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China and North Korea: friends again?

Relaxed summit between North Korean and Chinese leaders confirms restored friendship, commonality of aims, of the two countries

Even as US President Trump’s forthcoming meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un continues to be the subject of negotiation and speculation, the North Korean leader has just wrapped up his second unannounced meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Western commentary continues to see Kim Jong-un’s forthcoming summit meeting with Donald Trump as they key goal of North Korea’s diplomacy, and the most important summit of Kim Jong-un’s career.  Kim Jong-un’s meetings with Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are interpreted as steps to that goal.

I take the diametrically opposite view.  I suspect that far from seeing his forthcoming summit meeting with Donald Trump as the culmination of his diplomacy, Kim Jong-un rather sees his meeting with Donald Trump as the price he must pay to further his diplomacy with South Korea and China.

South Korea and China are North Korea’s immediate neighbours.  China is the colossus on North Korea’s border, the ultimate guarantor of North Korea’s survival, and North Korea’s major, in fact practically its only significant trade partner.

For Kim Jong-un that makes establishing good and close (but not too close) relations with China an overriding priority.

As for South Korea, as the deeply nationalist North Korean government never forgets – even if Western commentators and Western nations all too often do – South Korean represents that greater part of the Korean nation from which North Korea is separated by the division of the Korean Peninsula following the Second World War and the Korean War.

For North Korea overcoming that division is an existential need.  For Kim Jong-un it is the mission he has inherited from his revered grandfather – North Korea’s founder Kim Il-song – and from his father Kim Jong-il.

Pursuing it is what gives Kim Jong-un’s rule its legitimacy in the eyes of the North Korean people and North Korea’s elite, and everything Kim Jong-un has said and done since he became North Korea’s leader shows that doing what he can to erase this division whilst preserving North Korea’s current political system is his priority.

As for China, the Chinese have made no secret of their dismay as North Korea, contrary to their publicly expressed wishes, has pursued a ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme which the Chinese almost certainly correctly construe as intended at least in part to secure North Korea’s independence from China.

However that has never changed the fact that China continues to see North Korea’s survival as essential and in its national interests

This is both for emotional grounds – the collapse of a fellow socialist state and Chinese ally neighbouring China which China would be a massive psychological blow for China – and on national security grounds, with China having no wish to see a collapse of North Korea which would extend US influence right up to China’s border in a region where China has for millennia been the dominant power.

What all this means is that as soon as moves got underway to bring about a rapprochement between North and South Korea, with the possibility that North Korea might scale down or even entirely eliminate its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons capability, relations between that North Korea and China were bound to improve.

China’s position was explained in a carefully worded editorial in Global Times dated 9th March 2018 ie. before the first Kim-Xi summit but whilst steps to arrange it would have been underway.

China’s prime interest on the Korean Peninsula is its denuclearization and peace, both of which are more important than China’s relations with North and South Korea and power politics. That is because China’s northeastern region is next to North Korea and under constant threat by the latter’s nuclear activities and unrest on the peninsula.

China is incomparable with the US. The US is far away from the Korean Peninsula and has a lot of room to maneuver. Besides, the US is an ally of South Korea and maintains its ability to influence it.

China’s huge influence on North Korea has ceased. China does not station troops in North Korea after it pulled negotiation representatives from Panmunjeom in the mid-1990s. China and North Korea only have normal relations, apart from the ideological connection, and their economic cooperation is mutually beneficial. It is a misconception that China still provides huge amounts of economic aid to North Korea.

China’s influence on North Korea is based on China’s increasing national strength and geopolitical closeness. China is capable of impacting international sanctions, and remains a stakeholder in the Korean Peninsula situation. However, China cannot lead the efforts to solve peninsula problem.

However, the trend of the peninsula situation is in the direction that China has been pushing and this shows China’s efforts worked. The “suspension for suspension” that China has advocated appeared, and the “dual-track” approach is taking shape. In the recent past, China has been part of international sanctions against North Korea while preventing the blocking of North Korea and other extreme situations that may cause military conflicts, and retained room for a favorable turn between the US and North Korea.

It is unnecessary for China, a major power, to worry about North Korea “turning to the US,” as there will be no one around China that will completely side with the US. Since the very beginning of the peninsula nuclear crisis, China has been actively pushing for a direct dialogue between North Korea and the US, and we should continue to support this approach at this moment. If the Kim-Trump meeting will contribute to denuclearization and peace that China desires the most, China has no reason to be unhappy about it.

The current low in China-North Korea relations is due to the North’s nuclear tests, not the so-called historic or cultural factors or the North Korean leader’s personality, which have been hyped by some people. China-North Korea ties will improve when the nuclear issue is settled. 

With the development of modern technology and the shift of international relations, North Korea’s significance as China’s geopolitical buffer has been greatly reduced. Sound China-North Korea ties are more important to North Korea than to China. China should support the US-North Korea contact and welcome the Kim-Trump meeting. In the meantime, China should actively respond to the sharp change in the situation and improve relations with North Korea to further facilitate the change.

We should respect North Korea. China will, on one hand, uphold the authority of the UN Security Council, while on the other hand, help protect the rights of North Korea when Pyongyang begins denuclearization talks with Washington. China will advocate the international security mechanism and help prevent North Korea from being deceived or squeezed by the US once it begins to denuclearize.

This is just the beginning of peninsula peace, and a great deal of uncertainty lies ahead.  China should stay calm and uphold its principles, and remain focused despite the dramatic changes. China must not pursue a quick solution or become hesitant.

China will welcome the dialogue between the US and North Korea, and resolutely support North Korea securing its due interests in the process of denuclearization. Through these efforts, China’s interests will not be pushed aside.

The careful words about China’s limited influence in North Korea should be seen for what they are: assurances to North Korea’s leaders (who certainly read Global Times) that China is not seeking to dominate them or to subordinate North Korea to itself.  Note the careful words: “We should respect North Korea”.

At the same time the editorial says quite explicitly that “China-North Korea ties will improve when the nuclear issue is settled”.

 That is what we are now seeing.

 The extent to which relations between China and North Korea have been restored has been made clear by the extraordinarily relaxed and cheerful atmosphere during the latest summit between their two leaders.

The Chinese news agency Xinhua has published pictures showing Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un chatting amiably together (see caption picture) and walking together along the seaside

Meanwhile Xinhua – China’s official news agency – has given a summary of Xi Jinping’s remarks during the talks which show how he conceives relations between China and North Korea developing

In a cordial and friendly atmosphere, the top leaders of the two parties and the two countries had an all-round and in-depth exchange of views on China-DPRK relations and major issues of common concern……Xi stressed that he and Kim held their historic first meeting in Beijing in March this year, during which they had a long and in-depth communication, and reached principled consensus in four aspects on developing China-DPRK relations in the new era.

Firstly, the China-DPRK traditional friendship has been a treasure of both countries. It is an unswerving principle and the only correct choice for both countries to develop the friendly and cooperative China-DPRK relations.

Secondly, both China and the DPRK are socialist countries, and their bilateral relations are of major strategic significance. Both sides need to enhance unity, cooperation, exchanges and mutual learning.

Thirdly, high-level exchanges between the two parties play an irreplaceably significant role in guiding bilateral relations, Xi said. The two sides should maintain frequent exchanges, strengthen strategic communication, deepen understanding and mutual trust, and safeguard common interests.

Fourthly, cementing the people-to-people friendship foundation is an important channel to advance the development of China-DPRK relations, Xi said. The two sides should, by multiple means, enhance people-to-people communication and exchanges to create a sound foundation of popular will for the advancement of China-DPRK relations.

Xi said that with concerted efforts of both sides, all of these consensuses are being well implemented…..

China supports the DPRK’s adherence to the denuclearization of the peninsula, and backs the dialogue and consultation between the DPRK and the United States for resolving the peninsula issue, Xi said.

“China is willing to continue to work with all relevant parties and play an active role in comprehensively advancing the process of peaceful resolution of the peninsula issue through dialogue, and realizing long-term peace and stability in the region,” he said….

Xi said the Third Plenary Meeting of the Seventh WPK Central Committee advanced a strategic line of concentrating all efforts on socialist economic construction, and announced the decision to discontinue nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic rocket test-fire and dismantle its northern nuclear test ground, which shows the great importance Kim attaches to developing economy and improving people’s livelihood and the resolute determination to safeguard regional peace and stability.

China appreciates the move, and supports the DPRK in shifting its strategic focus to economic construction and the DPRK comrades in taking a development path suitable to their own national situation, Xi said.

(bold italics added)

In other words China is prepared to do all in its power to ensure that North Korea receives all the security guarantees it needs.  It does so with the full understanding that North Korea intends thereafter to focus on its economic development.

This includes support for Kim Jong-un’s goal for the total denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula – which Xinhua says Kim Jong-un told Xi Jinping was North Korea’s “consistent and clear stand” – which as I have explained many times requires the removal from the Korean Peninsula not just of North Korea’s nuclear weapons but the US’s nuclear weapons as well.

There is much misunderstanding about the reasons for the actions of the North Korean government.  In particular all sorts of fanciful theories have made floated about the reasons why North Korea embarked upon its programme to acquire nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.  These theories usually come together with claims that the North Korean leadership is indifferent to the plight of the North Korean people and is uninterested in North Korea’s economic development.

In reality the North Koreans have never made any secret about why they embarked upon the arduous task of developing their nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles: to protect themselves from possible attack by the US.

That means that as soon as North Korea no longer feels threatened by the US its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles will become redundant and can be disposed of.  Kim Jong-un said it again in his talks with Xi Jinping

As long as relevant parties abolish their hostile policies and remove security threats against the DPRK, there is no need for the DPRK to be a nuclear state and denuclearization can be realized

The complex task is to bring to an end “the hostile policies and security threats against the DPRK” which come from the US.

To that end North Korea and China are now working together.  South Korea has joined them, and Russia has to.

The Kim-Trump summit is the US’s chance to join the process and to avoid being left behind by it.

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