China and the North Korean Workers’ Party Congress

The following is the full text of an interview I recently gave, excerpts from which were published in Liberation, the quintessential Parisian daily, on 5 May 2016 (link). 

Q. Do we expect any senior CCP official from Beijing to attend the May 6th Party Congress in Pyongyang ? Did any CCP official attend the last one in 1980 ? What would such a presence signal ? How do you think China will look at this Party congress ? What does this Congress mean for China-DPRK relations, looking forward ? 

A. We should not expect a senior official to attend, since Chinese media has clearly noted that a PRC delegation was not invited to the Party Congress in Pyongyang at all. Which makes it likely that the Chinese diplomats in North Korea will have to watch the proceedings from their Embassy. 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.

While there will be much discussion of the Party Congress as the crowning moment thus far in a process of power consolidation by Kim Jong-un, we should not mistake China’s absence from the event as evidence that the Chinese Communist Party does not support the original succession of Kim Jong-un to power. In the years before the succession and immediately after Kim Jong-il’s death, the Chinese media and the Party itself made crystal clear that they agreed with North Korea’s decision to keep power, prestige, and propaganda centred on a single individual rather than a more updated and reformist collective leadership. Their hopes that Kim Jong-un was some kind of closeted reformer in the Chinese mode appear to have been dashed, but their basic support for the one-Party dictatorship in Pyongyang has not been fundamentally shaken.

In terms of who China would send, recall that Liu Yunshan went to the last big anniversary festivity in Pyongyang last October and that the PRC appeared to get very little out of that visit. North Korea pulled out all the stops with missile launches and nuclear tests just a few short months later and China went along with UN sanctions again. For China to insist that it was sending a high-level delegation to the Party Congress would smack either of rewarding the North Koreans with approval they did not deserve (that is, opening the aid and investment taps up again), or, from the North Korean standpoint, a high-handed attempt to interfere with Pyongyang’s internal affairs — a real no-go zone for China since the purges of the mid-1950s and a particularly sensitive topic after the execution of Jang Song-taek in December 2013.

The impact that the Congress has on Sino-North Korean relations going forward is difficult to assess, but it is likely that any North Korean rhetorical emphasis on living standards and peaceful development over nuclear chest-thumping and threats against Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo will be interpreted by Chinese state media as evidence that things are finally moderating somewhat. There may also be more willingness to work with newly-promoted officials who are somewhat younger and presumably more pragmatic. But the problem as always is one of context: Even if the younger officials were more likely to do business with China, the new sanctions and fraying of diplomatic ties means that it will be manifestly more difficult for them to do so. And Pyongyang’s own formula for economic development — known as “byungjin,” or “parallelism” or the “byungjin line” — builds into its very DNA the nuclear deterrent which China argues is stifling North Korean economic growth rather than shielding it.

Q. Could you say a bit what are the key similarities/differences when you compare Xi Jinping’s North-Korea policy with Hu Jintao’s ? Any continuity ? Any turning point ? 


A. Xi seems more prone to allow public criticism of North Korea — but keep in mind that any public discourse in Xi’s China can be choked off at a moment’s notice, so perhaps we should not take Chinese scholars writing about North Korea starting the Korean War, or Chinese netizens using the term “Fatty Kim the Third (Jin san pang)”, too seriously. From the standpoint of bureaucracy, we have seen a disjuncture from the Hu Jintao years, where the formula was akin to South Korea’s “sunshine policy”, if for very different reasons: It seems clear from Wen Jiabao’s 2009 visit to Pyongyang that there was a kind of quid pro quo reached with Kim Jong-il whereby China would support the succession of a very young and unproven leader in exchange for North Korean acceptance of big items like a Special Economic Zone near Dandong and vastly expanded economic exchanges with China. But this has mostly fallen apart and Xi Jinping has put North Korea diplomacy back in the hands of the Foreign Ministry, rather than the International Liaison Department — calling the relationship now “normal” and not so rooted in the shared bloody sacrifice of the Korean War. That said, North Korea is still a very useful if problematic chip for North Korea in keeping pressure on the United States, giving Japan fits (never underestimate the power of anti-Japanese sentiment to shape Chinese foreign policy attitudes!), and giving the Chinese people a living example of what their country might look like had not the savior Deng Xiaoping pulled the country back from the brink in the late 1970s.

Image: Ubiquitous piles of dirt and an agit-prop unit along the banks of Taedong River in Pyongyang, 18 March 2016. Photograph by Adam Cathcart. 

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