As the world shifts to “living with Covid-19”, North Korea, which had adopted a very stringent quarantine policy, is also trying to reopen its borders.
On 27 March, Wang Yajun, the former deputy minister of the International Liaison Department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, crossed the China-North Korea border. He arrived in Pyongyang on 3 April to take up his post as Chinese ambassador to North Korea. The post had remained vacant since former Ambassador Li Jinjun returned home at the end of 2021.
With a malnourished population and a poor medical system, North Korea fears an influx of new infectious diseases and has applied restrictions on people-to-people exchanges even on dignitaries. The fact that it took Ambassador Wang a week after entering North Korea to arrive in Pyongyang means that North Korea is still wary of the virus entering the “Capital of the Revolution”.
...the coverage this time is unusual because the content of the message was printed on the front page of the official newspaper along with a photograph.
Set pieces put in place for a Chinese visit
The media coverage by the North Korean side since the Chinese ambassador's assumption of duty has been surprising. The 8 April issue of Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), reported that General Secretary Xi Jinping had sent a verbal message to General Secretary Kim Jong-un expressing gratitude to Kim Jong-un for sending a congratulatory telegram when Xi was reappointed for his third term. It said Ambassador Wang, who had just arrived, had relayed this information to Kim Song-nam, head of the International Department of the Central Committee of WPK. Xi's message also mentioned the great importance placed on bilateral state and party relations, and a readiness to promote peace, stability, development and prosperity in the region.
Oral letters between China and North Korea were frequently exchanged during the Covid-19 pandemic, when it was difficult to physically exchange letters. However, the coverage this time is unusual because the content of the message was printed on the front page of the official newspaper along with a photograph.
A day earlier on 7 April, the same newspaper carried an article on the front page with a photograph captioned: “Comrade Choe Ryong-hae was presented with a letter of credence from the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the People’s Republic of China.” In North Korea, the credentials of foreign ambassadors are received by Choe, chairman of the Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly, not by Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. But the news does not usually make headlines.
A relationship with ups and downs
China and North Korea have maintained a military alliance since 1961, but there have been many times when a confrontational relationship has become evident. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards criticised Kim Il-sung, and both China and North Korea recalled their ambassadors.
Furthermore, when China and South Korea established diplomatic relations in 1992, China-North Korea relations stagnated for a long time. In 2000, Kim Jong-il finally visited China for the first time as the supreme leader, and the honeymoon relationship was restored.
On the other hand, when Kim Jong-un repeatedly conducts nuclear tests, the Xi Jinping administration vehemently opposes it. In 2017, after North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test, China joined forces with the US to impose tough economic sanctions. The Rodong Sinmun has even criticised China by name.
It was in March 2018 that the current honeymoon was restored. With President Trump shockingly giving the go-ahead to the US-North Korea summit, North Korea needed backing to advance the fateful negotiations to its advantage. Kim Jong-un borrowed an Air China jet and flew to Singapore.
...the holding of a China-North Korea summit meeting for the first time in four years since Xi Jinping’s visit to North Korea in June 2019 is within sight.
Possibility of a China-North Korea summit
The fact that North Korea took the trouble to demonstrate to the world the honeymoon period between China and North Korea upon the arrival of Ambassador Wang suggests that the content of the oral message was favourable to the Kim Jong-un administration. As a result, the holding of a China-North Korea summit meeting for the first time in four years since Xi Jinping’s visit to North Korea in June 2019 is within sight.
This July marks the 70th anniversary of the armistice of the Korean War, in which Chairman Mao Zedong supported North Korea even at the cost of his own son’s life. It is an ideal opportunity to strengthen the “blood alliance” between the two countries.
The sharpening of the confrontation between Japan, the US, and South Korea can become a factor that further supports the solidarity between China and North Korea. In his September 2021 policy speech, Kim Jong-un used the term “new Cold War” for the first time, denouncing “the United States’ unilateral and unfairly grouped foreign policy”.
For North Korea, the composition of Northeast Asia has returned to the Cold War-era thinking of “US, Japan, and South Korea” versus “China, Russia, and North Korea”. North Korea is making an abnormally amicable approach even towards the Putin administration.
If Kim Jong-un relies solely on distorted information, he will inevitably make incorrect judgments in regard to foreign policy.
Shortly after Xi Jinping’s last visit to North Korea, Kim Jong-un had his third meeting with Trump at Panmunjom. However, 70 years of mutual distrust could not be resolved, and North Korea-US relations fell into a complete stalemate.
Joe Biden, who had little interest in the North Korean issue, became president of the US soon after. Meanwhile, Yoon Suk-yeol, who is tough on North Korea became South Korea's president. Furthermore, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, North Korea has become inward-looking, focusing solely on its weapon development.
It is a big problem that Kim Jong-un is locked inside the country and only receives reports from his subordinates. If Kim Jong-un relies solely on distorted information, he will inevitably make incorrect judgments in regard to foreign policy. In that sense, the holding of the China-North Korea Summit will also be an opportunity to hear some harsh stories from the counterpart, Xi Jinping.
China is deeply concerned about North Korea’s nuclear development. Japan, the US and South Korea are wary of a renewed honeymoon between China and North Korea, but it is not necessarily all bad.
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