Reaffirmation of China-DPR Korea Relations: Kim Jong-un visits Xi Jinping By Jun Kwon & Sung Jang
March 28 marks the first time that the Supreme Leader of North Korea left his country to meet up with another world leader. This is especially important as it occurred at a time when events in the North-South Korean rapprochement are developing fast and a possible Trump-Kim summit is scheduled in May.
As such, one has to question what the reason is for Mr. Kim’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at this time. It is most likely that Kim’s visit was to reassure a nervous China who views the rapidly evolving events in the region as a threat to its security and political expansion.
Current relations between China and North Korea
It is no secret that the relations between the China and North Korea have been strained since Xi Jinping came into power. While China-DPRK relationship has experienced ups and downs during the previous administrations, Xi Jinping has been less enthusiastic in defending North Korea in the face of violations of international law and sanctions.
There are multiple considerations as to why China and North Korea have drifted apart. For one, Mr. Kim’s execution of Jang Song-thaek, an uncle of Kim Jong-un who was very close to China, sent signals that were unfavorable to the Chinese government. It showed that newly minted Supreme Leader was not open to Chinese style economic reform or socialism with Chinese characteristics.
As the relationship between China and North Korea is mainly a cross-party relationship rather than a state-to-state relationship, the differences in political opinions have also been very visible. While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has modernized to allow for state-led capitalism where large industries are controlled by the government with allowance for small family owned businesses to be operated in a market, North Korea’s Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK), has continued to reject all forms of globalization.
The CCP’s approach to Xi’s Chinese Dream has pushed for China to become more connected with the international markets whereas the WPK remains steadfast with its juche ideology of self-reliance. Furthermore, there have been no official exchanges between the two parties in the recent years.
Finally, the personal relations that exist between the leaders of each respective side have not been of the best. While Kim Il-sung had a strong personal relationship with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, as they worked with each other during the fights against the Japanese Imperial army and the Korean War, the connections and similarities between Kim and Xi are far and few. Xi Jinping is leader who had little personal connection to Mao or Deng Xiaping, while Kim Jong-un was only put into the spotlight a few years before the death of his father Kim Jong-il.
Reassurance and Reconciliation of China-DPRK ties
On the 28th, Xinhua News Agency, the mouthpiece of the CCP released a 2600 word news article paying lip service to the strength of the China-DPRK ties. While there are many theories as to why Xinhua has released such a long article, one obvious thing is that China is nervous about the widening distance between China and North Korea. This article seems to be a desperate attempt to show the world that the ties between China and North Korea are still strong and unshakable.
This message is important because China wishes to maintain its influence over North Korea and expresses to the United States that should any developments occur, it would be done with the blessing or the guidance of China. The article also states that Kim’s unofficial visit to China was at the behest of Xi Jinping’s invitation, showing that this was an initiative taken from Xi rather than from Kim, and showing that China still has influence over North Korea. At the same time, it was also expressed in the article that Kim Jong-un had reported to Xi Jinping what the plans of North Korea ahead of the inter-Korean and the U.S.-North Korean summits.
China’s Positions (and possible pre-conditions)
Leaving aside the reassurance of China-DPRK ties, this meeting was also a last minute check-up where China and North Korea make sure that they see eye to eye on what the terms and conditions for negotiations are. While it is said in the article that China wishes to continue with denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, China and North Korea specifically want verifiable and irreversible security guarantees for the denuclearization of North Korea.
In addition, the article indicates that both China and North Korea prefer a step-by-step approach to eventual denuclearization. This may be problematic as the United States’ approach has traditionally been to have North Korea give up its nuclear weapons first (verifiable irreversible nuclear disarmament) before lifting sanctions.
It seems obvious that China-DPRK relationship has restored to the previous levels. It is expected that the resurrection of China-DPRK ties will remain to be strong and most likely will be stronger in the years to come. This is an indication that China is not looking for reunification of the Koreas any time soon because it is not in its best interests.
China likely wishes to maintain a buffer zone between the American troops on the DMZ and its own borders as the U.S.-China rivalry is increasingly becoming salient. This is especially important due to Trump’s bellicose approach to foreign policy and Japan’s increasing militaristic tone and possible remilitarization under Shinzo Abe.
Jun Kwon is Assistant Professor of Government at Utica College. Sung Jang is a government student at Utica College.