For years, China has had a contradictory policy on North Korea. On one hand, it condoned Pyongyang’s nuclear program, while on the other it tried to broker talks to shut it down. Now, with U.S. President Donald Trump accepting an invitation from Kim Jong-un to meet and discuss denuclearization, China has been sidelined.
In a nutshell
- Talks between the U.S. and North Korea marginalize China
- The North Korea-China relationship has been deteriorating for many years
- China has a contradictory policy on Pyongyang’s nuclear program
- Beijing will remain out of the loop as long as it maintains this policy
There may appear to have been a profound breakthrough in the North Korean nuclear crisis, now that United States President Donald Trump has accepted an invitation from Kim Jong-un to meet in May. For those familiar with the backstory, though, it is easy to see what the North Korean regime wants to achieve with its nuclear program: Mr. Kim wants to meet the American president as an equal. With its nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile programs moving forward, North Korea believes it is now in a position to elevate its status in the world, starting with a conversation with the U.S. In exchange, it is seemingly willing to discuss denuclearization.
For Pyongyang, a summit with President Trump is an incredible victory in its quest to legitimize the regime.
Each of the main countries involved views Kim Jong-un’s offer as a vindication of its own policy. South Korea is hailing it as a win for its soft diplomacy and a first step on the path to rapprochement between the two Koreas. The Trump administration sees it as a result of its tough line on Pyongyang and its (more noteworthy) engagement with China to convince it to back United Nations sanctions.
Beijing claims that Pyongyang’s peace overtures are a direct result of its own efforts, and it attributes the breakthrough to its “dual suspension” proposal by which the U.S. and South Korea stop major military exercises in exchange for North Korea halting its weapons programs.
China was merely a bystander to the diplomacy between the two Koreas.
In reality, China was merely a bystander to the diplomacy between the two Koreas around the Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games. More importantly, relations between China and North Korea have deteriorated significantly. For a long time, the international community believed China was the one country that could persuade Mr. Kim to abandon his drive for nuclear weapons. It was a rational judgement: since China provides North Korea with the bulk of its food and energy supplies, and accounts for more than 90 percent of its total trade volume, Beijing could seemingly force the Kim regime to comply.
China-North Korea tensions
The problem is that this rationale does not fully match the thinking of China’s leadership. Beijing has tried to do everything necessary to avoid regime change in North Korea. China would love to have a neighbor that is less adversarial and more closely shares its ideology, and was dismayed about Mr. Kim’s desire to embark on a nuclear adventure. Over the last two years, China has felt the looming threat of the nuclear-obsessed regime next door. However, it has remained unshakable in sticking to its objective. The result is a contradictory policy: on one hand, Beijing condones Pyongyang’s nuclear program. On the other, it wants to play the role of facilitator for defusing the crisis.
Under Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father, signs of growing tensions between Beijing and Pyongyang were already beginning to appear. This was particularly clear when it came to important historical narratives, such as the Korean War and the building of North Korea’s socialist regime. Nevertheless, both sides tried to preserve a polite public veneer of amity.
As he began to ramp up his nuclear program, Kim Jong-il dealt with China and Russia as equal, friendly neighbors – he informed both ahead of any nuclear tests. Over time, China was moved to a status inferior to Russia. In 2006, China was informed about a test much later than Russia, only a few minutes prior to detonation. Kim Jong-il further irked the Chinese in 2009 when he decided to pull out of the six-party talks that Beijing had organized.
The most substantial changes in North Korea’s policy toward China began when Kim Jong-un came to power. First, he has found more sophisticated ways to fully exploit Beijing’s desire to keep the regime in place. He knows that China is bound by the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, which will remain in effect until at least 2021. Article 2 of the treaty states that the two countries will “adopt all measures to prevent aggression against either party by any state.” Second, he abandoned his father’s practice of informing Beijing ahead of nuclear tests. Chinese President Xi Jinping sees this as an obvious gesture of disrespect.
In August 2012, Kim Jong-un’s uncle, who held the second-highest position in North Korea’s political hierarchy, visited China. During his stay in Beijing, he conveyed Mr. Kim’s desire to visit China in September of that year. Beijing declined the request. In May 2013, North Korean special envoy Choe Ryong-hae arrived in Beijing with a letter from Kim Jong-un to President Xi, hoping for a new beginning with China’s recently inaugurated leader.
President Xi did not meet Mr. Choe until the last day of his visit, to signal his disapproval of Pyongyang’s third nuclear test, conducted three months earlier. While taking the letter from the envoy, the Chinese President only used one hand, a gesture of impoliteness to Mr. Kim. It is worth noting that prior to the visit, Mr. Xi received a letter from a South Korean special envoy with two hands. It was clear that both sides held a high degree of disdain for the other.
Since then there has been no sign that Kim Jong-un would visit Beijing. North Korea’s continued nuclear tests and the assassination of his half brother, Kim Jong-nam, have done little to endear the North Korean leader to President Xi.
Kim Jong-un has his own unique reasons for disliking President Xi.
Kim Jong-un has his own unique reasons for disliking Xi Jinping. China cooperated with the international community to impose sanctions against North Korea, which came as a big blow to the regime. The official media in North Korea accused China of “dancing to the tune of the U.S.” and “styling itself as a big power.” In mid-2017, North Korea simply began calling the international sanctions “Chinese sanctions.”
As revenge for China’s actions, North Korea refused entry to Chinese special envoy Song Tao multiple times. In November 2017, he was finally allowed into the country, but he came back empty-handed. There was no meeting with the North Korean leader, and even President Xi’s personal letter to Kim Jong-un remained undelivered. In contrast, when the South Korean delegation arrived in Pyongyang recently, it was warmly received by Mr. Kim.
Behind all these intricate gestures, there seems to be something that has done much to shape Mr. Kim’s psyche. In China’s social media, there is a narrative that has been circulated around the country, which might help explain the source of his hatred.
Zhou Yongkang, the former Chinese security chief who was convicted of bribery, abuse of power and the intentional disclosure of state secrets in 2015, once allegedly spilled the details of a conversation between former North Korean official Jang Song-thaek and former Chinese President Hu Jintao to Kim Jong-un: Mr. Jang and Mr. Hu apparently spoke for an hour about the possibility of Kim Jong-nam, who was more pro-China than his half brother, replacing the North Korean leader. Mr. Zhou’s motivation for revealing this information was that he had intended to flee to North Korea to escape his corruption charges.
Mr. Kim’s sudden change of approach indicates that he wants to bypass China.
It is hard to verify whether this narrative is true. Nevertheless, events indicate that Kim Jong-un deeply distrusted the Chinese: Jang Song-thaek was executed and his pro-China faction wiped out in December 2013, while Kim Jong-nam, who had been secretly protected by Chinese intelligence services, was assassinated in 2017.
Looking to the future
Politics require imagination, and this is particularly true in the case of the upcoming meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un. Mr. Kim’s sudden change of approach indicates that he wants to bypass China in solving the ongoing crisis. On the other hand, North Korea’s economy will not become independent of China’s anytime soon, so Pyongyang will have to at least half-heartedly maintain somewhat workable ties with China. At the same time, Mr. Kim will look for a substitute to replace China as a supplier of goods – rapprochement with South Korea will become a necessity.
The message Kim Jong-un has sent to Donald Trump is clear. The summit should result in a trade-off: Mr. Kim will stay in power and the regime will be secured through aid and investment from outside, while North Korea’s nuclear program will be frozen, reduced and possibly eliminated.
Certainly, the direction the summit takes will depend very much on the interaction between Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington, and less so Beijing. This will make the Chinese leadership nervous. China still finds itself between a rock and a hard place. It is eager to find a solution to the current situation. Yet, as long as Beijing sticks to its contradictory Korea policy, it will remain a bystander.