For all the international frisson which is being generated around Xi Jinping’s preference for travelling to Seoul over Pyongyang, there is one large demographic that seems unlikely to know or care anything about it: the North Korean people. For the 23 million people trapped within the otherworldly bubble of DPRK state media, the current news cycle is far more fixated on the revolutionary repertoire of an obscure Russian wind band than the itinerary of China’s head of state. To the extent that they might be discussed at all outside of North Korean elite circles, Xi Jinping’s diplomatic goals in the South Korean capital do not perturb the North Korean regime in the least.
Nevertheless, ire must be displayed for the proper audiences. And, since well over 80% of its non-peninsular trade is with China, the North Korean state has to resort to indirect insults. One article referred to withstanding the “pressure of the great power chauvinists.” Another article in the Party newspaper called Park Geun-hye’s goal of denuclearization (a goal very much shared by Xi Jinping) a “dog’s dream.” Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un demonstrates an almost Rabelasian appetite for, and delight in, watching missile launches.
China has seen far worse, however, and the Chinese Communist Party continues to build up its northeastern frontier with the Korean peninsula. The Party Secretary for Jilin province was recently on the Sino-North Korean border, talking in Xi-inflected language about “accelerating the interconnection of Northeast Asian transportation routes” via new high-speed trains, and making the borderlands safe and prosperous.
Trade with North Korea continues, even as reports emerge of problems with oil exports, deadly accidents and a total cessation of construction on two islands leased to China. Perfectly-timed defector narratives recently asserted that a letter to Chinese leaders helped to seal the death sentence for Kim Jong-un’s very uncle this past December.
The People’s Republic of China has had diplomatic relations with Seoul since 1992, but its business ties to South Korea date back another decade. And South Korean business leaders are meeting with Xi in force on July 4, investing heavily in Northeast China and gambling on the long-term prospect of gaining access to the minerals and manpower north of the 38th parallel. China’s greatest leverage with Pyongyang is geographical, and Chinese dynasties have made a pattern of allying with southern Korean kingdoms to extinguish disrespectful foes in the north. As Xi Jinping cozies up to South Korean capitalists and dreams his canine dream of a nuclear-free peninsula, the North Korean leadership might keep that in mind.
This essay will appear shortly as part of a roundtable on the Guardian’s North Korea network.