Chinese president Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un met in Beijing early this week, in what can be defined a historic meeting. The two heads of state never met. And Kim Jong-un has not visited a foreign country since 2011, year in which he came to power, following his father’s (Kim Jong-il) death. Despite a history of mutual economic and military support, and a shared belief in communist values during the phases of the Cold War, the relationship between the two countries worsened, diplomatically, over the last decades, especially under Kim Jong-il’s leadership. This week’s meeting opens new perspectives for China-North Korea relations. How did the relations between the two countries evolve? How will this meeting affect future relationships? What reasons led Kim to meet Xi? If the denuclearization process of the peninsula starts next month, as announced, would that mean that Trump’s foreign policy strategy based on pressure and sanctions towards North Korea has worked? And what about the application of the UN sanctions against North Korea during the last year due to the continuous military provocations carried out by Pyongyang? And what about the role of China?
Why have the two leaders taken so long to meet?
China and North Korea are “as close as lips and teeth”, as both countries’ leaders labeled their bilateral relationship in the past. They share a 1.600 km-long common border. However, their closeness is also confirmed by a decades-long alliance against external powers, sealed after the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-1953), when they united to fight against the United Nations and American forces. The polarization of the international system into two blocks – communism versus liberalism – during the Cold War, pushed both countries to sign the 1961 Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, whose obligations have been upheld ever since, by both sides. Nonetheless, bilateral relations were not always rosy. On at least three occasions, they were significantly exacerbated. 1) During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in the Maoist era. North Korea contested China for disrupting the communist system: Mao’s ideological vision, which aimed at radically reforming the communist party from the bottom, ushered in a decade of internal turmoil that almost led to complete domestic anarchy. 2) During the Deng Xiaoping’s era (between the 1980s and 1990s). On the one hand, Beijing blamed North Korea for not having embraced Chinese-style economic reforms and opening. North Korea’s obstinacy paved the way to one of the worst famines in the country’s history, which lasted until 1998. On the other hand, China’s normalization of its diplomatic relations with South Korea, in 1992, further distanced Beijing from Pyongyang. 3) After the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011. China opposed Kim Jong-un’s rise to power – to the presidency of the country – due to his young age and lack of leadership experience. The Chinese criticism also concerned DPRK’s succession system, which still relied on family lineage rather than Communist Party succession mechanisms.This made North Korea a unique case in world politics, as it represents a communist monarchy: arguably the worst institutional setting the Chinese establishment has ever wished for its historic ally. Especially these recent frictions explain why Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un’s encounter was never on the agenda. The recent meeting between the two leaders, therefore, is a revolutionary step for North Korean foreign policy, as it represents a significant shift of North Korean strategy both at the regional and global level.
What are the reasons behind the visit?
There are two main reasons that explain why Kim Jong-un proposed to meet the Chinese counterpart. The first reason concerns the increasing tensions between the US and China over trade tariffs, potentially leading to a trade war between Beijing and Washington. In meeting with Xi, Kim firmly emphasizes his willingness to maintain good relations with his historic ally, especially after the diplomatic downturn of the last decadeand at time tense relations (mainly due to Pyongyang refusing to forego missile and nuclear testing). The second reason is more intimately related to North Korean interests. Pyongyang seeks deeper support from China as Kim Jong-un prepares to attend upcoming diplomatic meetings over the nuclear crisis: with his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, in April, and with American president, Donald Trump, in May (to be confirmed). These two meetings represent a crucial step for the North Korean national security. Even if Kim reportedly presented himself open to the possibility of denuclearizing the peninsula, it still remains yet to be seen whether he will really follow through with de-nuclearization. Not least as the country’s nuclear weapons program represents the fundamental asset for the survival of the regime, since it is the most sophisticated military tool the regime has for deterring its regional adversaries. However, Kim knows that he needs to negotiate parts of his nuclear program away if he wants to gain more support from the external actors in order to provide higher living standards to his population, which has been affected by the heavy UN sanctions of last year.
What forced Kim to change his foreign policy posture?
There is no clear-cut answer to this question, but rather more a combination of factors. The decision to travel outside of his country for the first diplomatic visit and for the first China-North Korea meeting since he came to power, raise other important questions over what really forced the North Korean leader to abandon his hyper aggressive foreign policy: did the UN sanctions work? Did Trump’s foreign policy strategy bear fruit? What about the role of China, DPRK’s historic ally? Sanctions did inevitably affect DPRK’s domestic development. North Korean living standards did not improve over the last few years, since most of the domestic resources were directed to the military sector. Trump’s confrontational stance also contributed to achieving DPRK’s turn in foreign policy: reminiscent of Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union (the “peace through strength” foreign policy strategy), the Trump’s administration challenged the DPRK’s ability to heavily invest in long-term military development by provoking the regime to go down the path of arms race. It goes without saying that Kim has evidently failed on this. And now he is striving to find a diplomatic solution. Last but not the least, China too contributed to this result. Beijing’s progressive irritation for the previous DPRK’s constant military provocations (nuclear and missile tests) further distanced Xi Jinping from his historic ally, to the extent that China voted in favor of all the recent UN sanctions against the DPRK. Moreover, Beijing, which is nevertheless concerned for the survival of the North Korean regime, advocated the adoption of a double-freeze solution (the simultaneous end of nuclear tests and US-South Korea joint military exercises). This further demonstrated China’s unwillingness to embark on the road to war with other antagonists (such as the US and Japan) for the defense of North Korea, further undermining the spirit of the 1961 treaty between Beijing and Pyongyang.