Chinese president Xi visits North Korea

Published : 02 Jul 2019 06:11 PM | Updated : 07 Sep 2020 09:13 PM

Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and President of the People's Republic of China (PRC), arrived in Pyongyang by his personal plane on 20 June to pay a state visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The Chinese President was there on the invitation of Kim Jong-Un, Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). This was China's President Xi Jinping’s first Chinese state visit to the North since 2005. The two, have met in China four times, but this was the first time in North Korea. Mr Xi's two-day visit assumed particular importance as this was also the first by any Chinese leader to North Korea in 14 years and the first by President Xi since taking power in 2012. It was also Xi’s first meeting with Kim since the Trump-Kim meeting in Hanoi in February this year (that ended without any agreement on North Korean denuclearization).

The importance attached to this visit by China was underlined by the Chinese government through the composition of their high level delegation. This was apparently done because China is very important to North Korea, as its main trading partner. There was also a silent signal in this context from China to the USA. Xi Jinping was accompanied by his wife Peng Liyuan and also by Ding Xuexiang, Member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, Yang Jiechi, Member of the Political Bureau and Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee, Wang Yi, State Councilor and Foreign Minister of the PRC, He Lifeng, Vice Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and Head of the National Development and Reform Committee, Song Tao, Head of the International Liaison Department of the CPC Central Committee, Zhong Shan, Minister of Commerce of PRC and Miao Hua, Director of the Political Affairs Department of the Central Military Commission of the PRC.

Analysts have pointed out that the visit at this juncture and its nature also indirectly drew reference to the fact that the 70th anniversary of the two countries establishing diplomatic ties is approa­ching. Jenny Town, Managing Editor of US-based analysis site 38 North, has in this context pointed out there might be also some "symbolic value" in the visiting taking place just before the G20 Summit scheduled to take place in Japan.

It may be mentioned that these two communist-led states are old allies. However, ties have been strained over the past decade, with Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions viewed critically by Beijing. The media reported that the official China Daily newspaper indicated on 19 June that the visit would allow the two leaders to "agree on some concrete co-operation projects". A front page editorial in North Korea's Rodong Sinmun newspaper however on that day went a little further. They pointed out that President Xi had reiterated his support for nuclear talks, saying: "China supports North Korea for maintaining the right direction in resolving the issue of the Korean peninsula politically." 

Consequently, it is being thought that this visit, whatever the confidential agenda will enable Kim to show that he still has China's support, as other relationships are struggling. It may be added here that North Korea has already been warned for trying to evade UN sanctions and that their economy is struggling under the international sanctions regime, put in place because of its repeated nuclear and missile tests. China, its biggest trading partner, has backed those sanctions but has indicated that it would be in favor of some sanctions relief as an incentive for North Korea to denuclearize.

It is understood that the bilateral discussions at this high level inevitably discussed the stalled nuclear negotiations and the collapse of the Hanoi summit. European analysts have remarked that Xi wanted to know what happened and whether any way could be agreed upon to move things forward. Presumably, this track was used so that China could receive information which could then be shared if Xi meets Mr Trump in Japan during the coming G20 Summit.

North Korean authorities have informed that both Kim Jong-Un and Xi Jinping, in their review of the existing bilateral situation pointed out to the joint struggle being carried out by the peoples of the two countries in advancing the cause of socialist construction against the backdrop of the peoples of the two countries, celebrating the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the DPRK and China. Both sides agreed on making positive joint efforts to promote close strategic communication between the two parties and the two countries, deepen mutual understanding and trust, maintain the tradition of high-level visit and strengthen exchange and cooperation in every sector. The two leaders also exchanged views on important international and regional matters including the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. In this regard, there was consensus that there has to be efforts to promote regional peace, stability, co-prosperity and development now that serious and complicated changes are happening in international and regional situations. This last aspect will hopefully be carefully taken note of by the United States, Japan and South Korea.

One needs to understand that China's attaches importance not only to stability in North Korea and economic co-operation but also in ensuring that it remains a significant party in the negotiations over North Korea's nuclear programme. North Korean analyst Peter Ward has mentioned in this regard-"China has proved to be the main destination for most of North Korea's exports, including minerals, fish, textiles, and also workers." Beijing traditionally is also the main importer of goods for North Korea's industry and households. Under current sanctions, a lot of this trade has come to a halt. Ward thinks that "China would prefer to relax UN sanctions in these areas. It wants to ensure that North Korea's economy grows at a fair pace and that the North does not feel the need to test ballistic missiles and/or nuclear weapons again." However, other observers have commented that given that sanctions are not likely to get lifted soon, there is little China can do. Professor Kim Hyun-wook, from the Korea National Diplomatic Academy has however told Reuters that Chinese economic support - possibly even China creating a "hole" in sanctions - would mean Kim "does not have to negotiate with the US from a position of weakness" and that North Korea" can have both nuclear weapons and economic aid from China".  

The electronic media has highlighted the enthusiastic cheers witnessed in every street of Pyongyang by its citizens. DPRK has claimed that it reflected the deep and friendly feelings of the Party and people of the DPRK toward the Chinese party and people. However the western media has commented that, as usual, it was very well orchestrated by the North Korean authorities.

At a time when serious and complicated changes are taking place within the geo-strategic paradigm, this visit to North Korea by the Chinese leader, ahead of the G 20 Summit in Osaka has different connotations.

Xi flew back to China on 21 June- after a very short visit. However he was able to use the trip as a signal to US President Trump that he had influence over the North Korean leader and that needed to be taken into account. Through this move he was able to denote that while their economies are embroiled in a protracted trade war, there are areas where China can help in promoting regional peace and also play a significant role within the matrix of the nuclear negotiations that are currently deadlocked between North Korea and the United States. This visit also drew attention to the fact that movement forward in the de-nuclearization effort was possible with some easing-off on the question of the existing sanctions regime. The Chinese State broadcaster CCTV has reported in this regard that Kim was “willing to be patient” in the talks with the US, but wanted “the parties concerned” to meet him halfway.

 Jeung Young-tae, Director of the North Korean Studies in Seoul, has remarked that this bilateral Summit has amounted to China giving Kim strong backing in this de-nuclearization process. Jeung has told AFP that “Xi is saying that he will help Kim resist pressure from the US and calling on Kim to stick to his demands”. It is also being suggested by some other analysts that this evolving paradigm is directed towards Pyongyang calling on Washington to adopt “a new method of calculation” for the negotiations”. In such a situation, the shadow of Xi’s visit is expected to help the US in its endeavors.

In this context it would be important to note that after Xi’s visit it has been revealed by the media that the North Korea leader Kim Jong-un had received recently a personal letter from US President Donald Trump with an “excellent” content.

It may also be recalled that earlier in June Mr Trump had also stated that a beautiful letter had been sent to him by the North Korean leader. It has however not been disclosed by the White House or Pyongyang when or how Mr Trump's letter to Mr Kim was delivered. The timing of these letters was nevertheless noteworthy given the fact that Donald Trump was due to visit Seoul after the G-20 Summit  to hold talks with the South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Discussions between Chinese President Xi and President Trump in Osaka, Japan on the sidelines during the G-20 Summit appear to have also persuaded President Trump to propose the shaking of hands between himself and the North Korean leader Kim at the DMZ border between South and North Korea. This was symbolic but this handshake and the crossing over into DPRK across the DMZ by a sitting US President for the first time on 30 June was followed by a hour-long meeting. This and a tripartite discussion that included the South Korean President has helped fuel the idea that it will lead to another substantive meeting between the leaders of USA and DPRK to take forward the path towards eventual deneuclearization of North Korea. Both the US and the DPRK leaders have already invited the other to visit Washington and Pyongyang.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance .