On March 25, 2018, the Japanese media broke the story that the “No. 1” train from North Korea had been spotted entering China. The train is a specialized overseas courier for North Korea’s top leader. Kim Jong-il, the late father of the incumbent leader Kim Jong-un, had used it for his visits to China and Russia. Kim Jong-un’s visit to Beijing was confirmed upon his departure on March 28, and his pledge for denuclearization and Chinese support were aired through the respective countries’ media channels the next day.
Kim Jong-un’s visit was very strategically calculated. It had two purposes. The first was to bring China-North Korea relations back on track. This bilateral relationship had been derailed by the death of Kim Jong-il, and seemed to have deteriorated with a six-year hiatus in summit meetings. The second was to seek China’s insurance and confirm China’s patron-state status. Kim is without summit diplomacy experience. Although he accepted his southern counterpart’s call for an inter-Korean summit and extended an invitation to US president Donald Trump for a dialogue — all scheduled to happen within the next two months — Kim might have felt insecure about confronting the two leaders, especially Trump, the head of the ultimate enemy state. If he had dealt with them alone, the political pressure would have been overwhelming for a novice diplomat.
China’s immediate acceptance of Kim’s sudden and abrupt decision to visit Beijing seemed to be justified by two reasons. One was Beijing’s seemingly weakening grip on Pyongyang which seemed to have wanted to continue to defy Beijing. Pyongyang’s embracement of the inter-Korean summit and its willingness to engage with Washington seemed to have inadvertently undermined Beijing’s position and influence over Korean peninsula affairs.
To Beijing’s surprise, Pyongyang had announced that it was fine with the upcoming South Korea-US joint military exercises and with US forces in South Korea not withdrawing. These had once been Pyongyang’s conditions for dialogue and denuclearization. They were also China’s requisite conditions for the success of North Korea’s denuclearization. China’s scheme for North Korea’s denuclearization was the so-called “double suspension” or “dual track” approach. Suspension of the joint military drill along with North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests was one stipulation for double suspension policy, while the withdrawal of US forces from South Korea was a prerequisite for the conversion of the Korean War Armistice into a peace treaty. Kim’s new stance obviously contradicted Beijing’s principles. So the rift between Pyongyang and Beijing was conceived to be effective.
In the eyes of many, Kim’s contradictory stance demonstrated an intention to bypass China and deal directly with South Korea and the US. The observation was made of his negative rhetoric towards Beijing for its support of UN sanctions. As a result, he was seen to be determined to become independent of China so as to fulfill his country’s long sought goal of self-reliance (Chuche). Furthermore, this stance would have significantly undermined China’s influence and position on North Korea’s external affairs, including the denuclearization issue. Following Beijing’s decision in February 2017 to halt the import of coal from North Korea as part of UN sanctions, Pyongyang immediately criticized the decision as an act emulating that of an enemy that wants to subvert its regime.
Against this background, China was obviously in need of a breakthrough in order to rid of any kind of misunderstanding with North Korea, which is its lone ally in the world. Simultaneously, as the prospective summits between North and South Korea, and between North Korea and the US were materializing at North Korea’s own will, China wanted to ensure its stakes in the summit meetings. Be it a moderator or mediator, China needed to assert its position to prevent its getting excluded. This Chinese desire was made explicit at the press conference at the Lianghui, the annual meetings of China’s National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). On March 8, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the press conference emphasized China’s security interest and constructive role so as to secure the Chinese share in the Korean peninsula game.
The Special China-North Korea Relationship
The special character of China-North Korea relationship is that the rift in the relationship can be patched overnight. This is possible because of the unique governance structure of both countries’ power systems. That is, they are party-states, and not nation-states: the party leadership transcends that of the nation and the state. On the diplomatic front, it means the party relationship affects the state of the bilateral relationship at the national level. Any kind of damage to the bilateral relationship can be healed with the reconciliation of the parties or the top leaders of the parties. Should reconciliation happen, it is diffused through every walk of life in the country.
The recently concluded China-North Korea summit only had one message: the two countries will cover each other’s backs and will not to succumb to any pressure or diplomatic offensives by the US or South Korea.
China and North Korea’s relationship is not without rifts and conflicts. However, the relationship was always soon to be restored with the top party leader’s visit to his counterpart. Once reconciliation is pronounced, the relationship is mended. There are a few salient precedents. In 1956, North Korea’s purge of former Chinese military and political officers was so upsetting to Beijing that both countries had an absence of contact for two years before Kim Il-sung’s 1959 visit to China. In the 1960s, China and North Korea’s relationship was disconnected for almost a decade for political and military reasons: the Chinese Cultural Revolution and territorial disputes. In 1969, the relationship was again fully restored by Kim Il-sung’s visit to Beijing. In the 1980s, North Korea was very displeased with China’s economic reform and open-door policy, and halted high-level exchanges for almost a decade before Kim Il-sung’s visit to Beijing in 1989. China’s normalization of its relationship with South Korea in 1992 prompted another hiatus of high-level exchanges with the North, before the relationship was pronounced to be normal in 1999. That occasion was marked by not Kim Jong-il but by his No. 2 man, Kim Yong-nam, who is the Chair of the Supreme People’s Congress.
A Strategically Aligned Relationship
At this juncture, the embedded nature of the alliance between China and North Korea has proven to be strategically aligned. The strategic interests of both countries are all at work, mutually serving the maximum. While China wants to avert war or instability in the Korean peninsula, North Korea wants to prolong its denuclearization until the materialization of China’s scheme. The strategic aspect of the alliance between the two can be inferred from three historical cases in which China was involved.
The first example was from 1964 when the US was contemplating a preemptive strike on Chinese nuclear facilities. It required the US to consult with the Soviet Union for its supposed alliance with China. To the US, the alliance only existed in name because Soviet-China relations had deteriorated so much that it was perceived to have already crossed the point of no return. The US just had to make sure there was no possibility of Soviet intervention. The Soviets surprised the US with its confirmation that the alliance remained effective, and they succeeded in deterring the US. The Soviets then followed up by engaging in dialogue with the Chinese on their territorial dispute which was one of the causes of the rift in their alliance. This was a decoy to demonstrate the solidarity of their alliance to the world.
The second example can be found in China’s demonstration of its alliance-like relationship with North Vietnam against the US in the early 1970s. The US wanted China to pressure North Vietnam to be sincere at the Paris peace negotiations in 1971 so that it could “gracefully” exit the Vietnam War and fulfill its promise to withdraw its troops from Indo-China. At the time, North Vietnam had already switched its patron-state from China to the Soviet Union. However, China still acted as if it were North Vietnam’s patron-state. It demonstrated its status to the world by declaring that if the US were to cross the red line of 20th parallel, this would be perceived as a declaration of war on China and would therefore invite Chinese intervention. This forced the US to be more proactive at the peace conference and complete the peace agreement in January 1973 and the withdrawal of its troops from Vietnam in 1975.
The last example is the 1993 North Korean nuclear crisis. By the following year, the Korean peninsula faced the possibility of war as the US was about to trigger a preemptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear facilities. During this time, one question that China was bombarded with was the effectiveness of its alliance with North Korea following the normalization of its relationship with South Korea in 1992. On many occasions, top Chinese leaders including former premier Li Peng had publicly stated the alliance remained good if North Korea was attacked by an outside force. This was alarming not only to those in South Korea, but also some in the US including former president Jimmy Carter, who then stepped forward to assume the mediator role to keep the US and North Korea from going to war.
North Korea and China’s Deterrence Strategy
Drawing an inference from these historical cases, Kim Jong-un’s visit to China had one aim: to mutually serve the interests of both China and North Korea by strategically showing the outside world the solidarity of their alliance. The outside world, as in the past, conceived the rift in the bilateral relationship to be such that the successes of the inter-Korean summit and the US-North Korea dialogue were guaranteed. However, the two communist states successfully negated this assessment by materializing their unexpected summit.
The recently concluded China-North Korea summit only had one message: the two countries will cover each other’s backs and will not to succumb to any pressure or diplomatic offensives by the US or South Korea. Chinese assurance has allowed North Korea to change its stance on the denuclearization question, and can withdraw from its unconditional accommodation of summit conditions with South Korea and the US. In other words, the ball is now in the court of these two countries. The initiative is in the hands of North Korea and China.
The China-North Korea summit also secured Pyongyang a patron-state that will be supportive of its new strategy towards South Korea and the US. It has already declared that denuclearization will be met if the right conditions are met, implying its possible return to the so-called “salami” strategy. In return, North Korea has saved China’s face. The outside world had serious doubts about the alliance between Beijing and Pyongyang, suspecting the former’s loss of influence over the latter. This gave the US and South Korea a rise to directly engage with North Korea while bypassing China. Now the ballgame is anew. The world will have to go through Beijing to solve Pyongyang’s issues.