Kim Jong-il’s Visit To Beijing: What Does It Mean For The West?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 9

The unusually effusive reception that the Chinese leadership accorded Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il last week has buttressed speculation that Beijing and Pyongyang probably reached some form of a deal even prior to the long awaited visit. According to diplomatic sources in Beijing, Kim agreed during discussions with his Chinese hosts to take a “more serious and proactive stance” toward the ongoing six-nation talks on dismantling his country’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Moreover, the sources said the reclusive leader pledged that unless there was further “provocation” from the United States, Pyongyang would not engage in tension raising gimmicks such as testing bombs or missiles. And, at least for the time being, a freeze would be put on the development of new WMD.

In return for gradually winding down North Korea’s WMD program, however, Kim demanded an ironclad pledge of non-aggression from the United States – and that this no-invasion promise be “guaranteed” by the Chinese government. Moreover, Pyongyang wanted more economic and technological aid from China – as well as the United States and Japan. The Kim regime is at the same time asking for help in some degree of reintegration with the global community, which will facilitate its application for economic and humanitarian aid from international bodies.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has agreed to give Pyongyang more economic and energy assistance. Indeed, the past few months have witnessed increased numbers of delegations of Chinese agrarian and other experts going into Pyongyang to offer advice on resuscitating agriculture and other aspects of the DPRK’s moribund economy. President Hu Jintao and other leaders who met Kim last week were frustrated, however, that they failed to persuade the Stalinist dictator to try some of the free market reforms that late patriarch Deng Xiaoping had first persuaded Kim’s father, Great Leader Kim Il-Sung, to experiment with in the 1980s. Kim reportedly told the Chinese leadership that economic liberalization would lead to the unraveling of his orthodox socialist society.

Sources close to Beijing’s diplomatic establishment said the Chinese leadership had continued to turn down Kim’s request for military aid, in particular anti-missile defense systems that might help the Kim regime ward off possible attacks from the United States. Pyongyang was said to have suggested improving and expanding North Korea’s network of tunnels close to the Chinese border and that the weapons be taken across the border through these underground channels.

Hu and his colleagues, however, did promise to urge the United States to provide a solid guarantee of non-aggression against the DPRK. And the CCP leaders got from Kim a promise that Pyongyang would give Beijing more information about the true state of their nuclear program. Despite the so-called “lips-and-teeth relationship” between China and the DPRK, Beijing’s ability to get to the bottom of Pyongyang’s WMD game plan is circumscribed by two factors. Firstly, many of the weapons laboratories are located in remote underground facilities. Secondly, Kim has in the past several years weeded out many “pro-Chinese” advisers and officials in Pyongyang’s higher echelons.

Chinese officials and media have given an upbeat assessment of Kim’s short tour. While briefing the state media, the deputy director of the CCP International Liaison Department, Liu Hongcai, quoted Kim as telling the Chinese leadership that Pyongyang was committed to “upholding the objective of the eventual de-nuclearization.” The DPRK chief also vowed to “positively take part in the six-nation talks [on the Korean crisis] – and with a patient and flexible [stance].” Liu added that Kim’s talks with the Chinese leadership had brought “a ray of hope to the eventual peaceful solution” of the Korean imbroglio.

Indeed, the unusually high level protocol that the CCP leadership accorded the Kim delegation seems an indication that Pyongyang might agree to make concessions on the WMD issue. Kim was met not only by top cadres such as Hu, Premier Wen Jiabao and ex-president Jiang Zemin but also other Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) members. It was the first time since the Sixteenth CCP Congress in November 2002 that all nine PSC members had shown up to greet a foreign dignitary. “The Chinese leadership would not have agreed to roll out this kind of red carpet treatment to Kim unless it had been reassured that the Korean dictator would be amenable to give and take on the nuclear weapons issue,” said a veteran Asian diplomat in Beijing.

Whether the Kim visit – as well as the third round of the six-nation talks scheduled for late June – will yield any result, however, depends on many factors. Firstly, the wily Kim may just be repeating his old trick of appearing to be reasonable so as to secure economic aid from China and the West – and to buy time for his surreptitious WMD program. There are reports that the North Korean dictator will not seriously consider dismantling or scaling down his weapons program until the November U.S. presidential elections. This is due to Pyongyang’s assessment that a John Kerry administration may be easier to deal with than the “unilateralist” President George W. Bush.

Despite Kim’s pledges that he would be cooperative in the six-nation talks – and despite Pyongyang’s near total dependence on China for food and energy – Beijing’s ability to control the unpredictable regime is often questionable. It is significant that President Hu characterized ties between the two Communist neighbors as merely “a relationship of friendly cooperation.” On the other hand, the CCP leadership had described countries such as Russia and France as China’s “strategic partners.”

Even more significantly, while Beijing has probably boosted its clout with Pyongyang, the CCP leadership may only exercise this added influence if it is sure that it can extract sizable concessions from countries worried about Pyongyang’s bombs such as South Korea, Japan, and in particular, the United States. It is understood that the Hu leadership has offered the Americans a quid pro quo that can be summed up as “Taiwan in return for North Korea.” This means that in return for Chinese efforts aimed at reining in the Kim regime, Washington must help Beijing prevent the Chen Shui-bian administration in Taiwan from going down the road of independence.

Chinese diplomatic analysts said Hu and his colleagues repeated this Taiwan-North Korea “linkage” during the recent visit to Beijing by Vice President Dick Cheney. The analysts said while the official U.S. position was not to accept the quid pro quo, the Chinese leadership was by and large satisfied with the relatively tough line that Washington had taken on President Chen’s apparent effort to use the referendum mechanism to advance his separatist cause. The analysts said Beijing had expressed approval of the warning given Taipei last week by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, namely, that unilateral steps toward independence might prompt a Chinese military response “that could destroy much of what Taiwan has built.” Kelly also dropped strong hints that Washington might not help defend Taiwan if a Chinese invasion were engendered by a “unilateral” bid by Taipei to change the status quo of the Taiwan Strait.

There is even speculation that Beijing had choreographed the Kim visit partly with the Washington audience in mind. According to this line of thinking, Beijing wants to press Washington to make Taiwan-related concessions – particularly scaling down the sale of weapons to the island – by demonstrating its apparent clout with the Pyongyang regime. CCP strategists are fully aware that, given the recent flare-up of anti-American activities in Iraq, President Bush badly needs a triumph on the anti-terrorist front, such as a deal with Kim, to bolster his reelection chances. However, if the Bush administration is reluctant to accede to Beijing’s demands on Taiwan and other issues, the Hu leadership is not expected to put too much pressure on Pyongyang any time soon.

One product of these Machiavellian geopolitical considerations is that the Kim regime has at least temporarily gotten a new lease on life. The Dear Leader could point to the additional support and assistance he has garnered from Beijing to bolster his internal position. Seeing the value of the DPRK card, the Hu administration is also loathe to take the advice of liberal Chinese academics that Beijing make earnest preparation for dumping the tyrannical Kim clan. For instance, scholars such as the People’s University Professor Shi Yinhong have argued that Beijing should drop the mutual defense clause that is embedded in the 1961 China-Korean Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Cooperation. The VIP treatment that Kim got in Beijing, however, seems to suggest this won’t happen in the near future.