Ri Su-yong, vice chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party and the director of its international department, made a highly publicized visit to Beijing on May 31, 2016, with a delegation of 40 people. On the same day, Pyongyang attempted to launch a Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile in the direction of the Sea of Japan. The test reportedly failed, but the real goal was to test Chinese leaders’ patience. If Chinese leadership refused to meet Mr. Ri, a former foreign minister and top advisor to supreme leader Kim Jong-un, then North Korea would know it had gotten under their skin.
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Surprisingly, this test of wills did not evoke any sort of emotional response from Beijing. Instead, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Mr. Ri the next day, though only for 20 minutes. During the meeting, the Chinese leader refrained from making the usual call for “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, saying only that he hoped for “calm” and “regional stability.”
That is probably because just a day earlier Mr. Ri had told Song Tao, the director of the Communist Party of China’s international department, that North Korea would never give up developing nuclear weapons. Delivering this message was widely reported as the main purpose of Mr. Ri’s trip.
However, many in China believe that Mr. Ri really came to Beijing cap-in-hand, begging for money and food aid, as well as to again test the waters for a possible visit by Kim Jong-un.
Kim Jong-un’s ultimate goal is to prevent consensus on North Korea’s nuclear program
North Korea reportedly asked for a million tons of grain, but Chinese officials offered less than half that, on “humanitarian” grounds – making the aid allowable under United Nations Security Council sanctions.
When it comes to a potential visit to Beijing by North Korea’s supreme leader, Mr. Kim can keep dreaming. On June 2, when Mr. Ri’s delegation left Beijing, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson simply stated: “It is difficult to arrange for Kim Jong-un to visit Beijing at the moment.” This was a subtle message that Beijing is unhappy with the North Korean leader.
Nevertheless, Kim Jong-un won the battle. The meeting sent a very clear signal to the world that without China’s commitment, the Security Council’s economic sanctions on North Korea cannot work. It also demonstrates that China has not joined the sanctions regime out of any sort of principled stance.
Kim Jong-un’s ultimate goal is to prevent consensus between the world’s biggest powers on North Korea’s nuclear program. He may yet succeed – he is proving to be a master manipulator.