North Korea seeks to strengthen its ties to China, even as it ignores US

Eduardo Baptista
·6-min read

While Washington under the new US administration struggles to communicate with Pyongyang, an isolated North Korea has pledged to strengthen its ties with neighbouring China into a relationship “envied by the world”.

Ri Ryong-nam, North Korea’s new ambassador to China, conveyed that message from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un when Ri met on Monday with Song Tao, director of the International Liaison Department (IDL), an agency under the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party known for its central role in policymaking towards North Korea.

North Korea was on the agenda of the first high-level US-China face-to-face meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, last week. According to White House press secretary Jennifer Psaki, US President Joe Biden’s administration has tried to communicate with North Korea since last month through various channels but Pyongyang has so far not responded.

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Ri, however, wasted no time; his first diplomatic function with Song came just days after he officially took up his post as ambassador on Thursday. During their meeting in Beijing, Ri and Song exchanged messages from their respective country’s leaders.

In addition to Kim’s remarks, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that the traditional friendship between China and North Korea was the “common treasure” of both peoples.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has told Beijing he hopes to develop the two countries’ relationship into one “envied by the world”. Photo: AFP/KCNA via KNS
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has told Beijing he hopes to develop the two countries’ relationship into one “envied by the world”. Photo: AFP/KCNA via KNS

North Korea is China’s only treaty ally, a product of the Korean war 70 years ago when Chinese leader Mao Zedong intervened against the US-led defence of South Korea following an invasion from the North Korean army, led by Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-Sung.

North Korea remains closed off from the outside world, a measure to keep out Covid-19. Case numbers from inside North Korea are unavailable, but Pyongyang’s decision to completely shut the country’s borders has led to a near-disappearance of trade across the 1,352km-long (840 miles) border North Korea shares with China.

In 2019, China accounted for about 95 per cent of North Korea’s total trade, according to the website North Korea in the World, which is operated by the East-West Centre and National Committee on North Korea. This dependence is also a consequence of UN-mandated sanctions on North Korea, which prevent it from being fully integrated into the global economy.

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According to Chinese customs data – which experts caution does not show the full extent of trade with North Korea – China’s monthly exports to the country dropped from more than US$250 million in November 2019 to just US$3,000 last month.

Still, construction projects along several border trade crossings progressed throughout 2020, a sign that authorities on both sides are getting ready for a post-pandemic rebound in China-North Korea trade, according to satellite imagery analysed by research group NKPro.

Ri, an experienced trade minister and economic official, was appointed in February as the new ambassador in a move experts said was Pyongyang’s way of signaling the importance it gives to trade with China.

“North Korea is arguably more isolated than ever, yet the recent appointment of the DPRK’s former trade minister as ambassador to China shows that Pyongyang is eager to revive trade with the PRC when the situation permits,” said Anthony Rinna, a Seoul-based senior editor at research group Sino-NK.

Notably, no mention of China’s commitment to denuclearising the Korean peninsula, a staple of Beijing’s rhetoric on North Korea, was included in the message Xi relayed to Kim on Monday.

“China is willing to work with the DPRK and relevant parties to … maintain peace and stability on the peninsula, and make new positive contributions to regional peace, stability, development and prosperity,” Xi’s message read.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme has long been a cause for concern for a host of regional and global powers, including South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

Kim Jong-un’s decision to conduct a barrage of key weapons testing in 2017 led to a souring of North Korea-China relations.

US-China tensions give North Korea opportunity to strengthen position in nuclear talks

As a result, that same year China supported new United Nations sanctions on North Korea, while Chinese and North Korean state media – both usually filled with invective against Western powers – lashed out at each other.

However, relations soon warmed after Kim went to Beijing in 2018 – ahead of Kim’s meetings with Donald Trump, then the US president, which ultimately bore little in the way of reduced international tensions. Xi held a summit with Kim in Pyongyang the following year, the first time in more than 14 years that a Chinese leader visited the North Korean capital.

Amid deteriorating US-China ties, Xi and Kim exchanged a total of 18 letters and verbal notes in 2019 and 2020, according to a February report by NKPro.

Rinna, of Sino-NK, said that Xi’s omission of an explicit mention of “denuclearisation” in his latest message to Kim could potentially mean Beijing is no longer as concerned as it once was with North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.

“Even while North Korea’s provocations in 2017 may have led to an increase in views of the DPRK as a strategic liability, and something of an embarrassment given China’s seeming inability to control Pyongyang’s behaviour, if Beijing decides that it cannot pull South Korea into its orbit, or at least neutralise Seoul, then North Korea will likely be viewed primarily as a strategic asset, subsequently leading to a perceived need to prop up its beleaguered neighbour,” Rinna said.

But according to a Seoul-based analyst at a South Korean think tank, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, China’s position on denuclearisation was broadly similar to that taken by the South Korean government led by liberal President Moon Jae-in, who has favoured engagement with Pyongyang – as well as neutrality in the increasingly bitter dispute between Washington and Beijing.

“China wants to negotiate the settlement of North Korean nuclear issues through … the dual suspension of North Korean nuclear activities and South Korea-US joint military exercise,” the analyst said.

“This is the only way that we can solve the North Korean nuclear problem, and I don’t know to what extent the Biden administration will buy this Chinese approach.”

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