23.03.2019 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

How Relations are Unfolding between China and North Korea in Early 2019

China North Korea

In another article, details were given of the North Korean leader’s visit to Vietnam, which mentioned that Kim Jong-un’s special train passed through Chinese territory without making any long stops on the way back to North Korea. Despite earlier predictions, there was no meeting held between the leaders of North Korea and China.

However, we will examine what skipping this meeting could mean within the overall context of relations between the two countries in early 2019.

In Washington on 23 January 2019, the United States Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun met with Chinese counterpart Kong Xuanyou. The diplomats discussed the issues involved in achieving complete denuclearization in North Korea, shared the information they have based on the results of recent negotiations which are still in progress, and stressed the importance of implementing UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea.

On 26 January, the Workers’ Newspaper Rodong Sinmun wrote that South Korea and the North should not listen to opinions from third-party states about their joint projects. Inter-Korean projects should be carried out on a bilateral basis in Korean people’s interests and not for foreign countries. So-called North Korean policy coordination which other countries are advocating aims to prevent Seoul from improving inter-Korean relations. Consulting with third-party states would also create an obstacle which would present Koreans from finding a peaceful resolution to their issues, thwarting hopes of prosperity and unification. These third-party states are not named, but judging by what has been written, this may not only be hinting at the US, but also China.

From 24 to 31 January 2019 the North Korean art troupe led by Ri Su-yong toured Beijing, which made an important ceremonial event. China’s Central Television reported that the performance given by artists from North Korea is not only important as a form of cultural exchange, but also marks the 70th anniversary since diplomatic relations between the two countries were established.  The South Korean media highlighted the fact that the performances were held against the backdrop of Pyongyang landscapes, while three years ago at a similar concert, the background had been one of nuclear weapons and missiles.

The Korean Central News Agency noted that the concerts were a success, “thanks to the care taken by the Supreme leaders of both countries—North Korea and China.” The Agency quotes Xi Jinping, who said that the tour had contributed to strengthening mutual understanding between the two countries as they approached the 70th anniversary of their diplomatic relations. The newspaper Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s official print media, published a detailed report on the tour and a photo report.

The performers were accompanied by WPK Vice Chairman for International Relations Ri Su-yong, and the concert was attended by Xi Jinping along with his wife and other Chinese officials on 27 January, who met with Ri after the event.

Kim Jong-un also received the delegation on his return from China. Meanwhile, the South Korean press noted that the performers had every need catered for, and compared the tour to a canceled performance three years ago. Then in December 2015, the North Korean girl band Moranbong arrived in Beijing. However, their performance was canceled, which made people wonder whether there was a “stagnation in relations between Beijing and Pyongyang.”

On 30 January 2018, the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs arranged a friendly New Year’s gathering with the staff working at the Chinese Embassy in North Korea. The gathering heard that “thanks to the dedication of both countries’ Supreme leaders, a new chapter is being opened in China-North Korea relations,” and the confidence was expressed “that in 2019, when the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between North Korea and China is being celebrated, the invaluable tradition of a wonderful friendship will continue thanks to the joint effort of the Korean and Chinese people.”

In the run-up to the North Korea-United States Hanoi Summit, the Chinese media had moderate forecasts, particularly the China Daily newspaper, but they were anticipating successful talks.   Dialogue will undoubtedly help put an end to the hostility between the US and North Korea. The fact that both sides have demonstrated patience and goodwill gives enough confidence to say that the first summit was not accidental.  Trump’s statement that he has “got all the time in the world” to resolve the issue of denuclearization has been interpreted as an indication that settling the problem will be a gradual bilateral process, rather than an attempt by Washington to put pressure on Pyongyang: “it is unrealistic to expect that denuclearization is a goal that can be achieved through a couple of high-level meetings.”

When the results of the summit became known, China called on both sides to make concessions “to meet each other halfway” and maintain the achievements they had secured. At a regular press briefing in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang said that the situation on the Korean Peninsula has reached a significant turning point during last year, and that it is worthwhile continuing on this course.

Beijing was informed about the results of the summit by a North Korean delegation headed by Vice Foreign Minister Ri Kil-song, who left Pyongyang for China on 28 February. On the same day, Ri met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, but according to reports from Chinese media, the politicians discussed the results of the visit as well as preparations for the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the two countries’ diplomatic relations.

Speaking of the Hanoi summit between Kim and Trump, Wang noted that there will inevitably be some difficulties, since talks between the North Korea and the US will touch on deep underlying problems. Indeed, this is something that has to be worked on, and what is more important is that both sides recognize the need to find a political solution to the situation on the Korean Peninsula through dialogue. In addition, “China hopes that North Korea and the US will strengthen trust, demonstrate patience, continue to engage in talks, meet each other halfway, consistently direct their efforts towards achieving the ultimate goal,” and is prepared to take part in the process.

Within this context, it is worth noting two statements from 8 and 14 March 2019. On March 8, Wang Yi said that Chinese authorities “are planning to provide hands-on assistance to implement the new North Korean development strategy, strengthening friendly bilateral relations with this country based on the agreements reached.”  “We will make every possible effort to support the new state strategy for North Korea’s development, which involves the targeted stimulation of economic development aimed at improving national welfare.”

We view this as an indication that economic support of North Korea will be strengthened, and there is some evidence to back it up. According to the United Nations website, China exported about 20,000 tons of refined petroleum to North Korea in 2018. Based on a report Beijing submitted to the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee on North Korea, China shipped 2,928 tons and 1,510 tons of refined petroleum to North Korea, in November and December respectively. In this way, China’s total annual supply from the North amounted to 19,200 tons.

According to sources from Daily NK, following Kim Jong-un’s January visit to China, the contraband supply from North Korea to China has increased, and “copper and zinc concentrate produced in the Hyesan Mine (in Masan-dong) is being smuggled en masse into China,” the news website which focuses on issues in North Korea wrote.  The article states that “locals are referring to the trade as ‘state smuggling,’” and 70% of export products are zinc, copper, tungsten, molybdenum, magnesite clinker, as well as gold and silver concentrates.  Products imported into North Korea include flour, soybean oil, sugar and other processed food products, as well as parts for cars and motorcycles.

The South Korean media have written that in April 2019, China plans to begin construction work to build a high-speed motorway, which is to connect the cities of Wonsan and Hamhung. The official announcement of the start of the tender was published on 30 October 2018 on the website for China’s tendering and bidding system and specialized companies. The road will be 111 km long. It will take three years to build the road using funds allocated by the Chinese side as a loan. The total budget for the project is estimated at 828 million dollars. When the media requested details, the Chinese construction company working on the project reacted rather abruptly, saying that the project is a commercial secret which is being carried out legally, and that there is nothing to talk about. China is going ahead with the project without having received prior approval from the UN.

On 14 March 2019, during a regular briefing, Lu Kang said that China maintains its position on the need to create a model which would resolve problems on the Korean Peninsula which should be reasonable towards all the countries it concerns:  the six-party talks are considered a good format, which have played an important role in resolving the North Korean problem in the past.

This statement was made almost simultaneously with a press conference which was held on 15 March in Pyongyang, where North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui said that the US had missed out on a “golden” opportunity to reach an agreement during the summit in Hanoi. According to one leaked source, Kim had intended to return to the issue six months later, and planned to keep a moratorium on nuclear tests and missile launches during this period, though he was not prepared to take any new steps to anticipate counteractions from America. From our perspective, it looks like Beijing is preparing for a scenario where the bilateral dialogue will be discontinued, and thus, they are offering to revive the six-party format, where China used to play a chief role in organizing the talks and owned the platform.

To summarize, we feel that, despite all the rhetoric of friendship, there is some cooling going on between these two countries. On the one hand, Beijing may be less worried about the fact that the North is moving away from them following the failed summit in Hanoi, and have adopted North Korea’s version to explain the reasons why the summit did not succeed, on the other hand, the fact that there was no meeting between Kim Jong-un and the Chinese leader as he made his way back from Hanoi to Pyongyang may well be a sign of some cooling of relations against a background of formal rhetoric about friendship. A number of factors point to this:

  • The North Korean media periodically criticize “certain countries”, which obstruct or try to regulate North Korea’s attempts to develop relations with the South or with the United States.
  • Kim does not single out relations between North Korea and China in a capital letters. This is emphasized by North Korea’s broader relations with the general socialist camp in and of itself.
  • The choice of Vietnam as the destination for the summit is very interesting. Especially if you look at things from the point of view of China-Vietnam relations. Moreover, Kim Jong-un visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum before leaving Hanoi, although he had never paid a visit to the similar Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. It is true that China has a difficult attitude towards Mao, but the Western media have brought this point into focus.
  • Finally, the North Korean media has said almost nothing about the trade war which is going on between the US and China. Either North Korea does not want to take sides, or they are planning to sit it out.
  • Some Western writers have drawn attention to the fact that Kim wished Putin a Happy New Year based on the lunar calendar, Xi Jiping did not receive a similar greeting for the Chinese New Year.  However, some sinologists believe that no greeting was published because it had been delivered through personal channels.
  • Amnesty International even claimed that in 2018, North Korea increased its restrictions on the use of Chinese mobile networks near the border as an anti-Chinese measure. According to this organization’s sources, communication using a Chinese mobile network has become even more complex and risky.

There is reason to believe that current relations between China and North Korea are more of a tactical alliance, stemming from the common threat posed by the United States and its allies in Southeast Asia.  But this does not diminish how close the two countries are at present, and although there are pitfalls, as long as Pyongyang maintains its détente policy and as long as the threat from the US is deemed significant, relations between China and North Korea will remain as they are today.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. (History), leading researcher at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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