Liu’s significant trip to PyongyangWhen Liu Yunshan, the fifth-most senior member of the Communist Party of China, appeared next to Kim Jong-un on the rostrum in Pyongyang on Oct. 10, he provided us with answers to several of the uncertainties that have clouded analysis of North Korea. It was a big moment.
I have written before in this column that North Korea needed to find an international sponsor. For a while this summer it looked as if it might therefore seek a closer relationship with South Korea. But Liu’s appearance showed us that instead North Korea has, behind the scenes, been mending its fences with China. The appearance of such a senior member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese politburo , bearing a friendly letter from President Xi Jinping himself, standing - alone - next to Kim Jong-un, must have been the result of much patient and doubtless difficult negotiation between North Korea and China, that both sides managed to keep secret.
Liu Yunshan’s appearance answers two puzzles. Before the parade, many observers wondered why no world leaders had been invited. Part of the reason was that this was a party event, not a state event, so that protocol (with which the North Koreans are obsessed) dictated that only representatives of parties with which the Korean Workers’ Party had a relationship could be invited. There are not many of these, so straight away the number of possible invitees was limited. But beyond this it is now clear that, apart from wishing to impress his own people with the military might of the country that he rules, Kim Jong-un wanted the event to focus on the restored links between North Korea and China.
This meant that he wanted to invite China, and only China, to his party. So although protocol would have allowed the invitation of, for example, delegations from the European Communist parties, none were extended. Even craven “Friends of North Korea” from Europe who normally receive North Korean visas almost automatically were being told that it was not a convenient time to visit. The only exception, curiously, was a delegation from Cuba (although it did not appear in any of the television coverage). Even Russia was excluded. This is despite the facts that 2015 is North Korea and Russia’s so-called Year of Friendship, that traditionally North Korea has tried to keep at least two possible sponsors in play, and that the Russia-North Korea relationship is slowly expanding.
Although the decision not to invite Russia may have been eased by concerns that inviting members of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation might have annoyed President Putin (the Korean Workers’ Party has no links with Putin’s own political party) the complete absence of any Russian representation is striking and emphasizes the centrality of China in current North Korean planning.
Inviting only China allowed some striking images. The photographs of Kim Jong-un and Liu Yunshan alone in their dark suits, against a background of senior North Korean military in green uniforms, were carefully posed. Probably they were intended to be the obverse of the photographs of President Xi Jinping alongside President Park Geun-hye in Beijing on 3 September that must have so infuriated Pyongyang. As another protocol twist, Liu Yunshan was photographed holding talks with Choe Ryong-hae, the man who was so snubbed in Beijing. It must have been a sweet moment for the North Koreans.
It will take a while to find out what the new arrangement is between China and North Korea. Parts of the text of President Xi Jinping’s letter to Kim Jong-un have been released, and these, combined with Kim Jong-un’s speech, give some clues. There is good news and bad news. The good news is in Liu’s reported reference to a non-nuclear Korean peninsula in his discussions with Kim Jong-un, and in the latter’s unusual failure to mention his nuclear program in his speech, which also had only one reference to his byungjin (parallel development) policy. The Chinese do not seem publicly to have emphasized denuclearization as hard as they did when Li Yuanchao visited Pyongyang in 2013 (Kim Jong-un almost ignored him in public, in contrast to his treatment of Liu Yunshan).
But if the Chinese have nevertheless wrestled out of the North Koreans a commitment to halt or suspend their nuclear program, they are to be commended for this. If they have, though, I wonder whether their efforts will be any more successful than those of the United States. What measures would the Chinese have in place to make sure that the North Koreans do not run clandestine programs in defiance of any agreement they may have reached? If the agreement does indeed bind North Korea to halting its nuclear program then, curiously, China will have taken on the role played by the United States in the days of the Agreed Framework.
The bad news is the commitment to a close relationship. This is likely to mean that China will raise the level of support it offers to North Korea internationally, so that it will be more difficult from now on to implement effective sanctions against Pyongyang. Sadly, we may find that China seeks to blunt further critical United Nations Security Council resolutions on North Korea, and is less careful in its customs checks of goods entering and leaving North Korea. I doubt too that Oct. 10 was a good day for Korean reunification. The risk has risen that North Korea will drift closer to the People’s Republic of China and away from South Korea.
So what happens next?
Now that the threat of a missile launch has receded, it will be interesting to see whether the high-level talks, also agreed to on Aug. 25, now take place. China wants to reduce tension between the two Koreas and might well encourage Pyongyang to go along with this - though I doubt that Beijing would want the talks to lead to actual reunification.
Also, the chances of a visit to Beijing by Kim Jong-un - perhaps even in the next few weeks - have suddenly risen sharply (receiving Xi’s letter Kim Jong-un said that North Korea was willing to “continue the exchange of high-level visits”). That will be an event to watch closely, particularly if the two countries sign an agreement during such a top-level visit. If Kim does visit and this turns into a genuine exchange then we shall see a visit to Pyongyang by President Xi Jinping (or at the very least by Premier Li Keqiang). That would be a huge coup for Kim Jong-un.
Some observers have played down Liu’s visit because, they argue, if China had really wanted to signal a real change in relations then President Xi Jinping or Premier Li Keqiang would already have gone to Pyongyang on 10 October. But I think that this is a mis-reading. It is simply not China’s style to send top people right at the beginning of a process.
Also there is likely to be a new push to restart the six party talks. Liu Yunshan reportedly referred to this in his discussions with Kim Jong-un, and it may well be that it is the hope of renewed talks that has led North Korea to renew its calls for a peace treaty with the U.S. (on Oct. 1 in New York, and later that week again in its domestic broadcasts) in order to set out its stall in advance. None of this means though that the six party talks will restart, much less that there will be a peace treaty. The U.S., Japanese and South Korean positions on these issues have not changed and it seems unlikely that anything that happened on 10 October will change their minds.
Furthermore, it may be that there will be a shift in how the Chinese government machine handles North Korea in future. Wang Jiarui, the director of the International Liaison Department of the Chinese Communist Party, accompanied Liu Yunshan. This was Wang’s first visit since North Korea’s third nuclear test in 2013. Before then, his department had led within Beijing on relations with North Korea, but the third nuclear test prompted a harder line towards Pyongyang and a greater role for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Perhaps his return to Pyongyang signals that he is back in charge of the relationship.
Finally, what might China gain from an improved relationship with North Korea? In the first place, in a turbulent geopolitical situation, it shores up China’s only alliance and provides some insurance against Korean reunification on terms that might worry China. Secondly, it may well reduce the risk of North Korean missile or nuclear tests, which China detests as it regards them as destabilizing. Thirdly, it may give China the access to North Korean decision makers that it has lost over the last several years. It must have frustrated Beijing to have an unpredictable state on its border with insufficient contacts to understand what is going on inside Pyongyang. Apart from high-level exchanges we may also see the restart of working-level meetings between the two militaries and the two foreign ministries that have been in abeyance for some time.
Whatever the details, I suspect that we shall come to look back on October 10, 2015, as a significant date in the history of North Korea.
*The author is a former British Ambassador to Pyongyang.
by John Everard