Are Chinese–North Korean Ties Starting to Fray?

The special relationship of China and North Korea has stood for more than a half century, and they are now each others’ only formal military ally, but contacts between Beijing and Pyongyang appear now to be conducted at a lower level than during the time of Kim Jong Il, the ruler who died December 2011, and the contacts during his rule were lower than those at the time of his father, Kim Il Sung. During Kim Il Sung’s reign, diplomacy with China was conducted on a personal basis with Mao Zedong. These days it would appear that the Chinese might be having trouble keeping track of their only formal ally.

Beijing was clearly unnerved by the December execution of Jang Song Thaek, who was at the time considered the No. 2 official in Pyongyang. Jang, the uncle of ruler Kim Jong Un, may have been “a traitor to the nation for all ages,” as the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) called him, but he was China’s most influential contact in North Korea’s ruling circles. The Chinese leadership looks like it had no warning of Jang’s arrest or execution.

And the Kim regime appears to be downgrading relations with its primary benefactor. KCNA branded Jang’s business dealings with the Chinese as “crimes,” and it is almost certain that the state news agency was referring to the Chinese when it used the word “enemies” in its indictment of Jang. As Cai Jian of Fudan University told the South China Morning Post, there is a concern in Beijing that the North Koreans now do not place a high value on their ties with China.

Is China on the verge of a long-awaited shift in policy toward the North? Deputy Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin has just returned from a four-day visit to Pyongyang, and his mission comes on the heels of a delegation headed by another Foreign Ministry official, Xing Haiming, who traveled there in late January. Until now, the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party, rather than the Foreign Ministry, had been primarily responsible for dealing with the successive Kim regimes. “Communications with the International Department usually stresses more on the relationship between the ruling parties … and that usually conveys a sense that the two are brothers or allies,” said Cai. “With the involvement of the foreign ministry, it is more like nation-to-nation routine exchanges, stressing less on brotherly ties.”

Since as early as the era of Hu Jintao, the predecessor to current ruler Xi Jinping, Beijing has been trying to make this shift away from party-to-party ties, but the North Koreans have been resisting the change. The recent Foreign Ministry trips could signal Beijing’s determination to place diplomats, rather than party officials, at the center of Beijing-Pyongyang discussions.

Paradoxically, as the Chinese struggle with their North Korean relations, Washington is leaning on Beijing to use its influence to disarm Pyongyang. North Korea was the second-highest priority topic during Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Beijing this month, and there was no progress with the Chinese on this issue. At his “Solo Press Availability”—it was not a good sign that there was no joint press conference—Kerry did say that China “could not have more forcefully reiterated its commitment” to denuclearization, but then could not outline any specific steps it had agreed to take. All he could do was say Washington would consider Beijing’s proposals and Beijing would consider America’s.

Since about 2003, the beginning of the six-party denuclearization talks in Beijing, there has been an expectation in Washington that China would use its influence to push the North in better directions. That, for the most part, has not happened. Now, America’s general strategy seems even less promising, especially if Pyongyang and Beijing are pulling further apart.

At one time, it may have made sense to rely on Beijing to cajole the Kims, but now, especially after the Jang’s execution, it looks as if the Chinese may have no more influence in Pyongyang than we have. With China on the outs in the North’s ruling circles, we should be thinking about what we can do on our own.

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