07.06.2013 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The chief of the North Korean military’s political department visits China

htmlimageThe director of the North Korean People’s Army’s General Political Department, Choe Ryong-Hae, visited China from May 22-25, 2013. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s special envoy met both with members of the country’s military leadership and with Liu Yunshan, a member of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee’s Standing Committee, or with Wang Jiarui, head of the Central Committee’s International Liaison Department: “The parties exchanged opinions about the situation on the Korean peninsula and also discussed issues of mutual interest.”

On May 25, 2013, Choe Ryong-Hae met with the Chinese Central Committee’s General Secretary and President, Xi Jinping, and gave him a letter from North Korea’s leader that said Pyongyang and Beijing should retain their traditional friendly relations and work to expand them.

This visit to China was quite important and significant, not least because the director of the military’s General Political Department holds much higher status in North Korea than the uninformed might think. An informal table of ranks would place him in third or fourth position, ahead of the defense minister, who primarily oversees technical issues.

Speculation about the visit has been rampant: South Korean experts believe the North is seeking to restore relations with China that went downhill after the third nuclear test. The newspaper Chosun SinBio, which is published by a pro-North Korean organization of Koreans living in Japan, says the DPRK intends to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula through dialogue, pointing to China’s priority status in resolving the situation.

A dissenting opinion has it that Choe was preparing the way for a visit by Kim Jong-un. Kim has been waiting for his first foreign trip for a long time, and, according to some reports, Beijing hinted very strongly last year that a summit was needed, and that it should be in China. However, North Korea probably perceived those proposals as a test of strength, because to Korea a trip by the young leader to Beijing would resemble the traditional trip by a sovereign to the capital of the Middle Kingdom to receive approval of his title and investiture. That expectation was cause for some irritation between Beijing and Pyongyang; however, it was not especially important in the context of other problems.

A second group of proposals amounted to making sure that the visit would be devoted to a discussion of the current problems with Chinese-North Korean relations. Several are evident: The first is an attempt to make sure of a certain amount of food aid. Although the specter of famine (which was present in the mid-1990s) has long since departed the peninsula, the DPRK is still experiencing a food shortage, and whereas previously it needed a million tonnes of food, it now needs 500-600 thousand tonnes, of which Pyongyang is prepared to pay for half. Therefore, humanitarian assistance is still quite a significant factor.

The second problem involves possible signs of an administrative crisis in the DPRK. Because it is unclear whether the young leader controls everything from bottom to top as firmly as his father did, it is felt that a weakening of control at the local level and the further development of the “parallel economy” are encouraging some officials on the periphery to begin trying to “solve problems” at China’s expense.

Although many things are unclear, we might recall the case of the company Shining Group and North Korea’s recent capture of a Chinese fishing boat either in the DPRK’s exclusive economic zone or in Chinese waters that apparently involved violent treatment of the captain and the crew and demands for ransom. That naturally caused a wave of anti-North Korean sentiment on the Chinese Internet, considering that such incidents occur periodically and China’s position dominates the media and in blogs. Part of any visit must also deal with problems like these.

The third problem involves China’s economic interests in North Korea. It concerns stepping up supplies of North Korean minerals to China, including rare earth elements, and Chinese attempts as inter-Korean relations cool to occupy venues for cooperating with South Korea. We can say with some reservation that China is attempting to acquire all of its neighbor’s economic ties for itself, and that is a cause of alarm for Russian economic interests.

Finally, the visit may provide an opportunity to discuss issues that have to do not with tactics but with strategy, which affects Chinese-North Korean relations as a whole. I need to address that in some detail because there are some strange concepts in the public mind and even among political analysts who are not Asia experts concerning relations between Beijing and Pyongyang.

Some believe that China is out of patience, and that the imposition of sanctions against North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank and the Chinese central press’s publication of a series of articles containing hard-hitting and blunt criticism of North Korea (including a call to re-examine the traditional model of their relations) means China is joining the “international community” in condemning the regime. They disregard the fact that the Chinese press today is very pluralistic and the author of the hard-hitting article was forced to resign, or that most currency transactions between the two countries go through regional banks or are handled with cash.

At the other extreme are attempts to represent Pyongyang’s “bouts of madness” as doing Beijing’s bidding. China supposedly plays the North Korea card whenever tensions between China and the United States exceed a certain level and lets Pyongyang off the leash.

In actuality, China’s policy towards North Korea is influenced by many factors, including a shift from ideology to naked pragmatism. However, the same two points that define Russia’s position on the issue are paramount. On the one hand, there is the burden of international obligations under which China as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a nuclear power is obligated to support denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and condemn North Korea’s disregard for UN resolutions. On the other hand, border stability is important to China. In addition, North Korea can be seen as a Chinese area of responsibility where it needs to ensure a “favorable environment” (For a more detailed discussion of Russian and Chinese policies in this area, see my earlier article. Here, therefore, I will again say that Beijing’s interest in North Korea has to do with its existence as a buffer state.)

However, this is where a rather important clash of interests originates. North Korea has retained some independence in the past and is still trying to do so. As a minimum, it wants to be on a much longer leash. During Soviet times, Pyongyang maneuvered quite skillfully between the USSR and China, and today, if US policy were not so unconstructive, it could attempt to balance between China and the United States by playing off the conflicts between the two superpowers. Beijing, on the other hand, is naturally trying to shorten the leash in an attempt to get the North to pay more attention to the problems and wishes of its “big brother” and not present it with what China considers irresponsible actions, to say the least.

After all, each exacerbation of the situation in the region involving North Korea can be seen as causing the media to come out with something like “North Korea is threatening the world” and is used by the United States and its allies to strengthen their military-political positions in Northeast Asia, which are aimed primarily at containing China.

Moreover, the crisis in April is seen by some scholars as a sign of some weakness on the part of Beijing, which, although it is formally responsible for North Korea’s conduct, could not solve the problem. And although there was no war, the situation still had an impact on the reputation of China, which has always stood for stability on the Korean peninsula and its denuclearization through negotiation and consultations. Therefore, Choe’s words about opening a dialogue with all interested parties to resolve the situation are thought either to be dictated by Beijing or articulated in the context of the fact that the visit took place on the eve of the South Korean-Chinese and US-Chinese summits scheduled for June.

We should remember that, in addition to the two country’s actual problems, a wedge is being driven in Chinese-North Korean relations from outside. There is a popular view in the West that North Korea exists only thanks to China, and once Beijing changes its mind about supporting Pyongyang, the Kim regime will not last a year. Therefore, efforts are being made to convince Beijing that it is dealing with an undeserving and ungrateful partner, which is time to abandon. Everything possible to make that happen is being done: even a forged Kim Jong-il will (published in the Japanese press) urging that China not be trusted and be taken maximum advantage of. There have also been rumors that North Korea has destroyed cemeteries of Chinese volunteers who fought in the Korean War and completely erased China’s contribution from the war’s history. Then there is the “testimony of defectors” who say that women made pregnant by Chinese men are put into camps for defiling the nation’s purity. And there are the tired stories that Chinese intelligence has prevented another assassination attempt on Kim Jong-nam, whom idle journalists (despite his own statements that he has long been out of politics) either ascribe to a reform party or say leads a pro-Chinese group and would be made the DPRK’s leader if Kim Jong-un falls completely out of favor. The recent report that China has plans for a regime change was published by Deutsche Welle, not the Japanese media. Actually, columnists of that stripe who have been writing about Choe’s visit have been saying things like, “They gave him a good tongue lashing” and “according to the Japanese and South Korean media” KCNA did not report Pyongyang’s statement that it was willing to hold a dialogue to avoid making it look like a concession made under pressure.

Some Western experts believe the visit by Kim Jong-un’s envoy to China could be a turning point in easing tensions on the Korean peninsula. I do not believe that to be the case since the DPRK is not the only one keeping the tensions high, but I am convinced that the first contact at such a high level since the change of government in Pyongyang will clearly have an impact on how the situation in Northeast Asia plays out and (hopefully) will further defuse tensions in the region.

Konstantin Asmolov, Cand. Sc. (History), is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies. Exclusively for New Eastern Outlook.


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