China-North Korea Relations under Xi Jinping

Gunjan Singh, Research Associate, Institute of Chinese Studies

North Korea has regarded China as its most natural ally and supporter since the Korean War. The relationship had begun to show signs of strain after the continued nuclear tests by North Korea and it became increasingly difficult since Xi Jinping came to power. The last Chinese leader to visit North Korea was Hu Jintao in 2005. Even though China is the only country helping North Korea manage its domestic problems and economic difficulties, the relationship has started to show signs of strain. Beijing will not totally abandon Pyongyang or push it towards a total breakup as the influx of refugees is a major concern for China and for its border security and regional peace. However, the last few years have highlighted that China is ready to use its leverage to steer North Korea’s behaviour in a more acceptable direction.

There were reports that Xi Jinping may visit Pyongyang on September 9 for the 70th anniversary of the North Korea’s Foundation Day. Finally, Xi-appointed head of Chinese Parliament and Party’s third ranking official Li Zhanshu attended the event. Xi’s decision to not attend the celebrations shows China’s displeasure at the slow pace of progress towards North Korean denuclearisation. In the words of Michael Kovrig, senior adviser for Northeast Asia at the International Crisis Group, Xi’s decision to not visit North Korea is a clear indication that China is not happy with the way North Korea is functioning. However, Xi did congratulate Kim on the anniversary of the foundation day. Xi sent a letter to Kim acknowledging the steps which Kim had adopted, the most prominent being the meeting between Kim and Trump in June 2018, which has given the denuclearisation issue a new impetus and focus. In the letter Xi also expressed being hopeful to work towards enhanced relations as well as sustain regional peace and stability.

China’s relationship with North Korea has proved to be a major hurdle in its global image of a ‘responsible’ state. Thus it was no surprise that since taking over the Presidency of China, Xi has undertaken steps to modify this bilateral relationship. Xi was the first Chinese leader to follow the sanctions imposed by the United Nations on North Korea. Some important steps undertaken by China under Xi to put pressure on Kim were suspension of coal imports from North Korea in February 2017 as well as fuel sale to North Korea in June 2017, and restrictions on financial activities in September 2017. These steps were aimed at making North Korea give up its nuclear ambitions.

Hopes of improvement of relations between China and North Korea were high when Kim agreed to meet President Trump to discuss the nuclear programme. There was renewed warmth developing between China and North Korea, especially prior to the Trump-Kim Summit in June 2018. Before his meeting with President Trump in Singapore, Kim Jong-un had visited Beijing thrice, reiterating China’s importance to North Korea. These meetings also underscored the fact that even though China was missing on the table of Singapore talks, it was clearly a tacit and important player. In July, Kim had urged Xi to end the sanctions as they were affecting the North Korean economy adversely. However, the follow-up talks between North Korea and the United States have been cancelled as Pyongyang has failed to show commitment towards its promises and there are reports that the nuclear sites are still active.

Based on the recent actions of the North Korean government, a number of scholars have argued that North Korea appears to be keen on becoming a part of the international order and gain the status of a normal state. According to Cui Zhiying, Director of the Korean Peninsula Research Centre at Tongji University in Shanghai, “North Korea wishes to gradually integrate into the international community and thus become a normal state one day….The 70th founding anniversary is very important for North Korea … so Pyongyang would think it was the right timing to invite Xi.” In a noteworthy development, North Korea, during its foundation day parade, did not showcase its Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and primarily focused on economic growth. In addition, instead of Kim, the head of the North Korean parliament, delivered the annual speech highlighting the government’s economic goals. This low key affair could be seen as a sign of North Korean efforts to ease the tensions and to gain the benefits of being a part of the international order. The absence of ICBMs from the parade has been appreciated by the United States as the American President tweeted, “North Korea has just staged their parade, celebrating 70th anniversary of founding, without the customary display of nuclear missiles. Theme was peace and economic development.”

However, keeping in view the international situation, primarily the trade dispute between China and the United States, it was quite obvious that Xi Jinping would not have been in a position to visit North Korea. The relationship between North Korea and China would not have gained anything concrete from this visit as there are a host of issues pending, with regard to the overall denuclearization of North Korea. Nevertheless, any show of support for North Korea would have affected the Chinese goals of becoming a more responsible global player as Beijing would not like to be seen as supporting the delay of the proposed denuclearization process. In addition, the growing warmth between Beijing and Seoul would also have been affected adversely if Xi had visited North Korea. This relationship has witnessed a low during the THAAD issue; however, tensions have begun to ease after South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s visit to China in December 2017. Both sides are economically interconnected and will not want any issue to derail bilateral economic engagement at various levels.

China, Japan and South Korea concluded a tri-lateral meeting in May 2018 where they asserted their roles in maintaining peace and stability in the region, and also in exploring ways to enhance economic growth. The recently concluded meeting between Moon and Kim has further helped in bringing the denuclearization process almost back on track. During the meeting, Kim acknowledged that both sides will be working towards making the Korean Peninsula a ‘land of peace’. Kim showed interest in visiting South Korea and also jointly hosting the 2032 Summer Olympics and even perhaps sending a ‘united’ team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. However, the most pertinent take away was Kim’s suggestion of shutting down the Yongbyon nuclear complex and dismantling its missile-engine test site. This will be executed by North Korea in exchange of “corresponding measures” undertaken by the United States.

What makes the China-North Korea relationship highly complicated today is a fine balance, which Xi has to strike in the global political system. On the one hand, Xi knows that he cannot afford to abandon North Korea as the outcome may prove to be adverse for regional peace as well as for China’s domestic stability. On the other hand, the growing economic closeness between China and South Korea makes it tougher for Xi to overlook Kim’s reckless actions. The ongoing trade war between China and the United States and the American stakes in the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, have forced Xi to adopt steps to impose sanctions and refrain from visiting North Korea, which makes him seem like a responsible international leader.

This blog was originally published online as ‘The Evolution of China-North Korea Relations under Xi Jinping’ on Science Technology & Security Forum on 1 October 2018.

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