Bypassing Beijing? North Korean Foreign Relations in April and May

Responding with appropriately prepared shock to the 15 April rocket launch, assessing the crescendo to the big Party Congress in early May in Pyongyang, adding to the noise over the defection of “the Ningbo 13,” and spreading rumours of a fifth nuclear test: all of these activities take time and effort.

Even after half-hearted attempts to do one’s duty, there seems to be very little oxygen left in the room with which to discuss the day-to-day of North Korean foreign relations. But that is what this post will attempt to do, regardless.

Since we have already clearly established that Kim Jong-un is either unfit to meet foreign leaders or, at the very least, has been largely steered clear of conducting personal diplomacy, we, if only temporarily, have to look beyond the Respected Comrade Marshal and his prodigious frame and at the North Korean state itself. (To his credit, Kim Jong-un appears to have shed a few pounds over the April holiday and ditched that dreadful green winter coat, evocative though it was of his mighty grandfather, essentially the only unassailable personality in the state and a kind of life-raft for the new hereditary ruler.)

So we look beyond the sovereign’s body to the Foreign Ministry, and, perhaps surprisingly, at the foreigners in Pyongyang.

15 April is not just a holiday for North Koreans, it is the locus of high-scale tourism activities — large by North Korean standards — including a marathon and a spring arts festival. All of this necessitates mobilizing the appropriate bureaucracies: translators, minders, officials of the Committee for Friendship with Foreign Countries, the ministries of sport and culture, and occasionally diplomats.

I read somewhere (perhaps on UPI, whose invariably alarmist reports are almost never worth linking to, since they do not bother to linking to anything solid themselves), that the Chinese had been frozen out of the 15 April festivities. It didn’t matter that Chinese ensembles appear to have performed in Pyongyang on that date, or that a Dalian arts troupe had been to Pyongyang in the spring, even after the Moranbong Band fiasco and the fourth nuclear test. It also didn’t matter that tourism over the border with China into cities like Sinuiju continues.

What needs to be sustained at all costs is a narrative in which the PRC is getting the cold shoulder in every possible way from Pyongyang; such is the power of the “sanctions are working” narrative. We are at a point where the closure of a single North Korean restaurant — one! — in China might be marshaled up as evidence that the regime is on the back foot, that there is instability in the air, that there is a kind of overall flight out of the untrammeled troughs of revenue imagined to exist for North Koreans in Northeast China and back into the burrowed tunnels of North Korea, where coal is piling up for no reason and foreign exchange exists as an impossible fantasy, thanks to the valiant bureaucrats in the US Department of the Treasury.

Yet, this is far from saying that the Chinese-North Korean relationship is going swimmingly. I did a podcast with Voice of America and Steven Miller (it should be up this week; there was another one last August for The Diplomat) which clarifies that point amply. One thing which I noticed since recording that interview was a possibly important symbolic absence: Li Jianjun, the PRC Ambassador in Pyongyang, sent no message of congratulations on Kim Il-sung’s birthday, nor did he participate or host any events at the Embassy on that day. Instead, the Embassy’s big event occurred on 13 April, a rather insular (which is to say, Han-dominated) convening of Chinese students in the DPRK, oddly titled “Open Day Activity,” a kind of punned juxtaposition connoting Deng Xiaoping’s “Opening and Reform” to North Korea’s recursive “Day of the Sun.” Now, if the previous paragraph means anything at all, it should be seen as a caution against overreading small data points. In other words, the lack of Li Jianjun does not necessarily need to be read as proof positive that relations are poor, but there it is: data, if a small amount.

But the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang has not been central to any single major event in Sino-North Korean relations since this past December, when Ambassador Li saw off the Moranbong Band at the Pyongyang Station and exchanged statements with Kim Jong-un’s essential propaganda maestro, the white-maned Kim Ki-nam. Since then, he has had very few contacts with North Korean officials of any consequence (as I noted in a piece for the China Brief).

Instead, we need to look to the North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong. As I managed to establish through some careful observation of Chosun Central Television (vital intelligence work which could be done, let us be honest here, by any ten-year-old with an internet connection and an attention span), the North Korean Foreign Minister stayed in Pyongyang for the 15 April festivities. Ri was spotted at a Kim-themed flower festival of loyalty also attended by friendly overseas compatriots, i.e., Koreans in Japan and a handful of Indonesians and North Koreans resident in southeast Asia.

Much more importantly, Ri took off a few days later for New York, for meetings on or a signing of the Paris accord on climate change. (For substantive work on North Korea’s institutional approach to issues like carbon credits, I recommend essays by Dr. Benjamin Habib and Dr. Robert Winstanley-Chesters.) Somewhat predictably, Ri managed to immediately spoil any Ode to Joy which might have awaited him on arrival in New York by raising North Korea’s “treasured sword” of nuclear weapons. Since a major cultural icon in the United States had just died, no one on Twitter seemed to notice, but I’m very sure that Samantha Power as well as the US State Department were listening rather more closely to Ri than to deciphering the sounds of an ocean of crocodile tears being shed on social media.

But wait! A breathless question must now be asked: Did Ri have consultations with, or a chance to confront, his Chinese counterparts in recent days? Sources in China say yes — due to the fact that his Air Koryo flight to Beijing created a layover on the way to Paris, that reporters at the airport were heavily restricted from taking any photos of the man, and that a delegation from the North Korean Embassy in Beijing appear to have swung around to pick him up for a few hours.

Since the North Korean Embassy in that city is just around the corner from the grey-and-black arched colossus of the PRC Foreign Ministry, it stands to reason that Ri could have had a tea with a Chinese counterpart to exchange views, and probably complain forcefully about the PRC’s inability to hunt down 13 very specific North Korean defectors, among other things.

Chinese media has clearly noted that a PRC delegation was not invited to the Party Congress in Pyongyang in early May. The fact that this is headline news in China indicates how historically-minded things can be in the Chinese-North Korean relationship: The metric here is the last such Congress in 1980, which elevated Kim Jong-il as formal successor and which a large delegation from the Chinese Communist Party attended, led by Li Xiannian.

Xi Jinping will be sending no major envoy to this event, it seems, which will yet again be — at least in Western eyes — interpreted within the sphere of domestic power consolidation and breathed upon with a kind of mantra of hope that the North Korean leader will at last turn his attention definitively to economic matters, now that the deterrent is in place, a younger and presumably more profit- and pragmatism-driven group of officials is in place, and the Korean People’s Army old  guard has been duly satiated by a raft of medals, commendations, and loot.




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