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Xi visits North Korea - a game changer

Muhammad Zamir | July 01, 2019 00:00:00

Chinese President Xi Jinping's two-day state visit to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) from June 20-21 took place about a week before the 2019 G20 summit held in Osaka, Japan. This was the first by a Chinese leader since then-president Hu Jintao visited the country in 2005. Xi, too, visited DPRK in his then-capacity as Vice President of China in 2008.

The Chinese President was there at the invitation of Kim Jong-Un, Supreme Leader of DPRK. The two have met in China four times, but this was the first time in North Korea. It was also Xi's first meeting with Kim since the Trump-Kim meeting in Hanoi in February this year (that ended without any agreement on North Korean denuclearisation).

The importance attached to this visit by China was underlined by Chinese government through the composition of a high-level delegation. This was apparently done because China is very important to North Korea, as its main trading partner. There was also a silent signal in this context from China to the USA. Xi Jinping was accompanied by his wife Peng Liyuan and also by Ding Xuexiang, Member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, Yang Jiechi, Member of the Political Bureau and Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee, Wang Yi, State Councilor and Foreign Minister of the PRC, He Lifeng, Vice Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and Head of the National Development and Reform Committee, Song Tao, Head of the International Liaison Department of the CPC Central Committee, Zhong Shan, Minister of Commerce of PRC and Miao Hua, Director of the Political Affairs, Department of the Central Military Commission of the PRC.

Analysts have pointed out that the visit at this juncture indirectly drew reference to the fact that the 70th anniversary of establishing diplomatic ties between the two countries is approaching.

It may be mentioned that these two communist-led states are old allies. However, ties have been strained over the past decade, with Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions viewed critically by Beijing. The media reported that the official China Daily newspaper indicated on June 19 that the visit would allow the two leaders to "agree on some concrete co-operation projects". A front page editorial in North Korea's Rodong Sinmun newspaper, however, went a little further. It pointed out that President Xi had reiterated his support for nuclear talks, saying: "China supports North Korea for maintaining the right direction in resolving the issue of the Korean peninsula politically."

Consequently, it is being thought that this visit, whatever the confidential agenda, will enable Kim to show that he still has China's support, as other relationships are struggling. It may be added here that North Korea has already been warned for trying to evade UN sanctions and that its economy is struggling under the international sanctions put in place because of its repeated nuclear and missile tests. China, its biggest trading partner, has backed those sanctions but has indicated that it would be in favour of some sanctions relief as an incentive for North Korea to denuclearise.

It is understood that the bilateral discussions at this high level covered the stalled nuclear negotiations and the collapse of the Hanoi summit. European analysts have remarked that Xi wanted to know whether any way could be agreed upon to move things forward.

North Korean authorities have informed that both Kim Jong-Un and Xi Jinping, in their review of the existing bilateral situation pointed out to the joint struggle being carried out by the peoples of the two countries in advancing the cause of socialist construction against the backdrop of celebrating the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the DPRK and China. Both sides agreed on making positive joint efforts to promote close strategic communication between the two parties and the two countries, deepen mutual understanding and trust, maintain the tradition of high-level visit and strengthen exchange and cooperation in every sector. The two leaders also exchanged views on important international and regional matters including the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. In this regard, there was consensus that there has to be efforts to promote regional peace, stability, prosperity and development now that serious and complicated changes are happening in international and regional situations. This last aspect will hopefully be carefully taken note of by the United States, Japan and South Korea.

One needs to understand that China attaches importance not only to the stability in North Korea and its economic co-operation but also wants to ensure that it remains a significant party in the negotiations over North Korea's nuclear programme. North Korean analyst Peter Ward has mentioned in this regard, "China has proved to be the main destination for most of North Korea's exports, including minerals, fish, textiles, and also workers." Beijing traditionally is also the main importer of goods for North Korea's industry and households. Under current sanctions, a lot of this trade has come to a halt. Ward thinks that "China would prefer to relax UN sanctions in these areas. It wants to ensure that North Korea's economy grows at a fair pace and that the North does not feel the need to test ballistic missiles and/or nuclear weapons again." However, other observers have commented that given that sanctions are not likely to get lifted soon, there is little China can do. Professor Kim Hyun-wook, from the Korea National Diplomatic Academy has told Reuters that Chinese economic support - possibly even China creating a "hole" in sanctions - would mean Kim "does not have to negotiate with the US from a position of weakness" and that North Korea" can have both nuclear weapons and economic aid from China".

The electronic media has highlighted the enthusiastic cheers witnessed in every street of Pyongyang by its citizens during the visit of the Chinese President. DPRK has claimed that it reflected the deep and friendly feelings of the Party and people of the DPRK toward the Chinese party and people. However, western media has commented that it was very well orchestrated by the North Korean authorities.

At a time when serious and complicated changes are taking place within the geo-strategic paradigm, this visit to North Korea by the Chinese leader, ahead of the G 20 Summit in Osaka had important implications.

Xi flew back to China on June 21, after a very short visit. However, he was able to use the trip as a signal to US President Trump that he had influence over the North Korean leader and that needed to be taken into account. Through this he was able to convey the message that while their economies are embroiled in a protracted trade war, there are areas where China can help in promoting regional peace and also play a significant role within the matrix of the nuclear negotiations that are currently deadlocked between North Korea and the United States. This visit drew attention to the fact that movement forward in the de-nuclearisation effort was possible with some easing-off on the question of the existing sanctions regime. The Chinese State broadcaster CCTV has reported in this regard that Kim was "willing to be patient" in the talks with the US, but wanted "the parties concerned" to meet him halfway.

Jeung Young-tae, Director of the North Korean Studies in Seoul, has remarked that this bilateral Summit has amounted to China giving Kim strong backing in this de-nuclearisation process. Jeung has told AFP that "Xi is saying that he will help Kim resist pressure from the US and calling on Kim to stick to his demands". It is also being suggested by some other analysts that this evolving paradigm is directed towards Pyongyang calling on Washington to adopt "a new method of calculation" for the negotiations". In such a situation, the shadow of Xi's visit is expected to help the US in its endeavours.

In this context it would be important to note that after Xi's visit it has been revealed by the media that the North Korea leader Kim Jong-un had received recently a personal letter from US President Donald Trump with an "excellent" content.

It may also be recalled that earlier in June Mr. Trump had also stated that a beautiful letter had been sent to him by the North Korean leader. It has, however, not been disclosed by the White House or Pyongyang when or how Mr. Trump's letter to Mr. Kim was delivered.

In the latest move, Reuters reports from Panmunjom, South Korea: President Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas on Sunday, shaking hands warmly and both expressing hopes for peace. Donald Trump has become the first US president to cross the border into North Korea during a historic meeting with Kim Jong-un.

Muhammad Zamir, former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance. [email protected]

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