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Kim Jong-Il’s China Visit, Cheonan, Future of SPT and China’s Role

Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • May 11, 2010

    The North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il made a “secret” visit to China on 3 May 2010 in a special train amidst mystery about the composition and purpose of the visit. At a time when the security situation in the Korean Peninsula is undergoing fluctuations in the wake of mounting tensions over the sinking of a South Korean warship, Cheonan, and the suspected North Korean hand in it, several readings are being made by analysts on the visit itself.

    When the reclusive leader ventures outside his hermit kingdom, in particular to a country which has been his most important ally, it is often speculated that he is in need of something. Kim Jong-Il’s wish-list may be long. There are several speculations: he may be seeking protection from international sanctions, Beijing’s blessing on his youngest son who has been chosen as his successor, besides economic assistance to support the country’s faltering economy.

    This is Kim’s first visit in more than four years to China, which has been the main source of money, food and fuel. Kim Jong-Il visited China four times since 2000, but not since January 2006 and months before North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October that year. Kim has a dislike for travelling by air and each time he has travelled to China by train. Each of his China trips has remained shrouded in mystery and only formally announced after the visit is over. The last nine-day trip was Kim’s second longest overseas journey since his 24-day visit to Russia in 2001.

    Besides requesting for money, Kim is aware that China enjoys huge clout in the international community, especially on the UN Security Council, where China can play an important role in fending off crippling economic sanctions. In fact, when North Korea detonated the first device in October 2006, it was only because Chinese pressure, the UN Security Council issued a toothless and non-binding “presidential statement”. Therefore Kim is fully aware that if Pyongyang succeeds to remain strong and withstand international pressure, its relations with China has to remain special and important. It is also rumoured that Kim’s youngest son Kim Jong-un joined his father as a part of his political training, in particular how to handle China. His leadership training which was confined on domestic affairs was widened to cover foreign affairs as well. If it is true that the junior Kim travelled to China with his father, it would remain unclear for a while whether he was introduced to the Chinese leadership as the official heir to the North’s throne. It is possible that North Korean leader is quietly looking for an endorsement from China on Kim Jong-un as the successor. According to Scott Snyder, an expert on North Korea with the Asia Foundation, China might prefer to “wait and see who actually emerges as the successor” and then try to work with that person.

    Among the important members who travelled to China with Kim Jong-Il, were Kim Yang-gon, the head of the party’s propaganda operations, and Workers Party Secretary Choe Thae-bok. Kim Yang-gon has extensive connections with China and accompanied the North Korean leader on his first and second trip to China. Also in the team were Kang Sok-chu, the first vice foreign minister who is in charge of North Korea’s relations with the US and handling North Korea’s strategy at the Six-Party Talks (SPT) on denuclearization. Kang too joined Kim Jong-Il on three of his four previous trips to China. Also in the team were Kim Yong-il who is in charge of international affairs and an old China hand, and Jon Il-chun, the head of North Korea’s state development bank in charge of attracting foreign investment and chief manager of Kim Jong-Il’s slush fund.

    North Korea and China enjoy a special relationship since the Korean War and this relationship has only strengthened over the years. The late Mao Tse-tung once described the bilateral relationship as “close as lips and teeth”. Analysts see a chance for China to use the current trip to press the reclusive leader to return to the Six-Party nuclear disarmament talks he quit in April 2009 in return for aid. North Korea has suffered from persistent food shortage after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and since then China has bailed out the hermit kingdom with food, aid and fertilizer. But in view of the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan warship and suspected North Korean hand, SPT is unlikely to restart until suspicion is resolved. For record, it may be mentioned that Cheonan was ripped apart by an external explosion, killing 46 sailors, and South Korea has not directly accused the North over the incident. On 17 April, North Korea denied responsibility, saying it had nothing to do with the sinking of the patrol ship.

    China as a member of the SPT and a close ally of North Korea has to deal responsibly. China is getting increasingly frustrated with its old ally as Pyongyang’s behaviour is a matter of concern for maintaining stability in the region. It is believed that Kim’s trip to China was originally scheduled for early April but was delayed following the Cheonan sinking incident. China was careful as others would have seen it supporting North Korea’s action as Kim travelled to Beijing soon after the incident.

    It looked strange that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was in China three days before Kim’s visit during which Lee solicited Chinese support if South Korea sought stronger UN sanctions in retaliation for the Cheonan attack. It thus turned out into a diplomatic battle being waged between the two Koreas. Kim is unlikely to discuss the Cheonan incident as part of the official agenda as that would be interpreted to admitting North Korea’s role in the sinking. Given the nature of secrecy, that would not be known even if the issue is on the agenda.

    There are other views on this. One view says that China is keen to hear first hand North Korea’s explanation before it determines its position. China is keen that Pyongyang returns to the SPT framework and is likely to press Kim to return so that the issue of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program can be discussed in earnest. Beijing hosts the SPT. The forum, which includes Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US, last met in December 2008.

    North Korea’s economic situation continues to slide downward and the regime faces a serious threat of collapse following the botched currency reform in November 2009. This triggered massive public unrest and resulted in catastrophic failure. North Korea faces a food shortage of around 1 million tons. Apart from being its main political ally, China is also North’s largest trading partner. North Korea posted a record trade deficit of $1.3 billion with China in 2008, and China accounted for 73 per cent of its total international commerce. According to state-run Korea Development Institute, Seoul, bilateral trade volume is estimated to have dropped 4 per cent in 2008. This was because failed currency reform resulted in foreign exchange shortage. However, if China discovers that North Korea was behind the sinking of Cheonan, it not only might refuse food aid but also may be constrained to help North Korea to get food aid from international organizations.

    The Cheonan incident came at a very inopportune time for North Korea, irrespective of the fact whether Pyongyang had any hand in it or not. Had this unfortunate incident not happened, China could have probably tried at least to pull off a diplomatic victory by getting North Korea back to the negotiating table in return for economic support. Now both the US and South Korea have taken the position that till the results of the investigation of the shipwreck are available, talks in the SPT framework cannot be resumed.

    Though Pyongyang has denied any involvement, it would be presumptuous of China if it accepts Pyongyang’s denial at its face value and resumed aid. Not only would that undermine the UN resolution imposing sanctions following the May 25 nuclear test but would also expose China to embarrassment if subsequently North Korea’s complicity is established.

    South Korea was not too pleased that China did not inform Seoul of Kim’s visit. Though China had no obligation to do that, not mentioning during Lee-Hu summit three days before Kim’s visit looked odd. Also appeared odd was that Chinese President Hu Jintao conveyed condolences and sympathy to the bereaved families of the dead crewmen of the Cheonan during the summit meeting 35 days after the vessel sank. South Korea felt China was insensitive to its South Korean loss. Beijing accepted Kim’s visit four day’s after Lee left China. Many in South Korea felt that had Hu taken into consideration Seoul’s anger over the sinking seriously even without conclusive proof, Hu would have rejected Kim’s visit. Leading politicians in Seoul were dismayed over Hu’s acceptance of Kim’s visit. They felt, when results on the investigation are still awaited, China was helping Pyongyang to return to the global stage.

    However, political parties in South Korea are split over Kim’s China trip. The ruling conservative Grand National Party (GNP) asserts that China bears partial responsibility on the Cheonan sinking incident and expectedly disapproved Kim’s China sojourn. The left of the centre Democratic Party, on the other hand, hoped that China might use this opportunity to persuade Kim to go for the path of market economy and it serves as a new breakthrough in restarting the SPT. Like the US, the Lee administration, however, has taken the position that restarting the SPT can only come after the Cheonan incident has been settled.

    In view of the Cheonan sinking incident and Pyongyang’s tough stance, any hope for the resumption of talks within the SPT framework, if there were any, has further receded to the background. If China still overlooks reservations from South Korea and the US and succeeds in drawing back Pyongyang to the SPT, there is no guarantee that North Korean regime would not keep escalating tensions along its borders with South Korea.

    It is to be noted that North Korea recently seized possession and later confiscated South Korean government assets in the Mt. Geumgang tourist resort, bringing the tourist operation to a close. North Korea is also leveraging its stake in the Kaesong Industrial Complex to put pressure on the South. If North Korea’s economic engagement with China becomes stronger, the future of Kaesong Industrial Complex will remain uncertain. According to Choi Choon Heum, a research analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification, Kim’s visit to China “looks as though China has pushed for Kim’s visit to the country”. He further says that it could be because China “will want to know the whole story” of the Cheonan sinking. Some analysts hold the view that if North Korea indeed torpedoed Cheonan, as many in South Korea suspect, Pyongyang was probably avenging its military’s humiliating defeat in a naval skirmish with the South in November 2009 and therefore trying to gain some ground in diplomacy. As said, though South Korea suspects North Korea, it has not formally blamed the North and says that ship was struck most likely by a torpedo.

    China may use economic aid as a catalyst without tolerating any more distractions to the resumption of the SPT and even admonish North Korea over its recent actions regarding Mt. Geumgang. If this is China’s real strategy, can one hope that North Korea returns to the SPT framework and start talking on the denuclearization issue notwithstanding the stances of South Korea and the US over the Cheonan sinking issue?

    That leaders from both the Koreas visited China one after the other demonstrated China’s growing influence on the Korean peninsula. If South Korea wants to punish the North, it has to have the cooperation from China. As regards North Korea, as its relations with the South is already strained, its dependence on China for economic aid has increased. Either way, China’s role seems to be critical. For its own part, China would always work towards preventing the implosion of the Pyongyang regime in order to keep possible instability on its border under check.

    Though the US had expressed hope earlier that China will be able to convince North Korea back to take part again in the SPT, the Cheonan incident has changed the US position. Should North Korea be overtly linked to the Cheonan, then it is unlikely the US will be interested in negotiating with Pyongyang for some time. Under the circumstance, the future of SPT seems destined to remains uncertain for quite some time.