Everyone watching North Korea is asking the same question. What happened in Beijing? The range of opinion is wide, which means that we don’t really know anything. Maybe the Chinese are fed up, and not just about the nuclear issue; the visit unfolded in the shadow of a particularly nasty North Korean seizure of a Chinese fishing boat (Reuters here). Maybe it was all elaborate theatre. The visit could be designed to show that China is serious about North Korea in advance of summits with Presidents Obama and Park, when in fact Beijing has no intention of spending significant political capital on the issue. Still a third possibility—and the one that we subscribe to—is that the Chinese sent one message and the North Koreans retreated to their parallel universe believing something altogether different. If this interpretation is correct, then the Choe visit will not lead to an improvement in relations but rather to new strains; there is in fact already evidence that such strains are emerging around the financial sanctions contained in UNSC Resolution 2094.
The North Korean leadership has painted itself into an extremely tight corner. In the course of showing its resolve over the last year, the regime has committed itself more and more unambiguously to maintaining its nuclear weapons, most notably in the so-called byungjin line announced at the KWP Central Committee meeting at the end of March and then written into law by the SPA the next day (see our analysis here; Daily NK here). The more unambiguous the nuclear commitment, the harder it is for Kim Jong Un to back down. But the firmer the regime’s commitment to nuclear weapons, the more pointless negotiations appear to the US, South Korea and Japan and the more hollow China’s call for diplomacy. Is China squeezing North Korea or is North Korea squeezing China?
Let’s review what we do know. The Korea Joongang Daily has a useful analysis of the envoy politics since the December satellite launch. According to Joongang, China attempted to send a special envoy to Pyongyang three times after the launch, but the North refused to play host. After the nuclear test in February and the tough response from the UNSC in Resolution 2094, it was North Korea that came scrambling back with a request for a special envoy from Beijing. China pointedly and publicly refused, saying if Pyongyang wanted a dialogue, it should send an envoy.
The regime’s choice—Choe Ryong-hae—is as high-ranking as it gets and purportedly carried a hand-written letter from Kim Jong Un to Xi Jinping. Choe is one of those figures who holds multiple positions—inter-locking directorates--at the very top of the system; he is roughly number three in the official hierarchy. These include his position in the five-member Politburo Presidium. Implicated in the subsequent purge of Ri Yong-ho, he took control of the KPA’s General Political Bureau, which handles crucial military personnel decisions, was promoted to Vice Marshal despite lack of a military background, and is also vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission; Choe traveled in military uniform and KCNA coverage emphasized his military over party titles although he was in civilian clothes for his photo-op with Xi Jinping. Choe was accompanied by an entourage that included four other high-ranking officials, again with a tilt toward the military: Col. Gen. Ri Yong Gil (Chief of the KPA General Staff Operations Bureau), Kim Song Nam (Deputy Director of the Korean Workers’ Party [KWP] International Affairs Department with the portfolio for Chinese relations), Kim Hyong Jun (Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs) and Lt. Gen. Kim Su Gil (KPA/Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces).
We would love to know whether Choe had his full schedule in advance; from the outside, it looks like Choe’s access to Xi Jinping was held hostage to how things went during the lower-level visits. First stop was Wang Jiarui, head of the Party’s International Department. Technically higher in the party hierarchy than Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, Wang was nonetheless far lower in rank than Choe, not even a member of the Politburo for example. The Chinese wasted no time in calling North Korea on the carpet. Following the meeting, the Foreign Ministry spokesman pointed out that "China is always committed to achieving the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, and resolving related issues through dialogue and consultations. China will unswervingly pursue the Six-Party Talks, promote peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, and achieve lasting peace and stability in Northeast Asia." To say the least, this has not been North Korea’s agenda.
The next stop made the economic point: as in previous envoy and summit visits, the Chinese hosts made the not-so-subtle suggestion that North Korea should think about reform by taking them on economic tours. The venue this time: the Beijing Economic and Technological Development District accompanied by Liu Jieyi, deputy head of the International Liaison Department. As we have argued repeatedly, this does not appear to be on North Korea’s agenda either. The KCNA has the Chinese “consistently supporting the building of a thriving socialist nation of Korean style…”
Next stop, Liu Yunshan. A relatively lower-ranked member of the Politburo Standing Committee, Liu is nonetheless number five in the party hierarchy and clearly a step up from Wang. Xinhua coverage was again pointed: Liu “expressed hope that all relevant parties should stick to the goal of denuclearization, persist on maintaining peace and stability of the peninsula and resolve problems through dialogue and consultation. Liu called for the parties to adopt substantial actions to ease tensions, actively embark on dialogue and restart the six-party talks as soon as possible.”
The call for “substantial actions” could be read as an invitation for North Korea to take concrete actions that would permit the Six Party Talks to resume. The US is unlikely to even consider talks without some significant gesture. Choe was much more non-committal; again, according to Xinhua, “Choe said the DPRK side is willing to accept advice from the Chinese side and carry out dialogue with relevant parties.” But this is not a departure; North Korea has always said it is willing to talk. But about what exactly? The extensive KCNA coverage made no reference—none—to the persistent Chinese message with respect to denuclearization.
It was unclear whether Choe would get the satisfaction of meeting with military counterparts, let alone Xi Jingping. The military meeting did finally materialize on the last day with Fan Changlong, a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. If Choe was expecting greater sympathy, he must have been disappointed because the message was if anything even more pointed. According to Fan (via Xinhua), tensions surrounding the nuclear issue have "intensified strategic conflicts among involved parties and jeopardized the peace and stability of the peninsula." Choe countered that conditions on the peninsula were complex and “there is no guarantee of peace.” Choe was quoted as saying that "North Korea is willing to work with all sides to search for a method of solving the problems through dialogue." “Search for a method for solving?” How non-committal is that?
Reading tea leaves, it appears that the price of meeting with Xi Jinping was to re-state a commitment to the Six Party Talks. In delivering Kim Jong Un’s letter, Choe not only reiterated the commitment to dialogue, but to “appropriately resolve the relevant questions through the six-party talks and other forms” and that Pyongyang was “willing to take active measures in this regard.”
Which brings us back to exit ramps. China undertook the unusual step of informing both Seoul and Washington of the Choe visit in advance. If Choe was non-commital, the US was equally so; at the first State Department briefing on the trip, Patrick Ventrell took the “we’ll believe it when we see it” line, pointing out that “the North Koreans know what they have to do” to restart the Six Party talks.
Meanwhile, back in Pyongyang, there was absolutely no public recognition of what the visit had really been about, namely, North Korea’s behavior. Coverage of Choe’s meetings with Liu Yunshan, Fan Changlong, and Xi Jinping have all three Chinese figures thanking Choe and emphasizing the importance of bilateral ties, with pointed references to a relationship handed down across generations, ie., to Kim Jong Un. In fact, it was worse. No sooner had Choe returned to Pyongyang than the spokesmen for the NDC Policy Department and the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea issued statements blasting President Park Geun Hye for her criticism of the byungjin line and reiterating that denuclearization is non-negotiable.
It is far too early to draw the sort of optimistic assessment offered by John DeLury, who argued that “Choe’s trip is moving things back to a regular strategic dialogue." Unless they have been quietly reopened, the frozen Foreign Trade Bank accounts remain closed, and are now affecting aid as well as commercial trade; Asahi reports that North Korean bank managers are starting to scramble. If North Korea refuses to make any meaningful gestures on the nuclear front—and we are not holding our breath--Beijing will have to decide how far to squeeze. But the Chinese do not appear to be in a good mood. As with so many North Korean “victories”—satellite launches, nuclear tests, threats—this last round is looking increasingly Pyrrhic.
Thanks to Dan Pinkston and Jeremy Paltiel.