North Korea remains in China’s orbit
When Kim Jong Un signaled North Korea’s willingness to open nuclear talks with South Korea and the United States in early 2018, a number of international observers then interpreted such a sudden overture as the young leader’s desire and strategy to limit China’s economic overdependence and escape from Beijing’s long and heavy grip.
There were also speculations – and even apprehensions in Beijing – that the People’s Republic was left out of Pyongyang’s crucial talks with Seoul and Washington. But his recent China visit was the latest – and yet another – clear sign that, rather than moving his reclusive and regressive Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) from China’s orbit of influence, Kim is bringing it even closer.
The young dictator made his first outing to Beijing in March last year, about one month ahead of his first meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the truce village of Panmunjeom. He made his second trip to China in May, a month before his summit with US President Donald Trump in Singapore. Kim then went to Beijing again only one week after he met Trump.
As his three past China visits occurred prior to his first meeting with Moon as well as before and after meeting Trump, Kim’s latest China outing is widely seen as a prelude to a trip to Seoul and, more likely, a second summit with the US president in the next few months.
In an editorial on Wednesday, January 9, China Daily, an English-language publication by the Chinese government, said: “Considering the traditional closeness between [China and the DPRK], there is nothing unusual if the two parties compare notes and coordinate positions on matters of common concern.”
Yet, the timings, optics and purposes of these trips show there is something odd about North Korea’s relationship with its giant neighbor. Above all, they illustrate that Kim is just a little brother, who comes to China to seek advice, guidance and even approval from his big brother, Xi Jinping, China’s supreme leader, before his talks with the South Korean and American presidents.
Commenting about Kim’s recent China trip, a North Korea expert at China’s Central Party School was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying: “Before taking the next step and meeting with Trump again, he would want to consult with China on what to say and how to say it.”
Many other factors are indicative of such an unequal – or tributary – relationship. For instance, Kim has traveled to China four times in the past 10 months while Xi hasn’t yet made a single trip to its communist neighbor since he came to power in 2012.
The North’s state media, the Korean Central News Agency, reported that the Chinese leader accepted an offer to visit Pyongyang after meeting Kim this week. Still, such an invitation was conspicuously absent from Xinhua News Agency’s official report about their meeting.
Asked on Tuesday whether there are “any plans for President Xi Jinping to make a return visit to the DPRK now that Chairman Kim Jong Un has visited China so many times,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang didn’t answer. Instead, he said: “If we have relevant information [about Xi’s future North Korea visit], we will release it in a timely manner.”
Xinhua’s accounts of Kim’s China trips, including his first outing in March last year, during which Xi lectured Kim on how to develop China-DPRK relations, also gave the impression that Kim’s North Korea is simply a tributary state that is paying homage to the Middle Kingdom.
But it seems the autocrat is happy with such a junior role. As China Daily’s editorial pointed out, Monday was Kim’s 35th birthday and he spent his birthday in Beijing. What’s more, unlike his previous visits, Kim’s fourth trip was confirmed by both the DPRK and the PRC as it took place. Judging by all this, it’s clear that Kim wants to tell the US, South Korea and the world that he extremely values ties with Beijing and such ties are strong.
In some ways, that makes sense. China’s strong backing would increase his leverage in talks with Washington. Such support would also be crucial if his talks with Washington fall apart. China is the world’s second biggest economy and military. It is the North’s closest neighbor, biggest trading partner and sole major ally. What’s more, despite boasting having nukes that could reach the US, the hermit kingdom is weak. In its editorial on Tuesday, Global Times, an outlet published by People’s Daily, China’s top newspaper, bluntly said: “What Pyongyang lacks most is confidence in its national security.”
In some other respects, however, its overdependence on Beijing limits Pyongyang’s room to manoeuver in its dealings with Washington. Just as the rest of the world, Kim Jong Un probably knows well that it’s not the comradeship between the two communist allies but rather its self-interest that is the main reason behind China’s warm attitude toward him of late.
Admittedly, the fears that it would be marginalized in Pyongyang’s denuclearization talks with Washington and Seoul – whose outcomes could radically reshape not just the Korean peninsula but also the wider region’s security landscape at China’s disadvantage or expense – have pushed Beijing to rekindle its ties with its troublesome neighbor.
Xi would definitely not have invited Kim to Beijing in late March 2018 if Trump hadn’t agreed earlier that month to meet with the North Korean dictator.
Having attained or sought Beijing’s deep involvement in his talks with the US, Kim has now no choice but to accommodate China’s interests in those talks. Indeed, though Xi isn’t physically present at Kim’s discussions with Trump, his invisible hand is always there, directing Kim – to borrow the words of the Chinese scholar at the Central Party School – not just “what to say” but also “how to say it.”
China always portrays itself as a neutral, responsible and constructive broker, calling for the US and North Korea to “meet each other halfway” to resolve their disputes. But, by supporting “the nuclearization on the [Korean] peninsula,” Beijing ultimately seeks to achieve two objectives that are central to its national interests – North Korea’s nuclear disarmament and, together with it, the withdrawal of US military presence from the peninsula.
On the latter issue, though the transactional Trump administration and Seoul still disagree over the share of the cost of maintaining some 28,500 US soldiers stationed in the South, it’s very unlikely that Washington will reduce or withdraw its troops.
In his New Year press conference, South Korean President Moon reportedly said that while he is aware that Kim might make demands regarding the US military presence, the North Korean leader has made it clear that denuclearization and declaring the end of the war on the peninsula are unrelated to United States Forces Korea (USFK). Moon was quoted as clearly stating the USFK “is not linked to denuclearization”, but is “part of the South Korea-US alliance, therefore the matter of whether [it] will be maintained or not is entirely up to South Korea and the US.”
Against this backdrop, whether Beijing’s strong involvement facilitates or complicates the North Korean leader’s nuclear talks with Washington is open to debate. On several occasions, Trump publicly blamed Beijing for Pyongyang’s belligerent stance that led to the negotiations being stalled last year.
What’s certain is that whether the US and the DPRK reach breakthroughs in their nuclear talks now depends significantly on whether or not Washington and Beijing resolve their wide and deep disagreements.
For North Korea, unless its young ruler dares to make a bold move by independently reaching out to the US, South Korea and, indeed, the rest of the world, the isolated country will never come out of its giant neighbor’s shadow. As long as it remains a Chinese client and buffer state, or worse, a card for Beijing to play with in its contest against the US, its prospects are gloomy.