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(Project of the Kajima Institute of International Peace)

China-North Korea relationship under Xi Jinping

By Shin Kawashima
Professor, the Tokyo University

Introduction –China's Perspective on the North Korea Issue

It is still believed to be useful to discuss whether North Korea is a tribute state of China and/or an independent one, because of the fact that Kim Jong-un has already twice visited China. However, here I will follow how their relationship has changed since the second term of the Hu Jintao administration, according to open sources that have been largely released by China.

Before going to the main subject, four points should be considered.

First, China is North Korea's most important trading partner and donor, and this made China the chairman of the Six-Party Talks. For China losing economic ties with North Korea means losing influence over the Korean peninsula.

Secondly, the relationship between China and North Korea is that of Socialist states, so it is a three-part relationship of party/military/government, rather than one of normal diplomatic relations.

Thirdly, China is not against the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and United Nations resolutions, because it is one of the permanent members of the Security Council and it obtains benefit from the NPT regime. At the same time, China was a party concerned involved in the Korean War.

Lastly, it serves the national interest of China that US troops stationed in South Korea would be cut and withdrawn from the Korean peninsula. The Chinese government supports North Korea at present because they believe its support serves China's national interest.

1. The latter half of Hu Jintao government and the Kim Jong-un administration

Hu sent a congratulatory telegram to Kim when he assumed power at the end of 2011 and became the ‘Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army' on January 4, 2012. Hu stated that he "believes the traditional friendly cooperation will continue and be strengthened" "under new historical conditions." It was interesting that the telegram mentioned the compromise between ‘new historic conditions' and ‘tradition'.

Later, North Korean First Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan and Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Yong-ho visited China, and Fu Ying, in return, visited North Korea. In addition, the Chinese head of state sent a telegram to celebrate Kim Jong-un's election to the position of the Chairman of the Workers' Party of Korea on April 11. Two days later North Korea conducted missile tests, but the delegation of Korean Workers Party stayed in China from the 22nd and held a meeting with Hu on the 24th. This shows that the Chinese government had known of the planed missile tests by the North Korean government and consented. Moreover, Wang Jiarui, who was a special emmissary of Hu had a talk with Kim Jong-un on August 3rd. It is said that Kim declared that "it is an eternal will of the Korean Workers Party and the government to follow Kim Jong-il's instructions and to deepen the traditional friendship between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and People's Republic China." Kim seemed to emphasize the countries' ‘traditional' relations. However, Hu stressed that "the Chinese Communist party and the government will reinforce and expand the China-North Korea friendly cooperation from a strategic and long-term viewpoint". By saying so He relativized the term "tradition" although he also mentioned "the instructions of the late Kim Jong-il" and "traditional friendship". This showed, even if it is just in words, a Chinese attitude to redefine their classic relations with North Korea. The economic and cultural exchanges became highly active thereafter, yet a meeting of top leaders was not realized.

2. The first term of Xi administration and the relations with North Korea

The Chinese administration changed in Autumn 2012. The Korean Workers' party sent a telegram of congratulations for the 18th Chinese Communist Party's congress on November 9. In this telegram, North Korea described its relations with China as "Brotherhood" and declared to "shape the future based on tradition." The first message from Xi to Kim was made on December 2, 2012, when Li Jianguo, the Vice-chairman of NPC Standing Committee, came to North Korea and had a meeting with Kim. Li stated that "the Chinese party and government see its relations with PRK from the strategic and long-term viewpoint" and it is "the firm resolution of Chinese Communist Party's leaders" to develop the "traditional friendship." Furthermore, it aimed to maintain the strategic dialogue through the exchange of top-ranking officials from both governments. One could see that China tried to include North Korea into its regional system, which can be seen in the expression of "PRC and DPRK will keep the win-win relationship, cooperate in terms of regional and global governance, and develop the peace and stability in northeast Asia."

It was May in 2013 when the next special envoy visited China, and by that time, North Korea tested missile in December 2012 and made the third nuclear test in February 2013. Xi tried to work out how to deal with the DPRK, while the Security Council decided the resolutions 2087 and 2094.

When Choe Ryong-hae (Presidium of Korean Workers' Party) had a talk with Liu Yunshan, Choe handed Kim's own handwritten note to Xi. Liu only mentioned the development of their friendship, and never mentioned the term ‘tradition.' Choe also didn't state ‘tradition' but the hope of a new building of state for North Korea. In the conference between Xi and Choe, Xi only mentioned the denuclearization and peace in Korea and the continuation of the Six-Party Talks. This attitude continued in June 2013, when Kim Key-gwan (the First Deputy Foreign Minister) came to see Zhang Yesui, deputy Foreign Affairs Minister. In this conference, Kim referred once again to the "traditional relations". It is remarkable that Kim stated that "the denuclearization in the Korean peninsula is in the teachings of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il," and that he hoped for participation in the Six-Party talks.

Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, gave a favorable evaluation that he "know(s) the recent situation in the Korean peninsula is changing positively," when on July 1 Wang met Pak Ui-chun (Minister of North-Korean Foreign Affairs). It was, however, unclear what Wang mentioned concretely. At the end of July, Li Yuanchao visited North Korea and participated in the 60th memorial event of the cessation of the Korean War. Li had a meeting with Kim Jong-un on July 25, and gave him a message from Xi. In this message, Xi mourned the war dead as heroes and stated that China would stand with North Korea. Kim Jong-un, on the other hand, mentioned the traditional friendship with China lamenting the death of people and offered a positive message for denuclearization, peace, and the Six-Party Talks. However, from public information, it is hard to grasp the process of the downfall of Jang Sung-taek in December 2013.

The cultural exchanges continued during 2014, but it seemed that both countries' relationship was stagnant from 2014 to 2015. When North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in January and tested a missile in February in 2016, the Security Council decided to apply sanctions against the DPRK based on the resolution 2270.

From May 6th to 9th in 2016, the Korean Workers' Party's convention was held after a long interval. After the party conference, the delegation including Ri Su-young (DPRK Foreign Affairs Minister) visited China. In a meeting with Song Tao, the head of the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China, both governments emphasized their traditional friendship. Xi stated that "it is Chinese and North Korean tradition to engage in strategic communication on serious situations". This can be understood as a redefinition of ‘tradition.' Besides, Xi praised DPRK's economic development, and Ri promised cooperation for the peace and stability in the Korean peninsula in return, though Ri insisted on "the traditional friendship" with China.

However, 3 months later, North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test and the resolution 2321 was adopted by the Security Council in November. On 13th February 2017, Kim Jong-nam was assassinated in Malaysia and resolution 2356 was adopted in June. The economic sanctions were enhanced against North Korea, but North Korea conducted missile tests in July and August and carried out a nuclear test in September.

3. The latter Xi administration and the relationship with North Korea

In Autumn 2017, the 19th Party congress was held in China and the second Xi administration started. North Korea sent a congratulatory telegram.

While the US-North Korea summit has prepared with the coordination of the South Korean government after the Pyeongchang Olympics, Kim Jong-un stayed in China from March 25th to 28th 2018 and had a meeting with Xi Jinping. Xi expressed his thanks for the congratulatory telegram from Kim. This indicates that there were no exchanges of messages between them for 6 months. Kim said that he "wanted to celebrate Xi directedly based on the friendly tradition of both countries," and that he "should report to Xi on the situation in the Korean peninsula." Interestingly, in response to Kim, Xi stated: "China-North Korea traditional friendship is an important legacy which former leaders of the CCP and the KWP formed and developed." With this statement, he emphasized the tradition and ‘the right strategy to take' "based on the tradition and reality."

Xi also revealed four points to consider: 1) to continue summit meetings, 2) effective use of the traditional legacy, the strategic communication, 3) high promotion of peace, and 4) to foster the friendship based on public opinion. These became ‘four principles' which both governments agreed to. While Kim mostly praised Chinese economic development, Xi mentioned the importance of denuclearization in the Korean peninsula and requested that the governments of both Koreas make an effort. He also indicated that China would play a positive role. Kim mentioned the teachings of Kim Il-son and Kim Jong-il as noted above and declared that he "is ready to have the North-South summit and the US-North Korea summit to make peace in the Korean peninsula.

After this conference, on May 2, Wan Yi visited North Korea again. In the meeting with Lee Yong-ho, Wang described China-North Korea relations as ‘strategic cooperative communication.' It can be said that ‘tradition and strategy' became the new framework, but one could see this idea from the administration of Hu Jintao. Wang estimated that "China-North Korea relationships attained the next step" and indicated support for the Panmunjom declaration, at the conference with Kim Jong-un on May 3. Wang also mentioned Chinese support for North Korea that "it moves the center of the strategy to the economic development and it tries to resolve the security problem through denuclearization," as if he gave a principle for the US-North Korea summit.

On May 8, Kim Jong-un visited China again and had a talk with Xi Jinping in Dalian. Wang Huning joined this conference. Xi repeated the four principles for the future China-North Korea relations. Kim insisted on the importance of classic friendship, while Xi admired Kim's efforts towards stabilization of the Korean peninsula and supported the denuclearization and the US-DPRK conference. In contrast, Kim stated that "denuclearization is feasible, if hostile policies toward North Korea and the threat to its security disappear." This was the basic point of view of North Korea.

The Chinese government has proposed two plans in relation to problems on the Korean peninsula. The first plan is to suspend the US largescale military exercises if North Korea stops to develop nuclear weapons. The other is to develop both processes together, the denuclearization and peace. Because Kim Jong-un accepted these two plans and visited China to report in person, the Chinese government seemed to emphasize the special relationship with North Korea again, with the word ‘tradition.'

After the June 12th talks in Singapore, the Chinese spokesman praised the result of the US-North Korea summit as it was exactly what the Chinese government proposed. Regarding the United Nations' economic sanction against North Korea, China claimed the necessity for a gradual suspension or reconsideration.

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