By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein*
(FPRI) — At a time when “ordinary” doesn’t seem to exist in Korean affairs, Kim Jong-un’s recent visit to China affirmed that for all the change, some fundamentals remain the same on the Korean peninsula. Not that the trip was clearly or easily foreseen. The visit was Kim’s first public one to a foreign country since he came to power in late 2011.
The first concrete signs that a high official was traveling from North Korea to China came in the shape of added security along the railway route from Pyongyang to Beijing, at Dandong station in China, across from the North Korean border town of Sinuiju. Both North Korean and Chinese authorities kept the visit secret, and it was only confirmed when the countries’ media outlets reported it after it happened.
On March 26, a source described to Daily NK how local police rehearsed rapid deployment of protective metal road barriers the day before. Kim Jong-il, the father of current leader Kim Jong-un, was known for taking his train rather than flying, over fears of safety. The mode of transportation was only one of several continuities in tradition.
With two summits planned with national leaders—one on April 27 with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, and a slightly more spectacular (and uncertain) one with U.S. President Donald Trump set for late May—it would have been a notable break of tradition had Kim Jong-un met with either of these two leaders before North Korea’s only nominal ally, China.
As leader, Kim Jong-il’s first two foreign visits went to China, where he met with then-President Jiang Zemin. For his third visit, Kim the elder went to Moscow where he met President Vladimir Putin. The relationship between North Korea and China may be more fraught than in the past several decades, with China enforcing international sanctions on North Korea with greater force than it has ever has before. But some traditions are heavier than others. Kim Jong-il, too, only ventured abroad after he had consolidated his power internally.
Reports from the meetings between the two leaders also carried few surprises. The mandatory and regular talk of their historical friendship, sealed in blood and forged through ideological union, has been as present as tradition commands in both Chinese and North Korean state media reports of the visit. Given the current tensions and uncertainties surrounding the Korean peninsula, emphasizing that continuity is an important message in its own right.
The diplomatic developments of late have taken place largely without much of a clear part for China, at least not what the outside world has been able to see. As the Chinese government news agency Xinhua emphasized, Kim’s visit was a way to loop in China and give the country its due recognition as a key player in the process:
At present, the Korean Peninsula situation is developing rapidly and many important changes have taken place, Kim said, adding that he felt he should come in time to inform Comrade General Secretary Xi Jinping in person the situation out of comradeship and moral responsibility.
Xinhua also reported that Kim mentioned denuclearization several times, but none of what he said gave evidence of a change of policy or even a new North Korean attitude to the nuclear issue. To grasp the full context of these citations, they are worth quoting in full (my own emphasis):
Kim said that the situation on the Korean Peninsula is starting to get better, as the DPRK has taken the initiative to ease tensions and put forward proposals for peace talks.
It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il,” he said.
Kim said that the DPRK is determined to transform the inter-Korean ties into a relationship of reconciliation and cooperation and hold summit between the heads of the two sides.
The DPRK is willing to have dialogue with the United States and hold a summit of the two countries, he said.
The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if south Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace,” said Kim.
This is not the first time over the past few weeks that other outlets or channels than North Korean ones claim that Kim has made statements positive to denuclearization. When North Korea communicated to the United States that it wanted to meet, a South Korean envoy relayed the message that Kim wanted to talk denuclearization. North Korean media is yet to acknowledge or even mention this or even that Kim is scheduled to meet with Trump. The same is true for Kim’s comments in Beijing: North Korean reports of what was said there do not mention denuclearization.
Even if they had, “denuclearization” can mean a whole number of things to North Korea, and it almost certainly does not entail a one-sided capitulation of its nukes to the United States. Take the following piece from the excerpt above of Kim’s statements: “It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il.”
Note: consistent stand. In other words, nothing has really changed in North Korea’s line on the nukes. Despite what some media outlets have speculated, this was not a promise by Kim to give up his nuclear weapons in future negotiations. North Korea is still prepared to denuclearize—as long as the U.S., South Korea, and maybe the rest of the world takes steps that are still yet to be defined. We don’t actually know what North Korea demands in exchange for denuclearization, and North Korea’s definition of “denuclearization” may be so wide as to be meaningless because what it will demand in return are things that its negotiating partners cannot or will not give.
Despite their tense relationship, North Korea and China need each other for a variety of reasons, many of which have to do with strategic conditions in the region. These have not changed. The visit was a way for China and North Korea to close ranks before North Korea’s upcoming negotiations, and they’ve shown that for all the bad blood between them, they remain allies, albeit uncomfortable ones.
About the author:
*Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein is an Associate Scholar with FPRI, focusing primarily on the Korean Peninsula and East Asian region. He is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania, where he researches the history of surveillance and social control in North Korea, and a co-editor of North Korean Economy Watch. He publishes regularly on Korean affairs in publications such as IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review and The Diplomat, and has previously worked as a journalist, and has been a special advisor to the Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation.
This article was published by FPRI.