As North Korea’s nuclear arms program advanced rapidly in recent years, its relations with China continued to deteriorate because Beijing views Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities as a destabilizing factor for the region. When Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to implement economic sanctions against Pyongyang strictly after his first meeting with Trump in April 2017, bilateral relations between China and North Korea sank further.
However, after more than seven years of strained relations with China since taking power in 2011, Kim Jong Un made a surprising visit to Beijing in late March, which came almost one month before his first meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in last week. Less than a week after the Inter-Korean Summit, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is expected to visit North Korea on May 2-3, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced on April 30.
Avoid Over Reliance
North Korea’s efforts in repairing relations with China, while it tries to negotiate with the United States on denuclearization and normalizing relations, fit Pyongyang’s strategy in striking a balance between great powers, such as China and the United States, political experts told Sputnik.
"North Korea wants to be independent, not too reliant on one particular country, either China or the United States. Kim Jong Un’s domestic economic reforms had shown the significant extent of success. But I think Kim Jong Un understands that, in order to have full-fledged economic development, they also have to open their economy to the outside world. In this way, they could attract investments into North Korea. Their intention is very clear. They can easily offset China’s influence with investments from South Korea, Japan, and the United States. This is exactly what North Korea wants," Paik Hak-soon, the director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, told Sputnik.
The Seoul-based expert explained that North Korea adapted similar strategies during the Cold War era.
"North Korea’s strategy of survival and development in the 21st century began immediately after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. We all know that North Korea played both China and the Soviet Union against each other during the Cold War era. North Korea was enjoying the balancing strategy, by seeking competitive favors from these two communist powers. When the Soviet Union collapsed, North Korea wanted to include the United States in this strategic calculus as a counterforce to China. Pyongyang wanted to sign a peace treaty to end the Korean War and normalize relations with the United States, even expanding economic cooperation including investments. Under this context, they [North Korea] even recognized the stationing of US forces in South Korea in January 1992, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union," he said.
In addition to sending its troops to support North Korea during the Korean War, China has continued to provide economic support to Pyongyang, which Beijing views as a key strategic buffer from US military presence on the Korean peninsula. During Kim Jong Un’s visit to Beijing in March, Chinese president Xi stressed that the friendly traditions between China and North Korea are a treasure created and cultivated by the founding fathers of both nations.
"Even though the relations [between China and North Korea] looked to be strained for a while, it has not changed much. They need each other. This is a very rare time in history, which is comparable to 1972 when China-US relations improved dramatically and fundamentally. At that time, there was very close policy coordination between China and North Korea. And in the end, North Korea’s demand toward the United States was accepted by China and eventually included in the Shanghai Communique [between China and the United States]. That’s because China had to take into account of North Korea’s concerns and worries about the dramatic change in international relations. Today, it’s natural for both nations to engage in coordination in policy at this critical juncture," he said.
The South Korean scholar believes the Chinese foreign minister’s trip to Pyongyang could pave the way for the Chinese president to visit North Korea, before the upcoming key summit between Kim Jong Un and Trump.
"One of the items [discussed during Wang Yi’s visit to Pyongyang] would be discussion on the potential of the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Pyongyang. If we look at history, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, the 2nd ranking official in China at the time, visited Pyongyang secretly and was very well received by [then North Korean leader] Kim Il Sung, before the Shanghai Communique was released in 1972. Kim Jong Un went to Beijing to meet with Xi Jinping. I think there’s enough reason for Xi to reciprocate by visiting Pyongyang. It’s better for him [Xi] to go to Pyongyang before the US-North Korea summit. Otherwise, China might be excluded from future peace talks, which would be a serious blow to Beijing," he said.
"Xi is probably going to visit Pyongyang after the summit with Trump. If it happens before the summit, it’ll be a major surprise. That’s because it’s very obvious that both Kim Jong Un and Trump may not agree to it," Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at the Renmin University in Beijing, told Sputnik.
Benched on Sidelines
Despite signs of improvement in bilateral relations between China and North Korea, Beijing is still in a vulnerable position in the ongoing peace talks on the Korean peninsula, the Chinese scholar suggested.
"Due to mutual interests between Pyongyang and Beijing, bilateral relations improved significantly. China has finally entered the room where major changes are taking place. But compared to the United States, North Korea, and South Korea, China is basically still sitting on a bench in the corner of the room. This situation is still very unfavorable to Beijing because the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula has a huge impact on China’s national interests, no matter which direction it will toward," he said.
Professor Paik from the Sejong Institute argued that bilateral dialogue between North Korea and the United States is a sign that both sides are committed to resolving the nuclear crisis.
"For great powers such as the United States and the [former] Soviet Union, by nature, if they really have a strong will to resolve an issue, they apply it only through the bilateral format. That’s the tendency. They do not want to include others in the negotiation, because they do not want noises or complexity. Take the six-party talks regarding the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula as an example, the United States did not have any serious intention to resolve the North Korea nuclear issue. Today, we need to understand the fact that Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un applied bilateral format in the negotiation of this issue. There’s no room for third parties in dealing with the issue of denuclearization, peace treaty and normalization of relations, as well as lifting sanctions," he said.
The South Korean scholar insisted that it is up to China to adjust to North Korea’s policy changes.
"North Korea would not just accept investments from South Korea, Japan, and the United States. The Chinese investments are already there [in North Korea]. North Korea clearly wants to balance between China and the United States and its allies, including South Korea and Japan. Despite China’s economic influence in North Korea has dropped significantly recently, Beijing has enjoyed a monopoly of influence on Pyongyang. China has to adjust to the changing environment [on the Korean peninsula]. At the same time, North Korea would never distant itself from China too much," he said.
Shi, the Beijing-based scholar, acknowledged that there is not much China could do if bilateral relations between North Korea and the United States improved significantly.
Kim Jong Un and Trump is expected to hold their first meeting in May or June, as both sides are still deciding on the location of the historic summit.
The views and opinions expressed by the speaker do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.