The 12 June summit between Kim and Trump has stirred much speculation about the role and influence of the other state actors involved in the process. Analysts’ opinions mostly split between those that believe that Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign was the real reason behind North Korea’s willingness to come to diplomatic terms, and those that emphasized the role played by the newly elected South Korean president Moon Jae-in. Very few actually investigated the role played by China. After the third historic inter-Korean summit, held at the end of April 2018, Trump thanked Xi via twitter for his role in pushing North Korea towards the diplomatic process. However, few are the empirical analyses that touch upon China’s commitment in bringing Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table. China and North Korea are considered historically to be ‘as close as lips and teeth’. This concept aptly describes their historical relationship, even despite cyclical downturns in their bilateral relations, which at times almost led to diplomatic ruptures.
Therefore, to understand where Kim’s current diplomatic turn comes from, it is important to shed light on China’s role in influencing DPRK’s behaviour. Within this context, 2017 represented the real turning point in the overall DPRK-China relations to the extent that Beijing progressively forced Pyongyang to change its foreign policy.
Specifically, China strongly supported the economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council, which undermined DPRK’s already fragile domestic stability. This was a real shift for DPRK’s international relations. In the past ten years, Pyongyang developed the so-called “sanctions immunity”, i.e. an ability to cope with UN sanctions, also with the help of China. However, in 2017, Beijing’s new posture towards Pyongyang altered the status quo. With China’s full participation in UN sanctions, Pyongyang began to face the worst domestic political crisis in a decade. DPRK’s currency dramatically dropped in just one year, while the country’s import-export trade decreased by 50%. This is mainly due to the fact that China represents 57% of North Korea’s trade imports and 42% of its exports. In other words, China provides North Korea with both energy and food supplies, accounting for more than 90% of North Korea’s total trade volume.
In February 2017, China placed a year-long restriction on all coal imports from North Korea. This measure critically hit the North Korean economy as coal represents the major export asset of the country towards China. Moreover, on 28 September 2017, China blocked all economic operations of North Korean companies operating in China.
At the logistical level, China first cancelled its civilian air routes from Beijing to Pyongyang and then, later on in the year, it closed the so-called China-DPRK friendship bridge, which connects the two countries and is a vital infrastructure for both communication and goods exchange.
At the military level, in April 2017, the Global Times published a very influential commentary (censored a few hours after being posted). The article explained what was the Chinese government’s tolerance threshold towards DPRK’s nuclear tests: “China will never allow such a situation to happen [nuclear incidents and pollution]. If the bottom line is touched, China will use all means available including the military ones to strike back.”
China’s support for UN sanctions is intertwined not only with Beijing’s desire to monitor the North Korean nuclear program but also with China’s overall geopolitical willingness to transform the region by 2050. Specifically, Beijing is promoting a reorganization of the Asia-Pacific region “in a post-alliance security framework, as underlined in the white paper on China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation (January 2017).” Keeping regional stability on China’s terms becomes, then, a fundamental element, as Beijing is trying to reduce the American presence in the Asia-Pacific, especially after the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea.
China’s regional policies, however, are not directly targeting DPRK’s overall nuclear status. As Pyongyang’s nuclear program is not incompatible with China’s strategy in the region, denuclearization does not represent a priority of China’s foreign policy. Quite the opposite. For instance, in 2017, China proposed the so-called “double suspension” (双暂停-shuang zanting) which envisaged DPRK’s suspension of its nuclear and missile tests in exchange for the suspension of the joint US-ROK military exercises in the Asia-Pacific. This would represent the perfect outcome of China’s regional vision: a stable and nuclear North Korea and a reduced US commitment (along with its presence) in the region.
“A stable and nuclear North Korea” also responds to another specific Chinese foreign policy strategy: the Middle Kingdom’s desire to change Sino-DPRK relations on China’s terms. Beijing is using its coercive diplomacy as a means to convince DPRK to change its foreign policy posture. A practice that China already implemented in the 1980s when it was trying to punish Pyongyang for sponsoring terrorist actions against South Korea. In so doing, China also believes that it could start a new positive relationship with its communist neighbour – this time on Xi’s terms – like it did in the 1990s when Beijing managed to get North Korea on its side by normalizing its diplomatic relations with South Korea (in 1992).
The way China behaved diplomatically explains the political shifts the world has witnessed since the end of March. First of all, the historic meeting between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un on 25-28 March was followed by the third inter-Korean summit on 27 April. The fact that Kim decided to meet Xi one month before he was due to encounter his South Korean counterpart was extremely significant. During their March 2018 meeting (the first historic one), Xi and Kim worked out their strategy for denuclearization, while also conceiving a new economic plan for bilateral relations. This implies that China would be willing to ease sanctions towards its neighbour if Kim complied to Beijing’s requests. China’s role was quite significant for the shift to happen. From that time onwards, Kim took specific actions such as announcing his willingness to normalize his relations with Moon Jae-in and calling for the establishment of a general denuclearization process.
On the same line, the second Xi-Kim summit held in Dalian on 8 May responded to the same logic. North Korea wants China to play a crucial role in the denuclearization process, especially after the announcement that Kim was going to meet with Trump in June.
The application of sanctions during 2017 and North Korea’s subsequent willingness to activate diplomatic channels demonstrate that China played a major role in shaping DPRK’s foreign policy posture. The Winter Olympics held in February 2018 provided an important context for both Koreas to begin diplomatic communications; however, the subsequent historic summit with Xi Jinping at the end of March represented the real turning point for Sino-DPRK relations and for regional stability. The details of the two summits between Xi and Kim are unknown, but according to their historical ties, it can be inferred that Beijing reassured Pyongyang of its military commitment and overall protection in case of conflict. What is clear is that the historical 1961 treaty between the two countries has been included into the equation. This definitely explains why Kim is willing to talk about denuclearization (even if in general terms) and to normalize his relations with his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in.