On the occasion of the third death anniversary of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on 17 December 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a special message to the North Korean embassy in Beijing. The Chinese President underlined the significance of their “traditional friendship.” Xi Jinping also said that that China “is ready to work with the DPRK to maintain, consolidate and develop the traditional friendship.”
It is definitely a clear departure from the recent attitude of Xi Jinping and China towards North Korea. First, the message was delivered to the North Korean embassy in Beijing by the fifth highest official in the Chinese Communist Party hierarchy, Liu Yunshan. Second, it has been the most open and straight forward statement by the Chinese President emphasising China’s old friendship with North Korea since he assumed power in early 2013. Third, it was given on the occasion of the third death anniversary of Kim Jong-il, which according to the Confucian tradition means the end of the official mourning period and beginning of the new leader’s rule. In a way, it means granting legitimacy to Kim Jong-un, who has had a few differences smooth with China since coming to power. Fourth, Xi Jinping’s statement and the profile of the Chinese delegate to the North Korean embassy are very significant because they happened despite China not being officially invited to the death anniversary programme in North Korea.
What were China’s Objections?
The China-North Korea relationship has been derailed in recent years. China’s first and foremost discomfort with Pyongyang is related to the North Korean nuclear programme, not because of it does not want a nuclear North Korea but more because it would bring a direct US strategic response to the region. The North Korean nuclear programme may also propel South Korea and Japan to move on a similar course of nuclear weaponisation. The second important Chinese objection is the lack of economic reforms. China apparently wants North Korea to adopt Chinese-style reform if it wants to survive and survive well.
China was reportedly disappointed with Kim Jong-un on both accounts, and 2013 was particularly disappointing for bilateral relations. In February 2013, North Korea had its third nuclear test, which invited sharp international criticism. In March-April 2013, North Korea escalated military tensions and rhetoric towards South Korea and the US when they were conducting their annual joint military exercise. North Korea cut-off hot line communications with South Korea and closed down Gaeseong Industrial complex. In spite of Chinese persuasion, North Korea escalated the situation to a point that prompted the US to send its stat-of-the-art weapon systems to the region and install a missile defence system at Guam. In December 2013, North Korea executed the number two in the North Korean power hierarchy, Jang Song-thaek, who was supposed to be the closest to China and was pro-reform. It was reported that a clear signal was being sent to China.
Xi Jinping tried to put pressure on North Korea by cooperating with the international community on the issue of economic sanctions after the nuclear tests and by having two summit meets with South Korean leader Park Geun-hye without any high-level Chinese visits to North Korea.
Context of Rapprochement
However, it seems from recent developments that China has decided to reach out to North Korea even though North Korea does not look ready to change its course. There are important reasons for this. One, China has been disappointed by South Korean reciprocity, as despite good Chinese posturing, South Korea is still not ready to think beyond its primary ally in the region, the US. Two, US, South Korea and Japan recently signed a trilateral intelligence-sharing agreement related to threats emanating from North Korea. China has criticised this move and considers that the mechanism might be used to share information about China as well. Three, China does not find it appropriate on the part of the international community, especially the US, South Korea and Japan, to become ‘over-proactive’ on the issue of human rights violations in North Korea. Although because of the veto from China and Russia, the matter could not move forward, it was definitely a coordinated move to declare North Korean human rights violations ‘crime against humanity’ and refer it to the International Criminal Court (ICC). China worries that such precedents would be bad for Beijing. Four, North Korea over the past year had been moving closer to Russia. In December 2014, No Kwang-chol, vice chief of the General Staff of the North's Army met his Russian counterpart, and Choe Ryong-hae, the Workers' Party of Korea secretary met Russian Foreign Minster and pledged to improve bilateral defence and economic relations. Furthermore, Russian President Vladimir Putin has invited North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to Moscow in 2015.
All these developments have made China rethink its policy of putting pressure on North Korea and it seems that a new beginning in the estranged bilateral relationship might be sought by Xi Jinping. China has taken the first step in the process of rapprochement, now it’s up to North Korea to respond.