‘Special relationship’ in focus as China’s Xi visits North Korea

Denuclearisation and economic issues to top agenda as Xi Jinping visits Pyongyang before his meeting with Donald Trump.

Kim in Beijing
President Xi is in North Korea for two days from Thursday, the first Chinese leader to visit in 14 years; North Korean leader Kim has made four visits to China since March 2018, most recently in January [KCNA via Reuters]

Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to hold talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after he arrived in Pyongyang in the first state visit by a Chinese president in 14 years.

Analysts say denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and Pyongyang’s failing economy in the wake of international sanctions are likely to top the agenda for the talks.

The Chinese president is meeting Kim for the fifth time since March last year. The two leaders will pay tribute to Chinese soldiers who fought for the North during the Korean War nearly 70 years ago.

In a front-page op-ed that was published in North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper in the run-up to the visit, Xi called for the “new development of relations” between China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official name for North Korea.

The trip highlights two-way ties that “never waver despite any headwinds” and strengthens “blood ties” between the two peoples, the Rodong Sinmun said in a front-page commentary on Thursday.

Xi’s two-day state visit aims to deepen long-standing ties between the two countries and convince Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons in lieu of economic aid.

The Chinese president is accompanied by his Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other officials and will push for his country’s role in nuclear diplomacy amid rising trade tensions with the United States.

Xi is due to meet US President Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Japan next week. He had returned recently from Moscow, where he held talks and celebrated his birthday with Russian President Vladimir Putin over cake, ice cream and champagne.

In May, Kim had also met Putin, as the two men discussed the collapse of his second summit with Trump in February.

“There’s a (diplomatic) role for China to play because I think North Korea itself is willing to offer some additional concessions,” said Tong Zhou, an expert in China-North Korea relations at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing.

“China, using its ‘special relationship’, can help provide a face-saving way for North Korea to soften its position.”

Economic struggle

When Xi and Kim last met in Beijing in January, the North Korean leader promised to “achieve results” at his second summit with Trump held in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi.

That summit broke down with North Korea apparently pushing for too many concessions and the US unwilling to relax sanctions.

This time, Xi might try to nudge Kim back to the table, perhaps based on a plan worked out with Russia, according to analysts. He would then be able to relay Kim’s response to Trump in Japan.

Trade between China and North Korea has persisted despite China’s support for sanctions, which were tightened in 2017 and are having an increasing effect on the country.

While the DPRK does not release economic data, William Brown, an academic at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a non-resident scholar at the Korea Economic Institute of America, says trade between North Korea and China has fallen to “very depressed” levels.

China’s imports from North Korea were just $54.6m in the first three months of 2019, while exports were $455m, about half the average in the quarters before the stricter regime was introduced. 

Nevertheless, China remains North Korea’s largest trading partner, buying up 90 percent of its exports – including coal and textiles – and providing 94 percent of the country’s imports, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, an MIT trade data project.

The data suggests North Korea’s trade dependency on China has only grown – back in 2010, China’s share of exports was only 42 percent and imports 53 percent.

For China, the goal of even limited economic cooperation is to maintain stability on the peninsula and prevent the regime’s collapse.

Some 10 million North Koreans, about 40 percent of the population, are facing “severe food shortages” after the worst harvest on record, according to a United Nations assessment that was released in May.

In the 1990s, a famine killed as many as 2.4 million people in North Korea. China, as well as Japan, the US and South Korea, have been providing food aid to the country ever since.

Chinese assistance has also tended to coincide with major visits, including Xi’s last trip to North Korea in 2008 when he was the vice president.

China Dandong bridge
The Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge has become a major tourist attraction [File: Dake Kang/AP]

Tourism potential

But analysts say Xi is likely to look beyond direct aid to offer the kind of face-saving economic initiatives that would preserve North Korean pride despite its economic difficulties.

“Xi Jinping has to tread carefully,” said Youngshik Bong, a research fellow and expert on North Korea at Yonsei University. “China has to maintain the sanctions regime, but it also must give something to Kim Jong Un and incentivise him into further denuclearisation efforts.”

Such measures could include “people-to-people” exchanges and expanding tourism.

Youngshik said more visitors from the mainland could be a potential “cash cow” to the North, particularly as it looks to address a foreign currency gap triggered by a sanctions-mandated reduction in North Korean workers sent overseas. Both China and Russia have said they will stop hiring North Koreans by December.

In April, China finally opened a long-completed bridge along the Yalu River, which runs along much of the 1,400km long border between the two countries. The bridge between the city of Jian and North Korea’s Manpo was finished in 2016.

Closer to the mouth of the river, the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge connecting Dandong in China with Sinuiju in North Korea has become a major tourist attraction.

Mao Zedong once described the relationship between China and North Korea like “lips and teeth” and while informal trade has long been a hallmark of the border, the government in Beijing has more recently sought to showcase the benefits of economic liberalisation and rapid growth to North Korea’s leaders.

“China ultimately wants stability from the Korean Peninsula,” said Adam Ni, a China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney. “But this stability is one in which China is the key player in determining the region’s fate. It wants good relations with the Koreas; it wants to keep the US off balance on the Korean Peninsula, and it wants to preserve a relatively stable border in its northeast.”

The focus on stability suggests there are limits to how far China is prepared to go in order to revive the stalled nuclear talks.

North Korea may be increasingly dependent on China economically, but China’s leverage exists largely in theory.

“For China to cut off that economic lifeline, it will have to give up a decades-long relationship with the DPRK and risk turning a nuclear-armed North Korea against it,” said Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre’s Tong.

“China cares about its own security and it is not going to put itself in the crosshairs of North Korea to help the US.”

Source: Al Jazeera