Kim visit ends China’s marginalization but awkwardness remains

April 09, 2018 16:08
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (left) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on March 28. Photo: AFP

The sudden visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to Beijing ended China’s fear of being marginalized on the Korean peninsula but the awkwardness in the Chinese position remains, with Beijing distancing itself from Pyongyang’s attempts to make use of the Chinese territory of Hong Kong to circumvent economic sanctions.

Both Washington and Seoul have welcomed the Beijing-Pyongyang rapprochement. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a solution to the North Korean nuclear problem without China playing a major role.

One danger in the current setup is that countries, especially China, North Korea’s primary economic partner, may relax tough United Nations sanctions against North Korea.

Now that the leaders of China, South Korea, and the United States have all either met or agreed to meet the North Korean leader, and even Japan’s Premier Shinzo Abe has indicated such an interest, it may be difficult to treat North Korea as a hermit kingdom. Indeed, the feeling may spread that the decades-long problem is basically over, and all that is now needed is to work out the mechanics of a deal.

The extent of Beijing’s implementation of UN sanctions was disclosed by recent trade figures. As the Associated Press reported last week, “Beijing appears to have gone well beyond UN sanctions on its unruly neighbor, reducing its total imports from North Korea in the first two months this year by 78.5 and 86.1 percent in value – a decline that began in late 2017.”

“China’s sustained game of hardball on trade with Pyongyang going back at least five months may have been the decisive factor in forcing Kim’s hand,” it said, resulting in the dramatic diplomatic overtures to Seoul and Washington, which led to planned summit meetings.

But China’s attitude toward Pyongyang was changed by Kim’s unexpected visit. At a welcoming banquet, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, alluding to the Korean war in the 1950s, said China and North Korea had a “blood-tied relationship” and a unique friendship that “brings sunshine to our two parties and peoples like a deep-rooted, luxuriant tree and an inexhaustible source of spring”.

The banquet was held after evidently successful talks earlier that day. Xi disclosed, “We have agreed that to inherit and carry on the traditional ties is in the common interests of both sides and that it is their shared strategic choice as well.”

The Kim visit, while technically the result of an invitation from Xi, appears to have been orchestrated by Pyongyang. Thus, in his banquet speech, Kim asserted that he was “deeply moved by the sincerity and deep consideration shown by Xi Jinping and leading officials of the Chinese party and state, so that the successful visit could be made in a short period after gladly accepting the proposal”. This part of Kim’s speech was reported only by Pyongyang’s state agency, the Korean Central News Agency.

It was a visit that Xi very much welcomed, as it provided a means for China to again play a central role in the resolution of Korean peninsula issues.

China’s role in supporting sanctions is critical to their success, and it is important that it continue this policy until a denuclearization agreement is reached. While Kim publicly says that he favors denuclearization, it isn’t clear what he might want in return.

China evidently finds it embarrassing that Pyongyang’s efforts to evade sanctions may create the impression that Beijing is aiding and abetting such efforts, especially when North Korea makes use of Hong Kong.

This is evident from the latest report released last month by the panel of experts that acts under the Security Council sanctions committee set up in 2006, when North Korea tested a nuclear weapon.

The report mentioned Hong Kong 35 times. Previously, the term “Hong Kong, China” was routinely used to underscore the former British colony’s status as a Chinese special administrative region. However, in the current report, while the name Hong Kong appears 35 times, it is followed by the word China only twice. China, it seems, doesn’t want to be associated with Hong Kong where North Korea is concerned.

The report, for example, spoke of a ship-to-ship transfer by the Hong Kong-flagged Lighthouse Winmore, loaded with 14,000 metric tons of marine gasoil, to a North Korea tanker on Oct. 18, 2017, without highlighting Hong Kong’s Chinese status.

It contained numerous references to North Korean-controlled, Hong Kong-registered front companies deployed to circumvent UN sanctions.

Hopefully, the day is approaching when North Korea won’t need to resort to such deception and China won’t have to fear being tarred by a pro-Pyongyang brush.

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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.