09.07.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

China-DPRK – volatility or convergence?

chinadprkflagsIn our last article on China-DPRK relations we paid particular attention to the ambivalence of Chinese politics, thinking about how soon the hard tone toward their relations with Pyongyang may change to a rhetoric of convergence. Today, we talk about the events that could be considered the first steps in this direction.

On June 1, 2016 during a meeting with the delegation of the Workers’ Party of Korea headed by the member of the Political Bureau of the Party’s Central Committee, Li Su Yong, the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, called on all sides on the Korean Peninsula to keep their composure and exercise restraint, to strengthen consultation and dialogue, and to maintain peace and stability in the region.

Xi Jinping welcomed the delegation, which specially travelled to Beijing to talk about the results of the Seventh Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea, and wished the people of the DPRK new successes in economic development, the general improvement of people’s life and the building of socialism. According to him, such a visit is part of the tradition of the Communist Party of China and the Workers’ Party of Korea to conduct strategic consultations on important issues, and demonstrates the fact that the chairperson of the WPK, Kim Jong-un, and the WPK Central Committee give special credence and importance to the relations between the two parties and the two countries. Xi Jinping stressed that the Chinese side pays a great deal of attention to strengthening friendly cooperation with the DPRK, and intends to work together with it to strengthen bilateral relations.

The day prior to this, the deputy chairman of the WPK Central Committee, Li Su Yong, met in Beijing with the head of the International Relations Department of the CPC Central Committee, Song Tao, who also expressed his support for the development, which is supported by the North Korean people, and confidence in the fact that the DPRK will successfully fulfil all the objectives that were laid down to them at the conference, and achieve great success in the development of a socialist state.

On the same day on 31.05.2016, an Air Koryo plane landed at Jinan International Airport for the first time ever. Opening a new line of communication is very important given measures taken against this DPRK airline as part of the sanctions, totally limiting its capabilities. It may be noted also that China has not yet filed a formal report on how the country is actually going to comply with its obligations on sanctions.

South Korean and Western media houses are trying to downplay the significance of this visit, pointing out that Xi Jinping gave Li Su Yong only 20 minutes of his time, but actually, it was much more than 20 minutes. As noted by ‘Rossiyskaya Gazeta’, taking into account the difference in the statuses of Xi and Li, 20 minutes of dialogue is quite a normal duration. Putin’s meeting with Park Geun-hye during the course of major international events also did not last long, but the media presented them quite differently. It is important to keep in mind the fact that the consideration of the visit, both in China and in North Korea, suggests that most of the major documents were agreed upon not directly on the day of the meetings of the leaders, but at an earlier preliminary stage. And what is much more important is the fact that the visit itself took place, and possibly a number of lower-level agreements to be signed following the results of the meeting.

The importance of the visit is confirmed by the fact that the anti-North Korean and anti-China forces tried to torpedo it well in advance, throwing a curious rumor that China allegedly prevented North Korea’s nuclear test, as reported on the May 29 edition of Boxun, citing a source in Beijing.

It turns out on May 17, the DRPK planned to conduct an open-air nuclear and organized the leakage of some information in order to get humanitarian aid from the international community against the backdrop of the new wave of famine hitting the country. In response, China sent a special representative to Pyongyang in order to warn the North from proceeding with the testing, believing that if this was done on the North Korean-Chinese border, it could lead to serious environmental consequences. As a result, Pyongyang accepted the Chinese representative’s proposal of a significant increase in food supply under the guise of humanitarian aid 

However, the above-mentioned edition Boxun is not the Chinese, but the American one, and is in fact a combat leaflet published by a dissident group known mostly because of lost lawsuits which were filed against them after they published scandalous claims and the victims decided to take them to court.

However, the Japanese edition of the ‘Sankei Shimbun’ reported that the Chinese leadership gave instructions for the suspension of criticism against North Korea, which made a number of key Chinese media houses come “in favor” of North Korea. For example, the English edition of the Chinese Global Times, which usually “holds supreme power” positions and does not hesitate to criticize North Korea, published the article: ‘Sino-North Korean friendship – the Key to Peace on the Korean Peninsula’. It wrote, “Many international forces are engaged in provoking a confrontation, trying to turn some of the differences into the main source of conflict in Northeastern Asia … however, China and North Korea are determined to refrain from taking such positions” 

Once again, rumors about the preparation of Kim Jong-un’s visit to Beijing also crawled in: “an expected timing” by Kim Jong-un is August to October 2016.

What could affect such a rapid change of policy? Offhand, several factors can be deduced.

This is mainly encompassed in the United States’ tough position on THAAD, and on the containment of China’s actions in the South China Sea. It is no accident that on June 5, speaking at the IISS Asia Security Summit: The Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), the deputy chief of the Joint Staff of the Chinese Central Military Commission, Admiral Sun Jianguo, firmly stated that THAAD’s real possibilities surpass the need for missile defense, which South Korea and the US are indicating, and disrupt Chinese strategic interests.

This is the introduction by America of new unilateral financial sanctions, a blow to Chinese banks that facilitate cooperation with North Korea, and other attempts to put pressure. As a correspondent from the ‘Rossiyskaya Gazeta’, one of the Chinese experts remarked, “If the United States wants us to achieve something in our relations with North Korea, it is high time they understood the fact that the pressure they try to impose on us will provoke quite the opposite reaction.”

This is the recent agreement between the US and Vietnam, which Russian patriots have taken as a stab in the heart of the winners of the Vietnam War, even though in reality it is the ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ strategy. From a historical point of view, China is Vietnam’s traditional enemy, and the last major clash in 1979 was barely averted by the active intervention of the Soviet Union.

The icing on the cake can be taken to be the actions of South Korean fishermen against their Chinese counterparts who, regardless of whether or not they had the right documents, were found fishing on the disputed territorial waters in the vicinity of the “northern boundary line”. The situation was very similar to the story of the North Korean fishermen and a Russian boat, when patriotic citizens themselves boarded two Chinese vessels and escorted them to the Korean port, triggering protests from Beijing.

On the other hand, one should not go too far and talk about the complete transformation of the strategic line. China, as well as the Russian Federation, does not recognize the nuclear status of North Korea that its government constantly seeks to emphasize. On June 14, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce published a list of goods, technologies and equipment that are banned for export to North Korea as part of Resolution 2270 of the UN Security Council. This lays out forty types of goods and technologies that could be used in developing weapons of mass destruction – a number of metals and alloys, equipment for laser welding, certain electrical appliances.

In summary, China-North Korea relations are currently becoming more volatile and falling within the context of a specific corridor. This context is determined, on the one hand, by the desire of Beijing to turn its “mischievous neighbor” into its own obedient vassal, and, on the other hand, a strategic confrontation between the US and China in which North Korea is strategically indispensable, if it is not an ally, then as a buffer zone from a geopolitical point of view. Ideology has long given way to pragmatism, and this is well understood by both sides. Beijing acts on an ad hoc basis in implementing its own resolutions, depending on the ratio of the current trends.

It may be possible later to pay attention to the fact that in July this year, a series of celebrations will be held dedicated to the end of the Korean War and the 55th anniversary of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, and what speeches will be held. Nevertheless, it is clear that the more there will be more intensified tensions on the relations between Beijing on the one hand, and Washington and Seoul, on the other hand, perhaps the thicker will be the fingers through which China will look at the violations of the sanctions regime on China’s 1300-kilometer border with North Korea.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History, Chief Research Fellow at the Center for Korean studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”