Fresh from failure in Vietnam, the North Korean leader can take comfort in warming Sino-DPRK ties
The conclusion of the Hanoi summit gave for some the appearance of a process that has pinwheeled out of control. No joint statement, no peace declaration, no tangible steps on denuclearization, and no clear roadmap for the timing and structure of future talks.
But from the North Korean standpoint, the status quo is sustainable in the short term, and there is certainly a plan in place — and increased trade and interaction with China is at the core of that plan.
Before getting into the teeth of the summit and North Korea’s potential pathways forward, it may be helpful to recall that few specific expectations for the summit were put forward in the DPRK’s carefully-manicured state media.
One would call North Korean reporters “muzzled,” but this would imply that they had thoughts deviating from the Party line in the first place.
A handful of vox-pop interviews by North Korean camera crews in Pyongyang indicated that no one would comment on the content of the talks, but rather that the DPRK had been seized of a certain and immediate nostalgia and longing for their fatherly leader, wishing for his return and pledging, in true Stakhanovite fashion, to produce more shoe soles whilst he was away.
Slightly more illuminating but still ultimately frustrating was the appearance of photographs of Donald Trump in the Rodong Sinmun, as they had been after Singapore.
Again, this tells us very little about the content of the negotiations so far as the North Korean people are concerned, and their hopes flowing out of the summit. Were people expecting sanctions to be lifted and a new economic era to flourish after Hanoi?
A new report from the Daily NK’s Pyongyang sources provides exceptional detail on this question.
North Korean media coverage of Kim’s trip through China was virtually non-existent. But the day before the summit, Korean Central Television broadcast a full hour in the afternoon about Kim Jong Un’s activities in recent years.
All of the content of this hour was focused on food production, with a focus on Kim’s direction of Korean People’s Army units and others engaged in supplying the DPRK’s urban dwellers.
The implication was secondary, but certainly present: Kim Jong Un’s focus is on living standards and food. While foreign journalists focused on the optics, there were, in a sense, caloric implications at the summit for the average North Korean, who was finally given a shout-out at the very end of the President’s final remarks.
SANCTIONS AND STAKEHOLDERS
The failure to the United States to relax sanctions post-Hanoi was clearly disappointing to many, not least the President himself.
In one of the more earnest personal statements of his concluding press conference in Hanoi, Trump veered away from bashing the the New York Times and told its long-standing and somewhat-hawkish national security reporter David Sanger, “I want to take off the sanctions so badly because I want that country to grow.”
It appears Trump has a comrade in this feeling, banging up, in the memorable phrase, against “the glass ceiling” of sanctions in the Blue House in Seoul. But sentiment alone, and even shared sentiment, is clearly not enough to get the ball over the goal line.
Later on in the same press conference, Trump praised Xi Jinping for having been “very helpful at the [Sino-North Korean] border” with sanctions enforcement, repeating a leitmotif of his alternately vengeful and despot-flirtatious Twitter identity.
The failure to the United States to relax sanctions post-Hanoi was clearly disappointing to many
It is of course unclear if Trump’s statements are in any way reflective of the intelligence briefings he receives, or if his references of China’s border controls with North Korea are just a projection of his mania about border controls with Mexico.
But in the recent past Pompeo and Steven Biegun have both indicated that China is cooperating, if in its own self-interest. As Biegun said at Stanford on 31 January, “China is with us 100 percent some of the way, and that’s what we need from them.”
In spite of these U.S. signals that China remains, in the Zoellickian term, a “stakeholder” and enforcing sanctions as a result, the U.S. government will of course have noticed the pronounced warming trend between China and North Korea.
Unsurprisingly, in 2019 North Korea’s relationship with China is fundamentally different from its relationship with the U.S., and in some fundamental ways.
Forget about the geographically-shared fate and the deep back story of mutual interactions and frustrations in the Cold War, and forget the three summits between Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping in 2018.
Further still, forget about the floating notion that Xi Jinping will travel to North Korea this year on his first major visit there as China’s preeminent leader.
READING NORTH KOREAN-CHINESE TIES IN 2019
North Korea has reopened and reinforced a web of contacts with China in the past year, including economic relationships. The PRC Ambassador in Pyongyang, Li Jinjun, met on February 21 with North Korean Premier Pak Pong Ju — a significant member of the cabinet with reported responsibility for vast sectors of the DPRK economy and natural resources.
Pak was accompanied by a number of foreign trade officials and members of the Korean People’s Army, for whom interactions with Chinese comrades are important.
On the purely diplomatic side, coordination continues. Ri Kil Song, a vice foreign Minister of the DPRK, met with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in Beijing immediately after the Hanoi summit.
China is not waiting for U.S. sanctions relinquishment to build up trade infrastructure and continue discussions with North Korean counterparts
This meeting was following on from Ri’s participation in two Chinese embassy events in Pyongyang and discussions with Ambassador Li Jinjun the prior week.
As Kim’s travel through China has to indicate, coordination is in the air. This remains true, even if PRC security officials in Guangxi province were surely scolded for not tailing Japanese reporters who procured footage of the Supreme Dignity enjoying a cigarette in Nanning and providing thereby a type of confirmation that his precious bodily fluids are not to be analysed by anyone outside of his personal circle.
Along the border, China is not waiting for U.S. sanctions relinquishment to build up trade infrastructure and continue discussions with North Korean counterparts. Hunchun continues to build up, whether or not North Korean unprocessed seafood continues to flow into its packaging plants.
Although maritime matters were not emphasized during his 2019 New Years’ Address, Kim Jong Un can look to officials with fisheries background like Jiang Naidong (姜乃东) in Liaoning’s Donggang port to work with. Close by, Dandong officials are touting their new (but still unused) bridge to North Korea as central to expansion plans and meeting with PRC railway investment groups.
And Kim’s personal meetings with Chinese officials in Dandong on his various train international train rides are not to be dismissed as a potential breaking of the investment and infrastructure logjam in the Yalu estuary.
GROUNDWORK AND CASTLES IN THE SKY
There are clearly triangulation and typical diplomatic and security considerations to consider in trying to prognosticate future steps of North Korean foreign policy.
But even amid last year’s shrinking of North Korean official exports to China, and the warming trend between Pyongyang and Washington, the Chinese Communist Party and the Workers’ Party of Korea have been laying the groundwork for more extensive cooperation and economic projects in the border regions.
Sanctions will continue to pain and restrict this relationship, but the web of trade and exchanges — and resulting revenues — for Pyongyang are not all subject to UN Security Council Resolutions.
Clearly it would be preferable for Kim Jong Un if he were able to stuff his financial spreadsheets with more mineral, seafood, and female labor exports to China.
But even if he does not have a meeting with Xi Jinping anytime soon, he seems able to count upon an open door for economic engagement with China’s provinces in the ambiguous aftermath of the Hanoi summit.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
The conclusion of the Hanoi summit gave for some the appearance of a process that has pinwheeled out of control. No joint statement, no peace declaration, no tangible steps on denuclearization, and no clear roadmap for the timing and structure of future talks. But from the North Korean standpoint, the status quo is sustainable in
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