Chinese Moves in Pyongyang: Prepare Ye the Way

As U.S. Envoy Stephen Bosworth touches down in Pyongyang, what is the up-to-date state of relations between North Korea and its ostensible Chinese ally?

The Nov. 30 revaluation of the North Korean currency by Pyongyang appeared to shock the Chinese government and subsequently elicited disapproval in the Chinese news media. Then, apparently not taking the hint, North Korea abruptly announced it was cutting off tourism from China.   (There are still a few tour groups milling around inside North Korea until December 10, but Xinhua considerately let us know they would be just fine and should not in any way be considered economic hostages.)

Of course shock waves  continue to reverberate throughout North Korean society from the currency restructuring; depending on the source, North Korea is either in total revolutionary ferment, or the Workers’ Party is handling things in stride while further alienating their population.  According to this eagerly-awaited Good Friends report from inside North Korea, the regime seems to be fully in control, and appeared to anticipate trouble with public reception of the move.  In fact, the regime cut off the telephones in Pyongyang preemptively:

On November 30, at around 9 am, prior to the announcement of currency exchange measures, the Central Telephone Bureau completely blocked all automatic process in their branches in all areas of Pyongyang City. This action was to prevent “the leak of any secret regarding currency exchange and (causing) exchange of conversation regarding the national sovereignty” through telephones.

Perhaps I’m overreading, but I also read that last sentence as “Don’t tell the Chinese ambassador.”  North Korea has a well-documented habit of springing spontaneous “gifts” upon China, well, like the Korean War, for instance, or the capture of the U.S.S. Pueblo in 1968.

So what in fact was the dapper PRC Ambassador in Pyongyang, Liu Xiaoming, doing in this chaotic milieu?  What was China up to in anticipation of Stephen Bosworth’s visit from Washington, via Seoul?  It seems pretty obvious that China would give its eyeteeth to see a Bosworthian breakthrough and get the DPRK back into the structure of the Six Party Talks [六方会谈].

One indicator exists in a visit of a Chinese delegate that seems to have gone under the radar in all but the diplomatic circles: Chen Zhili to Pyongyang on November 30 for a five day “friendship visit.”  KCNA reported on the conclusion to her visit in its typically stilted way:

Vice-Chairwoman of CNPC on Sino-DPRK Friendship

Pyongyang, December 6 (KCNA) — The year of Sino-DPRK friendship will always remain recorded in the history, said Chen Zhili, vice-chairwoman of the Standing Committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress, when giving impressions of her visit to the DPRK.

This year is the year of Sino-DPRK friendship as it marked the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and the DPRK, she noted, and continued:

The traditional Sino-DPRK relations of friendship and cooperation were provided by Chairman Mao Zedong, the great leader of the Chinese people, and President Kim Il Sung, the great leader of the Korean people. Kim Il Sung was the great leader of the Korean people and a close friend of the Chinese people. The Chinese people will never forget the exploits performed by him by making a great contribution to the Chinese revolution.

The Sino-DPRK relations are growing stronger as the days go by under the deep care of the top leaders of the two countries. President Hu Jintao and General Secretary Kim Jong Il jointly declared the beginning of the year of Sino-DPRK friendship on January 1 this year. The functions held this year reconfirmed the unbreakable nature of the friendly and cooperative relations between the two parties, two countries and two peoples forged through the struggle for their common cause.

I was deeply impressed to see the drive of the strong-willed and diligent Korean people, she said, and continued:

The Korean people are dynamically waging a 100-day campaign, united close around Kim Jong Il. We are pleased with the fact that the Korean people have made great progress in the revolution and construction in the spirit of self-reliance and fortitude under the leadership of the Workers’ Party of Korea headed by Kim Jong Il. We sincerely hope that the fraternal Korean people will register greater success in their efforts to open the gate to a great prosperous and powerful nation in 2012, the centenary of birth of Kim Il Sung.

Only — big surprise here — that’s not quite what was reported in the Chinese news media.  Here, via the National People’s Congress Chinese website and People’s Daily, and following some bromides from Kim Yong-nam, is what she said.  I think it’s interesting for the subtle clues:

陈至立表示,中朝传统友谊是两国老一辈领导人亲手缔造和培育的,经受了国际风云变幻的考验。在两国领导人直接关心和双方共同努力下,中朝关系保持良好发展 势头,今年友好年活动取得了圆满成功。中方愿同朝方一道,继承和发扬友好传统,推动中朝关系不断向前发展,更好地造福两国人民。中国全国人大愿同朝鲜最高 人民会议进一步加强友好交流与合作,为两国关系发展不断注入新的活力。

Chen Zhili at memorial in Pyongyang for Chinese People's Volunteer troops / Korean War -- via National People's Congress website

More sources on Sino-North Korean ties this week:

Chen Zhili’s November 30 dialogue with Chae Thae-bok [최태복/崔泰福 ], himself the head of the Supreme People’s Assembly ;

Notes on cultural relations: PLA generals attend KPA arts troupe shows in Pyongyang [via PRC Embassy in Pyongyang]; and PLA-KPA cultural cooperation in Shenyang [via KCNA;

Meetings with Beijing’s vice-mayor [via PRC Embassy in Pyongyang];

Useful Resource:

DPRK online translation handbook — A wonderful if incomplete feature for people such as myself for whom hanja will always reign supreme over hangul, no matter the attractions of the latter.

[It’s a unique day over here, so I anticipate doing a bit more translation of the Chen Zhili stuff in light of making good on my rather promising title; the idea being that of a US-China partnership at this moment, embarking on a 3-Kingdoms style campaign to persuade the North to mend its ways.  Futile?   Perhaps.  Interesting?  Undoubtedly.]


  1. I’m fairly sure that the PRC cancelled a visit by Chen Zhili in the summer following the second nuclear test (in addition to another cancelled visit by Dai Bingguo from the MFA). This must be the re-scheduled make up visit?

  2. I would have to disagree that the Korean War was a spontaneous “gift”. Mao knew about Kim Il-sung starting the war well before it happened. So the war wasn’t a surprise to him and even though he had some reservation he ultimately went along with it. The real surprise was that the UN Forces got so heavily involved in the defense of South Korea.

    Now the Pueblo issue on the other hand the Chinese had no foreknowledge of and I think would classify as a spontaneous “gift” and one at the time they probably rather not have dealt with.

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