Assessing Hu’s Visit to North Korea

Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 23

Hu Jintao made an official visit to North Korea on October 28, the first Chinese presidential tour to the DPRK in four years and in response to Kim Jong-Il’s visit to China in 2003. Both China and North Korea praised the summit highly. Kim accorded Hu a high-level of official pageantry, and Hu, for his part, reversed a slide in bilateral relations and persuaded the North Korean leader to enter tomorrow’s six-party talks without any preconditions.

Remedying the Deterioration in Sino-DPRK relations

First, this was a trip to restore the ties between the two remaining socialist courtiers in Asia. Over the last decade, Sino-DPRK relations have become increasingly difficult to manage. Pyongyang could not forgive Beijing’s diplomatic recognition of Seoul. The North’s anger deepened, moreover, as Beijing broke its promise not to develop security relations with South Korea after normalizing that relationship. Beijing also continues to violate its treaty obligation to repatriate refugees back to North Korea. Pyongyang, for all intents and purposes, was forced to enter the six-party talks by Beijing’s stick-and-carrot approach, despite the fact that Beijing’s position in the six-party talks is biased: China pressures Pyongyang to give up on their nuclear program more vigorously than it pressures the U.S. to provide a security guarantee and economic compensation to the DPRK. Furthermore, North Korea resents China using the DPRK as a card to cope with U.S. pressure. All this has been noted personally among North Korean leaders, exacerbating Kim Jong-Il’s historical mistrust toward the Chinese.

On the Chinese side, the DPRK is regarded as an increasing liability and burden. Pyongyang’s nuclear program could trigger a hot war at China’s doorstep. Its missile program provides justification for a U.S.-led theater missile defense system that indirectly targets China. The refugees become a thorny issue eroding Beijing’s relations with Japan and South Korea (in fact, one month prior to Hu’s visit, China returned 9 North Koreans to Pyongyang, arousing criticism worldwide). The private meetings between the diplomats from the DPRK and the U.S. in New York in 2004 were viewed by Chinese analysts as stabbing China in the back. Prior to the shut-down of the PLA-related journal Strategy and Management in 2004, which published an article criticizing North Korea’s top leadership that induced fierce protest from Pyongyang, the view of the DPRK as a growing liability was gaining currency among China’s strategists. Jiang Zemin’s lukewarm attitudes toward Kim Jong-Il contributed to such a trend.

Hu Jintao’s visit took place at a critical juncture, forcing both Hu and Kim to contemplate long-term consequences of further cleavage in Sino-DPRK relations. Importantly, Hu has adjusted Jiang’s position on North Korea by making efforts to mend the cracks in the bilateral relations. He sent his protegee Wang Jiarui, the CCP’s liaison chief in charging of its external affairs, to Pyongyang a number of times to reiterate China’s unchanged support for North Korea. Each of Wang’s visits occurred when the fate of the six-party talks was uncertain. His visits also paved the way for the recent October visit in which Hu offered new financial assistance and promised to extract a proper security guarantee from the United States.

The purpose of Hu’s visit was to seek “common interests” with Pyongyang and reflects his four guiding principles in conducting bilateral relations: more summit meetings, closer trade ties, enhanced cooperation in regional affairs, and pro-active coordination in building a common stance in dealing with the adversaries. Kim expressed his consent to the principles (Ta Kung Pao, October 29). Behind these principles is China’s new understanding of the common interests it has with North Korea. The regional security situation is undergoing profound change: the U.S. and Japan have moved closer in military cooperation; a reunified Korea that is pro-China, cool toward Japan, and without U.S. military presence is as remote as ever; and the Taiwan tension continues. Therefore, China’s common interest with Pyongyang is to preserve the status quo in the Peninsula and allow Beijing to concentrate on its eastern flank. Here the strategic interests of both countries converge.

Kim Jong-Il certainly welcomes such a shift in policy from Beijing. This was underlined by his offer to Hu of the highest level of protocol—his time spent accompanying Hu exceeded that accorded to any foreign leader visiting the country. On the day of Hu’s arrival, a half-million people gathered on the streets to welcome the Chinese delegation. Hu stepped down from the car four times in order to shake hands with them on the street—a gesture that is quite extraordinary for him to perform. Indeed, the reception that Hu received was unprecedented; ironically, however, what Kim did not know is that Hu may have taken no pleasure from such a splendid and staged fanfare. Indeed, one of the first things Hu did after succession was to simplify protocols in seeing off and greeting state leaders.

Sweeter Carrot

Bringing Pyongyang into Beijing’s orbit does not come cheaply. In the welcoming banquet Kim made specific remarks to thank Hu’s demonstrated sincerity in maintaining the traditional friendship and cooperation between the two countries, with some unexpressed comparison with Jiang (Xinhua, October 29). Although China denied the media report that it presented a gift of USD 2 billion to Kim, the economic aid could not have been small. A large number of business deals were negotiated and signed. For its part, China would like to raise the current trade volume of USD 1.3 billion by a large margin in the next decade. During the three-day visit Hu inspected the Daan Glass Plant, a Chinese gift to the 60-year anniversary of the Korean Communist Party. With a daily production of 3000 tons of glass, it can more than satisfy North Korea’s demand and can even export a proportion of its yield (Phoenix TV, October 30). Also among the deals signed was the Maoshan Iron Mine, which, once completed, will produce over 10 million tons of iron ore, the bulk of which will go to China to lessen its dependence on importing high quality iron ore from Australia. Certainly all the investment for the project comes from China.

Perhaps the most valuable political gift Hu gave Kim Jong-Il was his meeting with the latter’s second son, Kim Jong-chul, in a family dinner in honor of Hu. It is unlikely that the Chinese leader would interfere with the dynastic succession but the arranged meeting itself was a no small matter in the long-term relations between the two countries. The average age of the Kim inner circle is over 73 and Kim is not in good health. The succession may come more quickly than most analysts suspect. Beijing’s support to the heir-apparent is crucial for his consolidation of power.

The Six-Party Talks

Hu went back to Beijing with Kim’s pledge that the DPRK would return to the six-party talks without preconditions. Minister Wang Jiarui took this as one of the four major achievements of Hu’s visit (Xinhua, October 30). In a way, Beijing had exercised great pressure to bring North Korea to the new round of talks in November. Beijing announced that six-party talks were high on Hu’s agenda a few weeks before Hu took the trip. In Chinese diplomatic language, this normally means that some agreement has been arrived at, otherwise the trip would have been aborted. Indeed, without any consent on the six-party talks, Hu would have nothing to tell the leaders of other four parties, especially the U.S., whose president will visit China in a matter of weeks. According to Wang Jiarui, Kim told Hu that it was not easy for the parties involved to formulate a joint communiqué in the last round of talks. Therefore the DPRK would honor its commitment to the communique, whose central theme is the DPRK revoking its nuclear program.

According to Chinese diplomats, Hu and Kim spent a significant amount of time on the nuclear issue and regional security situation. Nothing specific has been disclosed thus far. Yet could Kim’s positive remarks on the joint communiqué of September indicate that Pyongyang has reversed its anti-communiqué rhetoric days after the document was published? More importantly, has Hu persuaded North Koreans on the light water reactor? Some light may be shed on these questions when the new round of talks begins tomorrow, November 9.