By Emre Tunç Sakaoğlu
It is no secret that relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have been strained for the last three years, especially since the young Kim Jong-un took the helm of North Korea in late 2012, only months after which the secluded nation carried out its third and most powerful nuclear test. With China assuming a leadership role in the implementation of the UN Security Council sanctions targeting the recalcitrant Pyongyang, relations between the so-called ‘blood allies’ were shaken to their foundations according to many observers. Against such a backdrop, a series of subsequent missile launches by the North Korean military that followed the same year have only made things worse.
A deepening rift
Meanwhile, the heated political rivalry within the Korean Workers’ Party between the fragile pro-reform clique and the conservative inner-circle – i.e. the spin-doctors of the Kim dynasty which continue to prey on scarce national resources through implicit channels despite long-crippled public finances – culminated in the purge and the subsequent December 2013 execution of Jang Song-thaek, Kim’s assertive uncle who had solid commercial ties and political affinity with top authorities in Beijing. Considered by Beijing as the last remaining flicker of hope for the “smooth” rationalization of the North Korean political economy, Jang was ironically accused of “wasting” and “selling out” North Korea’s natural resources by offering foreign partners prices below market rates. Not surprisingly, shockwaves immediately hit Pyongyang’s traditionally-robust economic ties with Beijing as well, completely dashing the prospect for the first-ever bilateral summit that could have taken place in the months ahead between China’s new president Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un.
The multifaceted trend of divergence between Pyongyang and Beijing was once more blatantly demonstrated by the harsh wording of an internal decree that was issued by the central committee of the Korean Workers’ Party in April 2014. The official text denounced China’s policies under Xi Jinping and their central concept, the “Chinese Dream”, daringly accusing Pyongyang’s main economic and political patron of “getting into bed with imperialists”. Apparently, the bilateral relationship was tenser than ever, so much so that Xi Jinping paid a state visit to Seoul in the following months, without visiting Pyongyang. By not doing so, he thereby broke a long-held diplomatic tradition of highly symbolic importance. Indeed, he has met with South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye six times since both leaders came to power in 2012.
According to Dong-A Ilbo, a leading South Korean media outlet, the number of mutual exchanges in human resources and military delegations between North Korea and China were down by one-third from a year ago in 2014; while the number of bilateral economic exchanges hit rock bottom after Kim Jong-un came to power. That was mainly due to the fact that the prolonged reign of the Kim dynasty itself, under which Pyongyang has been defying Chinese calls to abort an aggressive nuclear program and has even halted much-needed economic reforms by purging the pro-Chinese Jang Song-thaek, began to be seen as the main obstacle thwarting a possible revitalization of the relationship in the long-run.
North Korea: strategically indispensable
However, China could not afford to sacrifice a long-established strategic pillar like North Korea, which nevertheless continues to play a key role as both a major military ally in Northeast Asia and a strong buffer against the U.S.-led alliances in the region marked by American military installations in South Korea and Japan. And it is clear that the Kim dynasty is here to stay, holding on to power as persistently as ever. Seeing this, China has been seeking a fresh start with North Korea for the last couple of months, trying to amend the recently damaged ties with the rogue regime as it comes to feel the effects of a steep decline in its traditionally-prevalent influence over Pyongyang. In this direction, Beijing made two timely moves through which, while rightfully attracting Pyongyang’s attention in a light-footed fashion, it managed to avert both “swallowing its words” and upsetting other relevant actors like Russia and South Korea.
Firstly, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi signaled that President Xi Jinping is considering a bilateral summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, during a press conference following the annual session of the National People’s Congress early last March. Here, the Chinese FM emphasized the “traditional friendship” that underlies the “blood alliance” between Beijing and Pyongyang, hinting at the Chinese government’s policy reorientation towards North Korea. And secondly, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced Beijing’s plan to hold a military parade on September 3 to mark the 70th anniversary of WWII in Asia later that month. According to the relevant statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Chinese President Xi Jinping will oversee the parade and related events, which include a reception and an evening gala. The events may be the first-ever foreign trip made by Kim Jong-un as president, considering that he attended neither the Asia-Africa Meeting in Indonesia last April nor the May 9 events in Moscow and despite his apparently urgent desire to show up at a high-profile multilateral setting.
Choosing ‘September 3’ over ‘May 9’
Anonymous diplomatic sources quoted by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency said last month that Pyongyang is either already invited to the upcoming events in question, or will eventually receive an invitation thereto. Previously, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated at a regular briefing in Beijing that all the parties involved in the Asian front of WWII are invited to the September events, but it refrained from further elaborating on North Korea’s attendance. Nevertheless, it would be accurate to assume that Kim will most probably attend. The WWII commemorations will certainly be his first – and maybe only – opportunity to meet in person with Xi in the near future, and to demonstrate solidarity with traditional friends – i.e. China and Russia – in the face of the U.S. and Japan before a global audience. Because the highly speculative question of which destination he’d choose for his first foreign visit has long been receiving wide coverage in the international media, he may even feel obliged to attend the Beijing events in order not to spoil his last chance to play the nuclear “drama queen”.
Moreover, Kim’s attendance in the war memorial parade in Beijing that is scheduled to take place this September can even reinvigorate the Six-Party Talks – the multilateral talks aimed at dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities – that were stalled over sampling issues in late 2008. That is because Chinese FM Wang Yi extended an invitation to the WWII commemoration events to South Korean President Park Geun-hye during an official visit to Seoul late last March. Like Kim, Park previously rejected Moscow’s invitation to the May 9 events, and she has every reason to stand in solidarity with the winners of WWII against “Japanese aggression”. Taking advantage of the larger regional context, China may prove cunning enough to position itself at the center of regional diplomacy, and leave the leaders – or at least the top representatives – of Russia, the U.S., and even Japan no chance but to settle for such fait accompli.
Considering that Japan and South Korea, which otherwise tend to regard each other with disfavor, are pushed together due to North Korea’s endless provocations; Beijing could not be more interested in convincing Park to attend the events. Beijing also believes that in case Park accepts China’s intermediation and meets with Kim in Beijing, the U.S. administration will have a hard time convincing South Korea to install THAAD – an advanced missile defense system which nominally targets North Korea but ultimately threatens China’s deterrence capacity. In the final analysis, there is no doubt that both Koreas as well as China will benefit greatly from Beijing’s diplomatic proactivism in the upcoming months, as it aims to lay the foundation of an ultimate regional security scheme. The question of whether the U.S. and Japan, or even Russia, which may feel circumvented by its once “junior” ally, will like the idea still raises controversy. Yet this will be irrelevant if China succeeds.
Endnotes Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, “China-North Korea Relations: Jang Song-thaek’s Purge vs. the Status-quo,” China Analysis, no. 47 (2014): 1-4.  Zachary Keck, “North Korea Slams Xi Jinping and the Chinese Dream,” The Diplomat, June 17, 2014, accessed May 6, 2015  “How N. Korea-China Summit can be Meaningful,” The Dong-A Ilbo, March 9, 2015, accessed May 6, 2015  “How N. Korea-China Summit can be Meaningful.”  “China to Hold Parade, Invite Leaders to Mark World War II Anniversary,” Voice of America, March 3, 2015, accessed May 6, 2015  “Kim Jong-un Invited to China’s War Memorial Parade: Sources,” Yonhap News Agency, April 14, 2015, accessed May 6, 2015  Kang Jin-kyu, “Kim Invited by China to WWII Commemoration,” Korea JoongAng Daily, April 15, 2015, accessed May 6, 2015