Embassy website shows fraying ties
Access to the hermit kingdom of North Korea is rare, but the main page of the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang has served as a narrow window for the outside world.
The site, kp.china-embassy.org, was built to provide information on the embassy’s consular operations and North Korea-China relations, and is widely followed by North Korea observers.
Many credit Liu Hongcai, the Chinese ambassador to North Korea, for the breadth of information on the government there, as his diplomatic activities are often uploaded with photographs.
Analysts say it has made it easier to obtain or infer information on top North Korean officials, including their promotions or demotions. Intelligence officials admit that they have also sometimes “caught a big fish” thanks to the site.
But a recent analysis of the homepage illustrated that the North’s relations with China, its most important ally, have evidently deteriorated over the past few years.
Content related to the North’s current leader Kim Jong-un is noticeably missing.
Although he has been in power now for three years, the photos used to decorate the main page are mostly those of Kim Jong-il, his predecessor and late father. One image shows Kim Jong-il in October 2011 meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who was the vice premier at the time.
In its section on North Korea’s politics, the Chinese Embassy asserts that Kim Jong-un is the state’s leader, though no further information is provided. And although the site was updated in July, few changes have been made to reflect his position as leader of the regime.
North Korea observers in Seoul note that the lack of information about the junior Kim is an apparent sign that the Chinese government’s feelings toward its neighboring ally have shifted.
But there are other signs that relations between North Korea and China have slowly declined.
The Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, no longer runs news on China as prominently. In its Monday edition, the newspaper ran articles on the various celebratory events held worldwide on Sept. 9 to commemorate the 66th anniversary of the nation’s founding. China, however, was noticeably treated with lesser importance, while Russia was given more play.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s congratulatory message was placed on the corner of page three, while that of Russian President Vladimir Putin was run on the front.
During a recent trip to the border with China and North Korea, Chinese experts on the North were severely critical of the current Kim regime.
One specialist even said that its government’s initiative of advancing its nuclear program and economic development side-by-side was “complete rubbish.”
He added that the North should learn from the Chinese model of reform and provide land to the people to farm in order to resolve its food crisis and economic hardships, though Pyongyang’s leadership has done nothing about it.
And while the leadership under Chinese President Xi did not overtly express their displeasure toward the North, it is evident they are upset.
China is “increasingly irritated” by the fact that Kim is threatening others in the region and potentially sparking a nuclear arms race, U.S. Representative Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in March during a media interview.
Because the American politician made those remarks directly after he met with Li Keqiang, then China’s incoming premier, observers noted that Beijing must have revealed its true feelings about Pyongyang.
Speculation also surfaced that China had suspended its fuel supply to North Korea.
The alliance between China and North Korea dates back decades.
North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung and China’s Chairman Mao Zedong created a bilateral alliance based on their friendship. Mao’s eldest son, Anying, died while fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War and his grave in Hoechang County, North Pyongan, is considered the symbol of the two countries’ “blood alliance.”
Kim Jong-il, Kim Il Sung’s successor, visited the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang a number of times when he was alive and dined with the Chinese ambassador and other diplomats. The visits were unconventional considering diplomatic protocols.
And despite his young age and inexperience, Kim Jong-un was able to take the reins after his father’s death because of China’s support. When he was named heir at just 26 years old in September 2010, China welcomed the decision.
Because the international community was strongly critical of the North’s third-generation power succession, China’s support was vital. After Kim Jong-il died in December 2011 and Kim Jong-un took power, the friendship between the North and China was maintained.
Those relations deteriorated, however, after the regime fired a long-range missile in December 2012 and conducted its third nuclear test in February 2013, despite Beijing’s attempts to dissuade it.
Feeling uncomfortable with the young leader’s unruly behavior, the Chinese leadership made a rare move by joining the United Nations’ sanctions against North Korea.
The Kim regime then challenged its most important ally by complaining that “a powerful concerned party had acted out of its mind.”
But the two countries’ friendship was damaged fatally when the young leader executed his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, in December. The North Korean court convicted Jang of “selling off the country’s underground resources to a foreign country at low prices,” enraging the Chinese leaders close to Jang.
The latest statistics also reveal more signs of the fraying nature of Chinese and North Korean ties. North Korea’s imports of Chinese grain during the first half of this year dropped to 58,387 tons, only 47 percent of that brought in during the same period last year.
China also did not export any oil to Pyongyang, though it’s possible that free assistance was given to the North off the record. The number of North Korean residents who visited China went down by 7.4 percent from last year as well.
BY LEE YOUNG-JONG, SER MYO-JA [firstname.lastname@example.org]