25 February 2020
While welcoming the US-North Korean dialogue, China, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, is positioning itself as North Korea's ‘resolute’ supporter which will secure Pyongyang's interests. Photo: Bloomberg
While welcoming the US-North Korean dialogue, China, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, is positioning itself as North Korea's ‘resolute’ supporter which will secure Pyongyang's interests. Photo: Bloomberg

Why China is seeking to mend ties with N Korea

In spring 2003, China was drawn into talks between the United States and North Korea when it agreed to host three-party talks in Beijing.

The talks were utterly deadlocked from the very beginning. As Fu Ying, who headed the Chinese delegation, recalled 14 years later, “the so-called Three-Party Talks were no more than separate talks between the Chinese and North Korean delegations, and the Chinese and US delegations.”

China played a key role then, as it did during the subsequent six-party talks. Quite naturally, when Donald Trump wanted help on North Korea, he turned to China’s leader, Xi Jinping.

The Chinese had always said that only direct talks between the United States and North Korea could resolve the issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and that they were there only as facilitators.

Well, from that standpoint, they have succeeded big time. The leaders of North Korea and the US have agreed to meet face to face. However, the breakthrough was achieved without Chinese participation and the Chinese find themselves out in the cold.

All signs are that China is now working hard to redress this situation. China wants to remain relevant and influential in the region. To do so, it must first of all improve its relationship with North Korea.

This means that China will have to carry out a delicate balancing act. While improving its relations with Pyongyang, Beijing will have to assure Washington that it is still cooperating with it to bring about their common goal of denuclearization. That means China will have to abide by strict economic sanctions approved by the UN Security Council.

Beijing is sending North Korea the message that, when the time comes, China will be its friend on the Security Council. As a permanent council member, China is in a position to bring about a reduction of sanctions, if not ending them outright, by convincing other members on that course of action.

In the words of the state newspaper Global Times, China will “help prevent North Korea from being deceived or squeezed by the US once [North Korea] begins to denuclearize.”

And so, while welcoming the US-North Korean dialogue, China is positioning itself as North Korea’s “resolute” supporter, which will secure Pyongyang’s interests. In this way, China believes, it will also be safeguarding its own interests.

China is trying to revive its relationship with North Korea.

Significantly, in a report on congratulatory messages offered by world leaders to Xi on his March 17 re-election as president, the China Daily listed Kim Jong-un first, before many other world leaders, including the UN Secretary General. It reported that Kim had expressed the hope that “the Chinese people will make greater achievements in the construction of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era.”

In addition, Kim expressed his belief that “bilateral relations would develop in the common interests of the peoples of the two countries.” The North Korean leader also “wished the Chinese president big success in his responsible work.”

The message from Kim was not unexpected. Last October, after Xi won a second term as party leader at the 19th CPC National Congress, Kim “extended sincere congratulations” to him and expressed the wish that the bilateral relationship would develop “in the interests of the people of the two countries.”

Xi responded to this message Nov. 1. According to the official Korean Central News Agency, Xi had told Kim he wished that both sides would make efforts to “promote relations between the two parties and the two countries” and make a positive contribution to “defending regional peace and stability and common prosperity.”

That is to say, Xi went beyond wishing for improved bilateral relations to talk of regional peace, an allusion to resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue.

Last November, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, in disclosing Xi’s message to Kim, said that the Chinese president had responded “out of politeness,” as though he did not really want to communicate with Kim. That may have been a mistake.

Xi sent a special envoy to Pyongyang, ostensibly to explain the proceedings of the Congress to the North Koreans. However, Kim snubbed Xi by not receiving his envoy.

Now, Xi has another opportunity to communicate with Kim by responding to his latest congratulatory message. This one will certainly be worded very carefully and the Chinese foreign ministry is likely to display greater sensitivity to North Korean feelings in explaining why the message is being sent.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.