Xi Jinping’s visit to Pyongyang demonstrates that China is actively involved in North Korean affairs, believes Konstantin Asmolov, Leading Research Fellow at the Korean Studies Center, at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Far Eastern Studies. On the one hand, China is interested in a continuation of the détente process, so Beijing doesn’t opt for a plan “B”. On the other hand, for North Koreans, that is serious support.
After Kim Jong-un’s visit to China, Chairman Xi Jinping has finally made a return visit to the DPRK. In the author’s opinion, this is an event of great importance, although, as with Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Kim in Russia en route to the Belt and Road forum, Xi’s visit took place on the way to the Osaka G20 Summit. Nevertheless, he changed the balance of the relationship; it no longer looks like Kim is making a series of trips to China, which some Western experts tried to present as alluding to a “vassal demonstrating his respect for the suzerain” narrative.
Xi Jinping’s visit is indeed the first visit to the DPRK by the leader of a superpower, and the North Korean side has thoroughly prepared for it. Here, there are two major points. First is that on the eve of the Chinese leader’s visit, they constructed the “Kumsusan” guest complex near a place that is sacred to the North Koreans: the Kumsusan Memorial Palace. The mausoleum serves as a temple to the bodies of of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. The construction of such a complex is a demonstration that in the future, North Korea could receive the visits by similar high-level delegations, though Xi Jinping’s visit is the first.
Second, on the eve of the visit, Xi prepared an article for the central North Korean newspaper Nodong Sinmun. It is not certain that this was the first time this happened, but the publication of an article by a foreign leader on the front page is an extraordinary phenomenon. In part, that is comparable to when several years ago, on May 9, Russian Ambassador Alexander Matsegora delivered a 10-minute speech on war and historical memory on North Korean television.
In fact, Xi Jinping’s article set the tone for the visit, which was held in the finest socialist tradition of official events where crowds stood in the streets to greet the motorcade, the incessant exchange of praises and expressions of gratitude, along with the obligatory presence of leaders and their spouses at the ceremonial cultural event. Although the concrete points of the negotiations were obscured behind “mild” formulas, there were several observable themes.
- The constant emphasis on the historical continuity of the current close friendship between the two countries. Although the relationship between China and North Korea has faced many challenges, they are now creating “a friendship sealed with blood”. It is not coincidental that the PRC Chairman visited a monument to Chinese volunteers who fought in the Korean War of 1950–1953.
- The Chinese-North Korean relationship is positioned as a friendship between the two socialist countries, reinforced by the close relations of their two ruling parties. This is quite important, at least from the point of view that despite any “regional specifics”, both countries continue to position their political system as socialism and make it a foundation of their friendship, partly contra-posing it to the outside world
- The emphasis on that this friendship is independent from political fluctuations. The latter really matters, since among Chinese pundits and experts there are very different points of view towards North Korea. Some believe that it is a “disobedient neighbour” which needs to be taken by the hand or at least controlled better. Others think of North Korea as a “toxic asset” of China, whose support yields nothing but trouble. In bargaining with the United States, China should exchange it for something more profitable to itself. There are those who believe that “we will have to live with a nuclear North Korea” and accept the fact that for Pyongyang, security is more important than cooperation with any other country. As we see now, the Chinese leadership takes a different point of view, which was reflected in the summit documents and the style of its description.
However, China is interested in stability on the Korean Peninsula; not only for ideological, but also geopolitical reasons. Turning North Korea into a hot spot would hurt its interests and require massive efforts and resources. North Korean nuclear ambitions are indeed forcing Beijing to make a difficult choice, since support for the DPRK has entailed a standoff with the United States. Strategically, solidarity with America and the eventual elimination of North Korea offer nothing good. However, China made a choice in favour of North Korea, due to at least two factors. First, in 2018, the DPRK began the detente process, which included rapprochement with China. That led to Kim Jong-un’s first visit outside the country as its leader. In addition, although it is not spoken officially, the current state of affairs on the peninsula corresponds to the Russian-Chinese “double freeze” plan, in which the parties declare their readiness for dialogue and refrain from actions worsening the situation, be it nuclear tests or provocative military exercises.
Perhaps, Beijing understands that a final settlement of the Korean nuclear issue is unlikely, because everyone has different ideas about what the consensus is between the United States and the DPRK. However, the current state of “minor victory” can be extended indefinitely, since the process’s direction matters more than its speed. Last autumn, the Deputy Foreign Ministers of Russia, China and North Korea held tripartite consultations and developed a unified position. They decided that the problem could be solved only through political and diplomatic means, and that North Korea’s “exemplary behaviour” should be rewarded with at least a minor relaxation of sanctions. Now, the parties are actively promoting this position. However, they are facing a persistent resistance from the United States, which regards sanctions as the main lever for coercing Pyongyang to engage in a dialogue. Therefore, they cannot be relaxed.
In such a context, Xi Jinping’s visit to Pyongyang demonstrates that China is actively involved in North Korean affairs. On the one hand, China is interested in a continuation of the détente process, so Beijing doesn’t opt for a plan “B”. On the other hand, for North Koreans, that is serious support. It is possible that the Korean issue will be discussed at the G20 summit in Osaka, and Kim will use the visit to explain to the Chinese guest his position and, possibly, to coordinate strategies.
It seems that they also discussed the question of economic cooperation, as it is possible under the current sanctions regime. Western experts describe a variety of schemes that Xi and Kim had supposedly discussed in order circumvent sanctions. However, such considerations tell us more about experts, who fill the lack of data with their ideas, especially since cooperation with the DPRK is one of the regular charges that Washington levies against Beijing in the context of comprehensive confrontation, which is currently taking the form of a trade war.
This confrontation is a factor pushing Beijing and Pyongyang toward rapprochement no less than Kim Jong-un’s peace initiatives. If the aggravation of tensions in the US-China relationship is inevitable, there is no point in giving the Americans any concessions with respect to the Korean issue. On the contrary, North Korea is the only country in the region that is for China: even if it is not an ally, they have a common enemy.
In this regard, China’s attitude towards South Korea is typical. According to some sources, before going to the North, Xi Jinping cancelled his visit to the South without offering any explanations. Maybe these are just rumours spread by South Korean conservatives, but we could note that the Beijing-Washington confrontation puts Seoul in a very unpleasant situation. When they try to take a certain side, the other will use a set of measures of economic and political pressure. For China, this may turn out to be comparable to countermeasures against the deployment of an American missile defence system placed on the territory of Kazakhstan. Moreover, despite Moon’s attempts to imitate independence, Beijing apparently understands that the United States’ levers of influence are greater, and it is still unable to disobey at the state level. That means that despite the left being traditionally seen as pro-Chinese, and the right as pro-American, it is the North, not the South, that will support China.