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Foreign Policy

North Korean Security: What Role for China?

Jun 28, 2019
  • An Gang

    Adjunct Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University


It has been 14 years since the last time a Chinese head of state visited the DPRK.

Kim Jong-un, Chairman of the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK) and Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, invited Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and Chinese President, to make a state visit to the DPRK from June 20 to 21, 2019.

This was Xi’s return trip after Kim’s previous four visits to China, three in 2018 and one in 2019 since Kim assumed the top leadership of the WPK and the country. Kim has sent multiple invitations to Xi, while China has also delegated top officials including Li Zhanshu, Wang Yi, and Song Tao to visit the DPRK on different occasions. This year celebrates the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, as well as the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. The two sides have come a long way in terms of the relationship between both Parties and countries, laying a sound foundation for Xi’s visit to the DPRK.

As the top leader of the DPRK, Kim’s past visits to China centered on two agendas: first, to remedy the nose-diving China-DPRK relationship that is shadowed by the nuclear issue and the two countries’ differing development paths, in order to secure North Korea’s most important source of geopolitical support; second, to discuss with China the DPRK’s “new strategic line”, which is shifting away from its previous approach of pursuing nuclear missiles alongside economic growth, towards a new model: a commitment to put economic growth first. Talks with Xi allowed for an exchange of views on DPRK-US negotiations and a chance to win China’s support for North Korea’s prioritization of economic development. These efforts at coordination effectively alleviated the DPRK’s humanitarian predicament brought on by the strictest international sanctions ever. More importantly, they played a key role in preparing the DPRK for talks with the US in June 2018 and February 2019 respectively, so that North Korea could gradually put forward proposals for “phased and synchronized” approach and “suspension for suspension” principle, calling for the suspension of nuclear and long-range missile activities by the DPRK and the suspension of massive military exercises by the US and the Republic of Korea (ROK).

Xi’s visit to the DPRK elevated the joint attempt to bring back the special-neighbor relationship to the highest level. Under the theme of “Jointly Blueprinting a Bright Future of the Bilateral Relationship and Opening a New Chapter of the China-DPRK Friendship,” North Korea offered its best welcome including a crowd of 250,000 people, an unprecedent salute at the square of Kumsusam Palace of the Sun and a majestic group calisthenics performance involving 100,000 people. All accentuated how important China is to the DPRK and how special the China-DPRK relationship is. Before starting his visit, Xi published in Rodong Sinmun (Worker’s Newspaper) and other major DPRK media, confirming that China and the DPRK are “good comrades and neighbors.”

During his visit, Xi further clarified China’s fundamental take on the China-DPRK relationship: essentially, both are socialist countries adhering to the leadership of a Communist party; shared ideals, beliefs, and goals are driving force of the relationship; the continuous friendship between top leaders and the strategic guidance they offer are the two countries’ greatest strength; while geographic proximity and cultural affinity offer a firm bond. Xi also confirmed China’s resolute support for the DPRK in three aspects: China will resolutely support North Korea’s socialist cause, its implementation of the new strategic line, and its efforts to solve the Korean Peninsula issue through political means to create long-term peace and order in the area. These tone-setting events — achieved by fine-tuning both countries’ domestic and international policies, and amid profound changes in China’s external environment, represented the philosophy of “community of shared future” — and this welcome seemed to be designed to end the contention and hesitation that had long marked China’s relationship with the DPRK, and signaled the start of a “new era” for China-DPRK relations. The two sides seem set to build a “community of shared future,” coming soon after Xi’s announcement that China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination ushered in a “new era” this June during his state visit to St. Petersburg. So far, China has picked up speed in rearranging its foreign policy strategies across the Eurasian continent.

The Korean Peninsula’s nuclear issue was certainly among the top topics during Xi’s visit, but the current prospect for denuclearization is still impeded by the relationship between the DPRK and the United States. The Xi-Trump in Hanoi this February failed at the last hurdle, mainly due to huge difficulties in bringing together the DPRK’s “phased and synchronized” principle and America’s “Libya-style” approach; and also partly because they each had overly high expectations for the other side to make concessions. Nevertheless, the two sides did not stop reaching out even after the failure in Hanoi. On June 11, President Trump confirmed that he has received a letter from Kim Jong-un once again, and that there might be a high chance for them for hold a third meeting. The Korean Central News Agency was authorized to announce on June 23 that Kim received Trump’s reply and had positive feelings about the favorable contents of the letter. He also expressed his gratitude to Trump for his “great political judgment and extraordinary courage” and would “give careful thought to the interesting content.”

Though this “interesting content” is kept away from the outside world, it might contain some specific suggestions on solid guarantees the US could offer in exchange for the DPRK’s commitment on concrete denuclearization actions. It’s very likely that it will be long before the two sides reopen negotiations and hold another meeting between their leaders, owing to feeble mutual trust and the DPRK’s adjustment of its negotiating team. However, as the US 2020 presidential election draws near and China-US relations are ever changing, the Trump’s administration is eager to close a nuclear deal with the DPRK and has started to reflect on its negotiation strategies. The prospect of reconciliation between the DPRK and the US is still open.

Another context that cannot be ignored in the Korean Peninsula issue, besides the growing contacts between China and the DPRK, is the apparent strategic competition between China and the United States. Some believe that China may distance itself from the DPRK so that the US will ease up in its pressure on China. This will not only help Trump to get the North Koreans back to the negotiating table, but also promote progress for the DPRK to abandon nuclear weapons. However, this stance does not conform to the political logic of China and the DPRK. China has chosen to play a more active role in the Korean peninsula nuclear issue for its own reasons. Regardless of the future of China-US relations, China aims to ease the situation on the peninsula. For the DPRK, direct negotiation with the United States is a path it has already taken, so Kim Jong-un and his comrades will not agree that "the path to Washington must pass through Beijing." On June 20th, to celebrate the 22nd anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s book Maintaining Subjectivity and Nationality in Revolution and Construction, a signed article published in Rodong Sinmun described these values of subjectivity and nationality as "the life of the country and the nation"—a reminder of North Korean pride.

Xi’s visit to Pyongyang continued to promote dialogue and the “suspension for suspension” principle between the DPRK and the US. Xi said to Kim Jong-un that the international community hopes that the North Korea-US dialogue can continue and bear fruitful results, and that China supports a political settlement for the peninsula, creating conditions to solving problems based on previous experience. Kim Jong-un responded that over the past year, the DPRK has taken many positive measures to avoid tensions and manage the situation on the peninsula, but it has not received positive responses from the relevant parties, a result the DPRK does not wish to see. However, the DPRK is willing to remain patient and hopes that the parties concerned will meet each other halfway, exploring solutions that meet their respective legitimate concerns. The dialogue between Xi and Kim was rational and smooth, indicating that China still strives to maintain a balance between restoring relations with the DPRK and promoting denuclearization, and will adhere to the policy of denuclearization on the peninsula and oppose DPRK's nuclear pursuit — despite the need to strengthen relations with DPRK and offset US strategic pressure on China. At the same time, it also shows that North Korea believes the denuclearization negotiations heavily depend on how the DPRK and the US interact. As long as the US threat to the DPRK is not eliminated, the DPRK will not be able to implement a series of plans concerning the future of the peninsula.

Xi, by going on this trip, managed to promote China's role in the political settlement of the Korean peninsula nuclear issue. In an article published before the visit, he pointed out that "China is willing to work with the DPRK to seek [a] common strategy for long-term stability in the region." In the meeting with Kim Jong-un, he stressed that "China is willing to provide the DPRK with support to the best of its ability to solve its own legitimate security and development concerns. We are committed to strengthening coordination and cooperation with the DPRK and other parties concerned so as to play a positive and constructive role in achieving denuclearization of the peninsula and long-term regional stability." From these two key statements, it can be seen that a "China Plan" or "China Road Map" for a peaceful settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue is in the making, the essence of which is that major countries should do everything possible to jointly provide the DPRK with security guarantees and economic development assistance on the premise of examinable, verifiable phased nuclear dismantlement by the DPRK. If this blueprint is realized in the future, the security guarantees provided by China can be expected to include military security cooperation, nuclear material dismantlement, and nuclear safety assurance.

What are the DPRK’s “legitimate security and development concerns”? Judging from the long-term process of the Six-Party Talks and the dialogue between the DPRK and relevant parties in the past two years, it means ending the state of war on the peninsula, signing mutual non-aggression treaties between the DPRK and the US, granting diplomatic recognition to each other, and fundamentally affirming the legitimacy and survival of the regime, so as to help the DPRK focus on the economy, the people's livelihood, and improving the system. What, then, is the opposition to these “legitimate security and development concerns”? The answer is obvious: the DPRK ignores the security and interests of neighboring countries, is determined to continue developing its nuclear weapons, seeks the same status as a nuclear power within the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, and even attempts to obtain security benefits through nuclear blackmail, while cashing in on foreign exchange through the nuclear missile trade.

At the upcoming G20 Osaka Summit, President Xi will meet President Trump to share information about his visit to the DPRK and further communicate with the US on the peninsula’s nuclear issue. After that, discussions of peace in Korea and security among all parties will gain momentum, with the expectation of a third meeting between North Korean leadership and the Trump administration. Thus the prospect of lasting peace on the peninsula may be more promising, and cooperation in the Northeast Asian region will gradually gather strength once again.

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