China's Korean Peninsula Policy and North Korea

Shin Kawashima

At the 10th SSDP discussion session held on June 14, 2018, I gave a presentation titled "China-North Korea Relations Under the Xi Jinping Administration." It has already appeared in text form on the SSDP homepage. This SSDP discussion session was held two days after the US-North Korea Summit in Singapore. This paper is intended to review and summarize developments since then.

1. From the Singapore Summit to the Panmunjom Summit

On June 14, 2018, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and US Secretary of State Pompeo held a meeting. Preceding the meeting, Wang Yi had praised the Singapore Summit. 1 On June 19, Kim Jong-un visited Beijing --- a week after the Singapore Summit. Xi Jinping recognized the substance of the Singapore Summit and highly appreciated Kim Jong-un's visit to Beijing in the wake of the Summit. He said that he was pleased to witness that "the DPRK made a major decision to shift the focus to economic construction, and the development of the DPRK's socialist cause has entered a new stage in history." Xi expressed his endorsement of North Korea's efforts. 2 On the following day, Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un met accompanied by their wives. Kim Jong-un stressed the special relationship between China and North Korea, "The two countries are as close and friendly as family, and help each other." 3

On July 26, 2018, Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou visited Pyongyang and met with North Korean Foreign Minister Lee Yong-ho. They confirmed their leaders' policies and discussed how to pursue those policies and strengthen relations between the two countries' diplomatic ministries. 4 On August 1, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Singapore to participate in the ASEAN plus China conference. At a press conference held there, he said, "The proclamation on the termination of war… complies with the progressing trend of the times and the common wish of people from all countries including the ROK and the DPRK on the Korean Peninsula." But he added that "it is another case to transform the agreement of the termination of war into the peace agreement," insinuating that a series of procedures will be necessary to that end but that the parties concerned should move in that direction. 5 Wang Yi also talked with Lee Yong-ho in Singapore and they confirmed that they should maintain the line set by the leaders of the two countries. 6

On September 19, 2018, the leaders of the two Koreas signed the Pyongyang Joint Declaration. Before that, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi coordinated relevantly with South Korea and Russia. On September 9, North Korea celebrated the 70th anniversary of its founding, and Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message to Kim Jong-un. In that message, Xi used the term "traditional friendship" to describe the China-North Korea bilateral relationship. As soon as the Pyongyang Joint Declaration was signed, Wang Yi mentioned support for it. 7 He expressed his hope for the progress of peace and the Korean Peninsula denuclearization process, saying, "We must not miss this rare opportunity for peace." Wang Yi displayed the same stance when he met with North Korean Foreign Minister Lee Yong-ho at the United Nations on September 27 and again when he spoke at the United Nations on September 28. 8 At that time, many believed that some progress would emerge on the Korean Peninsula issue; following the UN General Assembly, China-Russia-DPRK and China-ROK meetings were held. As the United States and North Korea also had direct talks, Japan was the only member of the Six-Party Talks that was left out.

2. The 70th Anniversary of China-North Korea Diplomatic Relations and Xi Jinping's Visit to North Korea

On December 7, 2018, North Korean Foreign Minister Lee Yong-ho visited China and met with Xi Jinping, sharing the recognition that progress emerged on the Korean Peninsula issue through Kim Jong-un's three visits to China in that year. Lee's visit was meant to, among other things, prepare Kim Jong-un's other visit to China, which took place on January 8, 2019. 9 Emphasizing the bilateral friendship, Kim Jong-un stated that "having visited China four times in less than a year, he was deeply impressed by the achievements made in China's economic and social development as well as the Chinese people's spirit and character of striving for the country's prosperity." He also added that "the DPRK side considers China's development experience most valuable and hopes for more trips to China for study and exchanges." 10 These statements seem to indicate that North Korea was still willing to pursue economic development-oriented reforms.

In January and February 2019, China continued coordination with the United States, Russia, and South Korea on the Korean Peninsula issue. China intended to achieve simultaneously "the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and building a peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula." Since the year 2019 fell on the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and North Korea, China seems to have desired to achieve a substantial result. On February 28, North Korea's Deputy Foreign Minister Ri Kil Song visited China to discuss commemorative events for the 70th anniversary of China-North Korea diplomatic relations. On that occasion as well, Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed the principle of denuclearization accompanied by a peace mechanism. 11 In May 2019, Wang Yi met with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, and they confirmed the above goals and agreed to "set packaged goals, make clear the progress in each stage, and carry out a dual-track approach." 12

On June 20, 2019, Xi Jinping visited North Korea. He underscored that "the China-DPRK relationship has entered a new historical era" and called for further developing the bilateral relations. Kim Jong-un, referring to the issue of economic development in North Korea, expressed his gratitude to China for its support. 13 At a banquet held on June 21, Xi Jinping, calling for support for Kim Jong-un's line of economic development, said, "The nation under leader Kim Jong-un had initiated a new strategic line of economic development and improving people's livelihoods, raising socialist construction in the country to a new high tide." 14

On June 30, 2019, the US-North Korea Summit took place in Panmunjom. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi highly praised it, stating that the United States and North Korea reached a common understanding to a certain extent. 15 On September 2, Wang Yi visited North Korea and met with North Korean Foreign Minister Lee Yong-ho allegedly to exchange views on the Korean Peninsula situation. 16 At that time, some signs began to appear that the situation on the Korean Peninsula was heading for an impasse. At the end of September, Wang Yi spoke at the United Nations General Assembly on the Korean Peninsula issue, urging the United States to align itself with North Korea and not to miss another opportunity. 17 In his congratulatory messages for the 71st anniversary of the founding of North Korea and the 70th anniversary of the establishment of China-North Korea diplomatic relations, Xi Jinping accentuated, as in the past, the bilateral friendship. Gradually, however, the US-North Korea negotiations approached a stalemate, and China's expectations became hard to realize.

3. COVID-19 and the Issue of Renewing the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty

At the end of 2019, COVID-19 broke out in Wuhan, China, and in January 2020, the Chinese central government began to deal with the disease. North Korea sent a message of sympathy to Xi Jinping in the name of Kim Jong-un on February 1. 18 On May 7, Kim Jong-un conveyed a message to Xi Jinping as the spread of the infection was almost contained in China; Xi Jinping returned one on May 9. 19 However, the infectious disease led negotiations over the Korean Peninsula to a deadlock.

Afterward, some changes seem to have occurred in the domestic situation around Kim Jong-un, but it is not clear how the Chinese government responded to them.

On July 11, 2021, Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message to Kim Jong-un on the 60th anniversary of the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, effectively informing that he had decided to extend the treaty. 20 China hesitated to carry on the traditional bilateral relationship and claimed that it had been established in the past. Nonetheless, China decided to renew the treaty, which will be renewed every 20 years, probably because the Korean Peninsula issue is vitally significant for its relations with the United States and the international community.

On the other hand, China has ceased to mention North Korea's economic construction, which it had highly valued. The nature of the Korean Peninsula issue has changed significantly. Still, China continues to hold talks on the North Korean issue with other countries like Russia. In September 2021, Special Representative of the Chinese Government on Korean Peninsula Affairs Liu Xiaoming had a telephone conversation with Director-General of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan Takehiro Funakoshi and exchanged views on the North Korean issue. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has identified the North Korean issue as one of the issues on which the United States and China should cooperate. The present challenge for China is how much it will be able to take advantage of this opportunity. The biggest problem rests with North Korea, which will likely adopt a wait-and-see attitude for the time being.

(Professor, The University of Tokyo)

(Translation by Tsutomu Inuzuka, SSDP Associate)

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