Two men holding North Korean and Chinese flags near Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang on June 20, 2019, as Chinese President Xi Jinping visits the country. Photo: AFP/Ed Jones

In a significant gesture to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday became the first Chinese president to visit Pyongyang since 2005.

Xi’s two-day trip – he last visited North Korea when he was vice-president in 2008 – appears to be a diplomatic gift to Kim. The two have previously met four times, each time in China.

The trip comes at a time when both leaders are engaged in separate confrontations with Washington – Beijing in an ever-intensifying trade war, Pyongyang in a deadlocked process that purportedly aims at denuclearizing and establishing a peace process on the flashpoint peninsula.

However, according to Chinese state media, the main aim of the trip, which celebrates the 70th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two capitals, is economic. Although China is North Korea’s key economic partner, there are significant commercial tensions between the two.

About 10,000 North Koreans lined up at the airport in Pyongyang, waving flowers and chanting slogans to welcome Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, who were greeted by Kim and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, China’s Xinhua news agency reported. Following a 21-gun salute, Xi headed downtown by motorcade, with hundreds of thousands of people lining the route.

Oddly, and even though some sources suggest that Kim and Xi will engage in talks on Thursday, and in more high-profile ceremonials on Friday, Thursday’s visit was not accompanied by the kind of live footage expected during such a high-profile meet and greet.

But while Kim might have been expected to make significant capital out of such a high-profile visit to his capital, transparency is not a priority for either leader. Their agenda was not revealed in advance, and details of their talks are unlikely to be revealed, though snippets are expected to appear in the state media in both countries.

Some pundits suggest the lack of footage was a deliberate ploy by Xi to pique interest in Washington.

Political alignments

Xi’s trip certainly looks well timed.

For one thing, he could use a safe diplomatic win. Beijing appears to have been caught wrong-footed by massive protests in Hong Kong, which led to the suspension of legislation which would allow extraditions to the mainland. The protests were the biggest show of resistance to Beijing’s rule since the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997.

Moreover, the visit comes only one week before the G20 leaders meet in Osaka, Japan. Xi is facing serious economic pressure amid an escalating trade war with Washington and if he can insert himself more into the Korean peninsula denuclearization process, that could offer him leverage with US President Donald Trump.

On Wednesday, the day prior to the visit, the Rodong Shinmun, or Labor Newspaper – the North’s leading media outlet, ran a front-page op-ed by Xi in which the Chinese president signaled his intention to raise his profile in peninsula issues.

“We will actively contribute to regional peace, stability, development and prosperity by strengthening communication and coordination with North Korea and other relevant parties to make progress in talks and negotiations on Korean Peninsula issues,” Xi wrote.

While South Korean President Moon has failed to progress as an intermediary between Pyongyang and Washington, Xi has more muscle as a go-between. Trump is reliant upon Xi – whose nation provides North Korea with an economic lifeline – to enforce UN Security Council sanctions along the North Korea border, and is likely to seek Xi’s insight into Kim’s thinking.

Trump’s own negotiations with Kim have been at a standstill since the former “walked” at a summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February. There have been neither high-level nor working-level meetings between the two sides since.

Although little information is expected to trickle out of the talks, likely areas of political discussion will include the now-stalled denuclearization process, their postures toward Washington and sanctions relief.

“I think North Korea is going to seek Chinese endorsement for its current political approach,” said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korean specialist at Seoul’s Asan Institute. “I think China will keep enforcing UN sanctions, but is going to turn a blind eye to illicit transports of oil and other stuff – China will continue its narrow interpretation of sanctions resolutions.”

Economic conflicts

Officially, however, the main theme of the leaders’ talks will be economic.

Beijing state-run China Daily editorialized on Thursday: “The aim of Xi’s visit … is to deepen cooperation, so as to help [North Korea] to accelerate its economic growth now that it has made economic development its priority. Beijing can share its experience of reform and opening-up with Pyongyang, and the two neighbors can seek broader economic cooperation, which will benefit not only [North Korea] but also the whole of Northeast Asia.”

That could be significant. Bilateral relations were derailed in 2013 when Kim ordered the execution of Jang Song Taek, Kim’s uncle and a senior official with close economic ties to Beijing.

Moreover, in recent years, despite North Korean entreaties, Chinese businesses – while happily trading with North Korea – have made minimal investments outside such low-tech areas as coal mining. They have also shown minimal interest in Pyongyang’s grand plans for Special Economic Zones, Theo Clement, Research Associate with King College London, told a Seoul conference on Wednesday.

However, there are commercial tensions due to North Korea’s extreme reliance on China. There is “no alternative partner to China, which gives them extreme leverage to ask for lower prices on North Korea supply,” Clement said.

The visit could smooth over some of these issues.

“This visit marks the 70th birthday of bilateral diplomatic relations, and when you go to a birthday party at someone’s house, you don’t go empty-handed,” said Lee Seong-hyon, a China-North Korea specialist at Seoul’s Sejong Institute.

“Every time a Chinese leader visited Pyongyang – five times, though there may have been secret visits – they bring a lot of presents and gifts. It is customary.”

Lee noted that over the last year and a half, North Korean officials have been visiting Chinese cities and agencies to study economic reforms. He speculated that Xi might offer Kim sanctions relief, economic aid and humanitarian aid, as well as possibly some kind of deal as the main outcome of the state visit.

He warned, however, that such deals – particularly if they involve sanctions – are unlikely to be aired in public, but would remain behind closed doors.

Deliberate opacity

There are indications that North Korea may have initially wanted international publicity, but been warned off by China.

A source in Seoul told Asia Times that major global networks had been invited to cover the events in Pyongyang by North Korean authorities, but invitations were withdrawn just prior to the reporting teams’ departure.

Another source at one of those major broadcasters told Asia Times that despite careful monitoring, no footage from either China or North Korea had appeared by late afternoon on Thursday.

Regarding the lack of footage from the early hours of the trip – including Xi’s arrival in Pyongyang – Go suggested that Beijing was making the visit deliberately low profile to avoid roiling delicate relations with mercurial US President Donald Trump. “I think China wants to tone down the symbolism,” Go said.

“Keeping the global audience in the darkness is very typical of China-North Korean intrigue,” added Lee. Given Trump’s thirst for knowledge about Kim, “It is to Xi’s advantage to pique curiosity, and Xi can use it as leverage,” Lee added. “This is a typical ploy by two ‘socialist brothers’ – we are being played!”

Beijing’s gift to Pyongyang?

In the month prior to the meeting, Beijing cracked down on the “Underground Railroad” – the network of activists, brokers or paid people smugglers and NGOs who convey North Korean defectors through China and, eventually, to South Korea.

At least 30 escapees have been rounded up since mid-April, Reuters reported. The apparent crackdown included – highly unusually – raids on safe houses, and also included action against, not only escapees, but also those who were assisting them.

“There does seem to be a crackdown. It has effected quite a lot of people, not just North Korean refugees, but the people helping them,” Sokeel Park told Asia Times. “I would hesitate to say it is completely unprecedented, but it is a spike compared to recent years.”

Still, it is impossible for outsiders to say if the apparent crackdown is linked to Xi’s trip to Pyongyang.

“It is hard to say whether this is a diplomatic calculation or a bureaucratic thing, it is hard to get inside the Chinese party and government machinery,” said Park. “There are different factors that go into these decisions, but there is definitely cooperation with North Korean authorities, as – at the end of the day – they are handing people over to North Korean security officials.”

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