There are obvious reasons for this; namely, Pyongyang’s recent war rhetoric and, prior to that, its rocket launch in December 2012, and the third nuclear test in February 2013. Both were contrary to China’s wishes and both acts clearly violated the UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions and caused the Security Council to impose new sanctions. In March, the UNSC Resolution 2094 was passed unanimously with China’s consent, as China had increasingly appeared to lose appetite to defend the North at the UNSC. After the third test and Pyongyang’s war threats, the Chinese idiom “siwu jidan,” meaning “unscrupulously,” was more frequently used to refer to North Korean behavior. China increasingly felt fed up. Ties between the two supposed allies were hurt by the North’s further nuclear test, despite China’s wishes and opposition; whereas Pyongyang resented China’s agreeing to the U.N. sanctions, as well as its squeeze on North Korean banks.
China also changed and became more serious in implementing UN-imposed sanctions. It was half-hearted before, and China carefully avoided being too tough; hoping for some changes on the part of the DPRK. To China’s dismay, Pyongyang seemed to be moving in a different direction. On a few occasions, China expressed its warnings by using strong words, saying China would not allow others to make trouble on its “doorstep.” This was widely seen as a warning to Pyongyang.
A fundamental question in China’s debate on the DPRK policy is whether North Korea is still a buffer zone or a time bomb? There are still people who believe that the North is a buffer in terms of security concerns, and a counterweight to the U.S.-ROK alliance. An argument in favor of this is if a contingency happens on the Taiwan Strait. Another school of thought contends that a buffer zone like the North does not matter at all militarily today. The North has actually become a time bomb that could explode at any time. China must dispel Pyongyang’s assumption that China needs the DPRK as a buffer for China’s security. North Korea was obviously terribly of China’s interests and concerns by making unbridled moves. Heightened tensions on the peninsula justified upgrading the U.S.-ROK alliance, providing Washington with a further reason to “rebalance to Asia” and shift more resources to East Asia and the Pacific region. These are not in China’s national interests. At the end of the day, is North Korea an asset or a liability? This continues to pose a fundamental question for Beijing.
Coincidentally, one incident at sea further aggravated Sino-DPRK differences and exacerbated the bad feeling toward Pyongyang in China. On May 5th, a Chinese fishing boat from Dalian was detained by a North Korean People’s Army unit. The detainees were furthermore asked to pay a fine of RMB 600,000, which was a large sum of money and, in fact, a ransom. This kind of incident has happened before, but has recently become more frequent. It was not the first time this year either. The difference was that this time it was reported by a Chinese newspaper, the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily, as late as May 19 when the requests that China’s local authorities made did not work. It was a long-standing practice that Chinese newspapers and magazines did not criticize North Korea, since otherwise its embassy in Beijing would go ahead with a protest, and this would cause a diplomatic “incident.”
When the news of the Chinese fishing boat and its 16-man crew were held for ransom by an armed group was made public, public outcry over the incident and resentment toward North Korea mounted to a fever pitch. Angry Chinese netizens expressed their strong feelings by simply calling the country a “pirate state.”
Two weeks later on May 21, the detained Chinese fishing boat and fishermen were released without any “penalty” or “ransom” being paid. The Chinese side demanded the North launch an investigation into the case, and take actions to prevent similar incidents from happening again.
In the meantime, it was widely reported that China’s four major state-owned banks ended their businesses with the North Korean foreign trade banks. Presumably, this would add further difficulty to the North’s nuclear-related activities and beyond. Top Chinese banks halted most dealings with North Korea, an unprecedented move to use financial leverage against Pyongyang, which reflected Beijing’s exasperation with Kim Jong-un’s regime. The North’s acts eventually offended Beijing, the source of its life-line, and backfired.
In general, after many years of trying to persuade and induce Pyongyang to take a new path, China had increasingly become disappointed and lost patience. For example, much frustrated by Pyongyang’s third nuclear test, Beijing felt it no longer needed to defend Pyongyang at the UNSC. Previously, Beijing did defend North Korea to soften sanction measures, or used strong rhetoric for more “balanced” resolutions, a kind of action China increasingly found more difficult than before to justify.
As a result, China became more seriously in carrying out UN-imposed sanctions against the DPRK. This could have immediate and profound affects on an already tightly bound and poor country, something Pyongyang could really feel. When China, Russia, and the U.S. came closer by narrowing their differences, North Korea would have felt unbearable pressure that could cause grave consequences. This could even pose a threat to Kim Jong-un’s ruling status, too high a price for Pyongyang to afford.
Amidst the tensions, on May 22 Kim Jong-un sent Choe Ryong-hae, his right-hand man who serves as director of the General Political Bureau of the North Korean People’s Army to China. Vice Marshal Choe is a close confidant of Kim Jong-un — often seen at his side when he conducts on-site inspections. He is also a member of the 5-people Politburo Presidium. This trip was North Korea’s first serious dabbling in diplomacy after months of bellicose statements, including threats to launch nuclear strikes at the United States and its allies. Choe became Kim Jong-un’s special envoy. For the DPRK, this was very rare and showed that that was an unusual mission.
Four people from the Chinese side held talks with Choe: Wang Jiarui, Vice-Chairman of CPPCC and Director of the CCP’s International Liaison Department; Liu Yunshan, member of the Politburo standing committee; Fan Changlong, Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission; and eventually Xi Jinping, the number one. While meeting with Chinese leaders, Choe indicated that the purpose of his visit was to “improve, consolidate, and develop the DPRK-China relationship.” The terms implied a recognition that the relationship had become strained and efforts had to be made to amend and “improve” it. According to Choe, the DPRK wanted to concentrate on economic development and improve people’s living standard, and would like to build a peaceful external environment. Pyongyang would like to take China’s advice to have dialogues with relevant parties. While meeting with Xi, Choe expressed Pyongyang’s willingness to solve the problems “through multiple forms of dialogue, including Six-Party Talks.”
The main purpose of Choe’s visit was to mend the relationship with China and escape from further isolation. The North Koreans knew China was very unhappy, and the consequences were grave. The basic tone of Kim Jong-un’s letter to President Xi was a call for clearing up “misunderstandings and differences,” and not allowing the “enemies” to drive a wedge between the DPRK and China. Therefore, it was mainly a step Pyongyang took to alleviate pressure, especially from China, which was reluctant to use pressure for a long time. In addition, Choe suggested that the two sides jointly commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Korean War armistice and renovate the tomes of the dead Chinese soldiers, as if deliberately wanting to remind China of their historical connections. The timing of the visit was also before the Xi-Obama summit and the Xi-Park summit, in early and late June respectively, during which time the Korean situation would inevitably be high on the agenda.
However, while Choe promised Beijing to “take China’s advice” about coming back to talks, there was no mention of de-nuclearization. Six-Party Talks were specifically mentioned, but there was no explicit promise to return to the official substance of the talks on “denuclearization”. Given North Korea’s decision to promote nuclear force and economic growth simultaneously, it is hard to assume that Pyongyang will take steps to back down from nuclear development any time soon, a gloomy yet probably realistic estimate.
Ren Xiao is Professor and Director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Foreign Policy, Fudan University, Shanghai