign policy has remained inconsistent ever since the country came into being. Both the Koreas have long standing disagreement on the inter-Korean border demarcation in the western waters of the Korean Peninsula. Because of this dispute, North Korea indulged in the provocative acts such as the Cheonan incident and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. The inconsistent behaviour of North Korean diplomacy is demonstrable since 1994 when it conducted its first nuclear test and then promised to stop further tests in return to receive economic assistance from the international community only to violate that promise when it conducted further tests in 2006, 2009 and again in 2013, and with the right to conduct further tests in future. Since then, North Korea has been continuing its program to develop nuclear weapons and missiles.

When Kim Jong-un assumed power after his father’s death in December 2011, many people thought that Kim Jong-un’s overseas experience and his wife Li Xue’s external exposure with designer handbags as well as the emergence of Mickey Mouse and miniskirts, North Korea would embark on a new course of reform and open the country to the outside world. But contrary to such hopes, North Korea launched Sputnik and nuclear test in April 2012 and February 2013. As a result, the attitude of the international community continued to harden as hopes for any major change were belied. Even, China, its long time ally, is frustrated and joined the international community in support of the demand that North Korea abandons its nuclear program. For the world, North Korea remains an enigma and it remains difficult for any analyst to decipher its future directions, China included.

(Dr. Rajaram Panda is currently the Japan Foundation Fellow at Reitaku University, Chiba, JAPAN. His e-mail ID is: rajaram.panda@gmail.com )

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