Data Points from a Summer of Ambivalence in Chinese-North Korean Relations

As  summer gets underway in earnest, China’s new Ambassador to North Korea is getting to work in Pyongyang and surrounding points. While Chinese academics fulminate at the lack of coordination offered by North Korea to its socialist ally, and PRC state media inexplicably seems to encourage various forms of speculation about Li Jinjun’s having been ‘frozen out’ from contact with North Korean officials, I thought it might be useful to revisit a few data points from last summer. What follows is an unpublished communication to a colleague working in a UK think-tank in July 2014.

I. The impact of the Park-Xi Summits

Xi Jinping’s trip to Seoul led to a period of nearly two weeks during which analysts and media outlets engaged in a great deal of breast-beating about how the trip was a clear indication of unease in the Sino-North Korean relationship. Were the two sides leading toward some kind of break-up? I would argue this was more cosmetic than structural.

  1. In the aftermath of the trip and with people actually having read the publication of a joint statement, the language has gotten decidedly less decisive and alarmist. John Delury probably said it best.
  2. But no sooner has all of this happened than circumstantial evidence emerges that China has stopped oil exports to North Korea. In the absence of any hard data, all we can do is read how the Chinese media is reading the story (it is being reported, voiced in the Japanese media) and look at context.

II. North Korea’s China diplomacy

Things we learned from the summit in Seoul:

  1. China uses the same interpreter for Kim Jong-un and Park Geun-hye. She’s still quite young, but now presumably knows more about the fine grain of Chinese-Korean relations at the highest levels than just about anybody else alive.
  2. There was very little strong language used about denuclearization. The gap between China and South Korea on this was rhetorical but also striking. It is as if the symbolism of Xi being there was supposed to have been enough, when clearly it is not.
  3. Xi’s proposal for new commemorations of the ‘victory’ of 1945 indicated that the politics of history can only be stretched so far.

III. Assessing Trade Flows

Things are sort of getting back to normal (as in, the Dandong Trade Fair is going forward).

Meanwhile, we had some misinformation about military buildup  on the Chinese-North Korean border, indicating the presence of an impetus (now and before) to ‘drive a wedge’ between China and North Korea; if Chinese and/or North Korean spokespeople have to deny the reports, than the purpose is served. China isn’t going to invade North Korea — and also, if North Korea is moving troops north at precisely the moment when Ulchi Guardian drills are starting in the ROK, than it would be rather counterintuitive. The DPRK has been railing about these drills as war preparation for months; not sure why China would suddenly need to be menaced just now.

Channelling Back during the Seoul Summit: Chinese Ambassador in North Korea Tours Rason and Chongjin Ports

  1. Further evidence is now available that North Korea and China have opened things back up.
  2. On July 2-4, Liu Hongcai, the Chinese Ambassador to North Korea, took a trip to the extreme northeast of the country to inspect the Rason Special Economic Zone and look around economic enterprises and the port at Chongjin.
  3. In most other countries, such a visit would be hardly noteworthy, but in this case, the stakes are rather higher and the tensions rather more strong. After all, the Rason zone was part of the indictment for Jang Song-take’s death warrant. Chinese analysts had been complaining rather steadily since December that the North Koreans had used Jang’s death as a way of going back on the deal. I also argued as much when it came to Sinuiju.
  4. For the North Koreans to open up Rason for a PRC official visit is nothing short of significant, if not earth-shattering, because it indicates that the country is willing to allow Chinese investment there to continue, etc. The Chongjin port is also a sensitive site. China is spending massive sums to build up infrastructure in the border region and has previously been indicated as owning or interested in leasing Chongjin port. But the infrastructure surrounding these sites is rather atrophied. (I recently met a foreigner who had toured North Hamgyong in 2012 and who had to insist – insist!—that they be allowed to look at Chongjin port, which they drove through for about one minute and then had the curtains closed on their bus — hardly a stunning endorsement of an open business investment climate.)

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