China Trip Roundup: The Security Dimension

June 2, 2011 8:00 AM

Kim Jong Il undertook an “unofficial” trip to China from May 20-26 as a guest of Hu Jintao in his role as general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The trip exhibited a number of patterns we have seen on previous visits. First, Chinese officials and the Chinese press say things that are subtly different than what Kim Jong Il says directly or what the North Korean media reports. Second, Chinese pique at North Korea is thinly veiled behind aspirational statements that may or may not reflect what the North Korean leadership actually intends to do. Third and most importantly, the trips do not appear to yield anything concrete with respect to moving things forward; to the contrary, North Korea has come out swinging at the South over the last couple of days.

Let’s start with references to the moribund Six Party Talks. Agence France Press picked up on a China Central Television broadcast that purportedly quoted Kim Jong Il as saying “"We hope to ease the situation on the Korean peninsula, adhere to the goal of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula and call for the early resumption of the six-party talks." However, the Xinhua coverage of the trip, released only after KJI had left, is probably more authoritative:

“Kim said the DPRK is now concentrating its attention and resources on economic development, and it is in great need of a stable neighboring environment.

Kim said the DPRK hopes to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula, sticks to the objective of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and believes that the six-party talks should be resumed at an early date.

Kim said the DPRK, as always, sincerely hopes relations between the DPRK and the Republic of Korea (ROK) could be improved.

….

Kim said the DPRK appreciates China's efforts on pushing for the resumption of the six-party talks and safeguarding peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”

Reading this, you might think that KJI had recognized the importance of making progress on the 6PT in order to get economic reform going and that improving relations with Seoul would be necessary to do so.

But the KCNA version of events, offered up on May 26, tells a very different story. The vast majority of an extraordinarily long feature devoted to the trip (nearly 2500 words) emphasizes the strengthening of the Sino-DPRK relationship and the importance of “cooperation” (read investment, aid and political support). Putting words into Hu Jintao’s mouth, the KCNA claims that China is set to “inject fresh life and viability into the Sino-DPRK friendship and promote and put spurs to the development of the Sino-DPRK good neighborly relations of friendship and cooperation and boost them in wider dimension (sic)…”

On the economic front, there is little hint of a new course. Rather, the KCNA has Hu Jintao praising KJI for what he is already doing, including on both the security and economic front ("Hu Jintao highly appreciated the positive measures taken by the DPRK to defend stability and peace, develop economy (sic) and improve the standard of people's living...He supported the Party, government and people of the DPRK firmly preserving socialism and exploring the road of development suited to its reality..."

The passage dealing with the nuclear question took up a scant 50 words:

“Recognizing that the adherence to the goal of denuclearization on the whole Korean Peninsula, peaceful settlement of the issue through dialogue including the resumption of the six-party talks and the elimination of obstructive elements conform to the overall interests of Northeast Asia, the two sides shared views on making good understanding and coordination.”

Here are the poison pills in this short paragraph:

  • “Denuclearization on the whole peninsula” means that North Korea is not the only problem. Given that there are no other nuclear weapons on the peninsula, Pyongyang is still holding to the idea that the US nuclear umbrella must be addressed in some way. If this means security assurances of some sort, they can be negotiated; if it means weakening extended deterrence, it is not clear how that could be accomplished even in theory.
  • The piece does argue for a peaceful settlement through dialogue, but this only “includes” a resumption of the Six Party Talks. This means that other talks—ie., direct bilateral talks with the United States or peace regime talks—would also be required. Again, OK in principle but not if used as an excuse to delay resumption of the 6PT.
  • Contrary to Xinhua, the KCNA story makes no direct mention of South Korea. North Korea watchers are scratching their heads over the variety of things that might be meant by “eliminating obstructive elements.” But the most obvious candidate is the LMB government’s objection to a resumption of dialogue and aid unless the Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong are addressed and North Korea actually does something about its nuclear program. Chinese and DPRK views on the issue of North-South relations are, of course, closely guarded. But the Chosun Ilbo claims that Hu was straightforward with KJI, urging him to cool it. ("China believes that both sides must maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and uphold the goal of denuclearization, while maintaining objectivity and restraint in tackling obstacles and improving mutual relations.")

The next day (May 27), the KCNA released the full text of Kim Jong Il’s speech at the banquet with Hu Jintao, and it makes no mention of the nuclear issue specifically or even of any aspirations with respect to improving the security environment. (The WSJ’s China Real Time has a funny little piece on the sameness of these toasts over the course of the last three visits).

To the contrary, on May 30 the National Defense Commission released a blistering statement that it would have absolutely nothing to do with the LMB government at all. It also promised to cut the inter-Korean military communication cable in the East Sea, close a liaison office on Mt. Geumgang in the North, and attack South Korean groups engaging in psychological warfare near the inter-Korean border.

If the China trip was stage-managed to make some progress on the security issues, it is hard to see how it succeeded. Is Pyongyang venting in the wake of disappointment at the level of Chinese support offered?

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