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Implications on the Fourth Kim-Xi Summit and ‘New Honeymoon’ between North Korea and China
2019.01.09  Wednesday
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Seong-Hyon Lee
Implications on the Fourth Kim-Xi Summit and

‘New Honeymoon’ between North Korea and China

 

No. 2019-2 (January 9, 2019)

Dr. Lee Seong-hyon

Director, Center for Chinese Studies, the Sejong Institute

sunnybbsfs@gmail.com

 

DPRK State Affairs Commission Chairman Kim Jong-un visited China in an explicit manner. However, both North Korean and Chinese authorities have sealed their lips since Kim arrived in Beijing. Nothing has been revealed on what the two leaders talked about, as if the two sides held a tactical staff meeting as ‘one team’ prior to the second DPRK-U.S. summit.

During his third meeting with President Xi, Chairman Kim said that North Korea and China cooperated with each other ‘like family members,’ and indicated that the two countries will closely cooperate’ within ‘the same general staff.’ This expression has a historical meaning attached to it.

The DPRK Korean People’s Army and PRC People’s Liberation Army established the ‘North Korea-China Combined Forces Command’ to shore up coordination and efficiency against the U.S. during the Korean War. Hence, Kim Jong-un used the terminology pertaining to the Cold War era – when North Korea and China described bilateral relations as a ‘bloodshed alliance.’ Chairman Kim put his pledge - of ‘close cooperation’ to President Xi last year - into action at the onset of this year through the visit to China.

In recent times, among the three bilateral relations surrounding the Korean Peninsula, North Korea’s relations with South Korea, China, and the U.S., Pyongyang has been truer to its word in relations with Beijing than the other two. Kim Jong-un is yet to visit South Korea and Pyongyang has criticized Washington for not keeping the promises made at the Singapore summit. These circumstances make outside observers to conjecture that North Korea currently regards China as a partner that shares the most ‘strategic commonalities’ with North Korea among the geopolitical stakeholders on the Korean Peninsula on the North Korean nuclear issue.

On Kim’s visit to Beijing, many experts commonly commented that the two countries manifested their ‘friendship’ stands safe and sound. To this end, Chairman Kim took a train that takes 19 hours rather than a plane - the comfortable option that he selected twice for his journey and only takes two hours. This is rather a delicate display that evokes the feeling of ‘nostalgia’ of traditional bilateral relations using the train as an ‘icon’ – one that his grandfather and father used in their visit to China. Moreover, North Korea and China reported the news before Kim Jong-un’s special train approached Beijing as if the two sides were in unison.

             Surprisingly, the Chinese state media differed from their behavior a year earlier – Chinese media outlets did not shed light on the North Korean leader’s visit after the train reached Beijing. The Xinhua News Agency website, unlike last year, did not post Kim Jong-un’s photos at the evening of the day when Kim Jong-un arrived and Kim’s visit was positioned as the third headline in the news. The Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily) also treated the news similarly. Its website did not post photos of Chairman Kim’s visit to China. The state-run CCTV also reported briefly the fact that Kim Jong-un visited China. While Kim Jong-un’s departure to China was noticeable with ornate media reports, the North Korean and Chinese authorities both have ‘tied their tongues’ since Kim Jong-un’s arrival in Beijing.

The only Chinese media that posted Kim Jong-un’s photograph on its website was The Global Times (Huanqiu Shibao) for foreigners. The Chinese version of The Global Times, Huanqiu Shibao, runs a website which has five photos automatically changing; but it did not include Kim Jong-un’s visit.

Does the Chinese media’s deliberate ‘low key’ treatment of this news denote that Kim Jong-un’s visit is no longer ‘newsworthy’? Not really. It is an indication that Kim Jong-un’s visit to China is a ‘routine task’ as a visit to a neighbor since Kim already visited China four times in 10 months. It may be a coincidence, Kim celebrated his birthday at his ‘neighbor’s house’ – it may be more than just an intimate neighbor. (This also has another strategic implication, one to be explained later)

It is worthy to take note that the ‘International Liaison Department’ of the Communist Party of China (CPC) announced this summit, and not the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In recent years, many analysts have been inclined to describe the DPRK-PRC relations as a ‘normal state-to-state relations’ and not ‘the special relationship’ during the Cold War era. This has corroborated the analysis that the DPRK-China relations are no longer a special bloodshed alliance like the Cold War era. Chinese senior officials also made remarks supporting this analysis.

Nonetheless, the announcement of DPRK-China summit in the name of ‘International Liaison Department’ will serve as a resource clearly marking that Xi’s China and Kim’s North Korea have returned to the ‘party-to-party’ bilateral relations just like the old days in the Cold War era. The bilateral relations will be led by communication channel between CPC and North Korea’s Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) – resembling the Cold War era.

Moreover, the Xinhua Agency addressed ‘general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC)’ first for Xi Jinping and ‘chairman of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK)’ first for Kim Jong-un when reporting Kim Jong-un’s visit – the article prioritized title within the party over other titles that the two leaders have.

Internally, Beijing evaluates that it has considerably elevated the level of perception of strategic coordination with Pyongyang in a short period of time through the recent four summits. This will most likely be relevant to the ‘coordination on the possibly-forthcoming DPRK-U.S. summit.’ Still, South Korea should take note of the trend in ‘future economic cooperation’ between North Korea and China. Even though their efforts will not lead to tangible results because of the UN sanctions, the two countries have made preparatory steps for economic cooperation. The Chinese side expects the scenery – developed rural area in China - during the train journey to give Kim Jong-un and his aides some food for thought.

In the last several months, we witnessed the rapid ‘transformation’ of bilateral relations, built by enhanced bond and intimacy between North Korea and China. The significant point here is that the strengthening ‘trend’ of bilateral relationship will continue for some time – something close to the honeymoon relations during the Cold War period. Another point to note is that the ‘closeness of DPRK-China relations’ does not only play as a negative factor for South Korea. It is high time for South Korea to have a long-term strategic initiative regarding the dynamics of DPRK-PRC relations – deducing more positive factors and ‘managing’ negative factors in a sagacious and nimble manner.

 

 

 

Translator’s note: This is a summarized unofficial translation of the original paper which was written in Korean. All references should be made to the original paper.

 

This article is written based on the author’s personal opinions and does not reflect the views of the Sejong Institute.