Sea of Blood, Year of Friendship: China-North Korean Relations in 2009

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 12

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (L) and North Korean Premier Kim Yong Il (R)

Considerable circumstantial evidence points to the fact that North Korea was preparing for the May 25 nuclear weapons test since late last year, a test which came after the U.S. presidential election and while North Korea’s "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il was recuperating from a debilitating stroke suffered last summer (Xin Lang Wang, [New Wave Net], May 27). Moreover it seems that the Chinese leadership was well aware of the internal political dynamics propelling Pyongyang toward a nuclear test.

The timeframe is crucial when one considers the news, particularly page one of the January 24 People’s Daily featuring "Sino-Korean Friendship Year."  "Friendship Year" was launched with a personal letter from (in protocol order) "Communist Party General Secretary, State Chairman and Chairman of the Central Military Commission" Hu Jintao to his equally titularly-endowed North Korean comrade Kim Jong Il.  The letter was hand-delivered in Pyongyang by Comrade Wang Jiarui, director of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee’s International Liaison Department and China’s most senior point-man on North Korean policy since February 2001.

"I have deputized comrade Wang Jiarui to convey my personal highest regards and best wishes to Secretary Kim Jong Il, and" (the letter continued with typical socialist reverence for priority ranking) "on behalf of the Chinese Party, Government and People, I wish the Korean Party, Government and People a happy new spring."  In the most fulsome terms, Hu suggested that in this 60th year of Sino-Korean diplomatic ties—which have "withstood the test of time" and have been "carefully nurtured by the older generation of Chinese and Korean revolutionary leaders"—the two nations join hands to deepen their ties in all areas of endeavor, and invited Kim once again to visit China.  

According to People’s Daily, Kim responded with appropriate ebullience and Comrade Wang followed up with what must have been the real message:  "China hoped, through strengthened contacts and common efforts, to overcome obstacles and encourage the Six Party Talks in the ceaseless achievement of progress."  In reciprocal good humor, Kim responded that he appreciated China’s leading role in the Six Party Talks, and affirmed that North Korea would "exert every effort for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."  Kim, too, wanted to strengthen coordination with China for the success of the talks.

Wang’s visit to Pyongyang, however, jolted the attention of the international news media for another reason.  He was the first foreign visitor to be received by the "Dear Leader" since his August 2008 stroke.  Presumably, "Dear Leader" would not have shot himself up with cortisone (his left hand was visibly swollen in photos of the event) for anyone except the personal emissary of the Chinese leader, and Wang’s pilgrimage would be a media event that had to be tightly stage-managed by both Beijing and Pyongyang.

"Friendship Year" continued into February, when Kim considered the test launch of an ICBM over Japanese airspace. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei—China’s top Japan expert—arrived in Pyongyang with another warm personal letter from the fourth-ranking Politburo chieftain declaring, inter alia, that it was the "unshakable strategic policy of the Chinese party and government to steadily develop the traditional Sino-DPRK relations of friendship" (KCNA, February 28).  A few days later, another Politburo member, Liu Yandong, reassured a visiting Korean delegation that "Sino-DPRK friendship is a blood-sealed unbreakable friendship as it was provided by the leaders of the two countries" (KCNA, February 27).  March saw North Korean Premier Kim Yong-Il’s (no relation to "Dear Leader") "Friendship Year" extravaganza journey to Beijing (more on this below).  

On April 5, North Korea launched a three-stage Taepodong-2 missile that supposedly lifted a warhead-sized payload well over Japanese airspace and 3,846 kilometers out into the Pacific Ocean toward Hawaii (Spaceflight Now, April 10).  Three days later, the Chinese foreign ministry said that North Korea had the right to peaceful use of space and refused to condemn the April 5 missile launch (Foreign Ministry Spokesman, April 7).  South Korean aerospace analysts said video images of the Taepodong lift-off broadcast from North Korea were convincing evidence that the North Korean rocket was built with Chinese Long-March 1 technology (Chosun Ilbo, April 9). The missile seems to have been fitted with attitude control thrusters at the second and third stages, advances that would enhance its deployment as a silo-based ballistic missile [1].   China, of course, called on "all parties" to remain calm.  Shortly after, despite Chinese misgivings, the United Nations Security Council issued a watered-down "presidential statement" condemning the North Korean action [2], while the Chinese Foreign Ministry explained (the following day) that to "ensure the overall interests of peace and stability" in Northeast Asia, "China disagrees of a Security Council resolution on the launch, let alone new sanctions against the DPRK" [3].  Moreover, China was still not convinced that the North Korean missile launch violated any U.N. rules—it was a civilian satellite launch, not military, and at least some kind of prior notice was given (The Washington Post, April 6).  Where was the problem?

On April 15, reacting to the UNSC presidential statement, North Korea announced its formal withdrawal from the "Six Party Talks."  China continued to call for "calm" from all "relevant parties."  

Also in April, according to veteran China-watcher Willy Lam, "Dear Leader" was anxious to secure Chinese backing for the succession of his third son, Kim Jong-Un, to the North Korean throne.  The Chinese had certainly been aware of young Jong-Un’s succession since mid-January; which is probably where South Korean intelligence first heard of it (Reuters, January 15).  There is ample reason to suspect that it was a Chinese "diplomatic source" who informed the international media on June 3 that "foreign embassies" had been informed of young Kim Jong Un’s formal enrollment as successor to the "Dear Leader."  Were any embassies, other than the Chinese, so informed?

Sea of Blood

Evidence of a persistent robust Trans-Yalu relationship between China and North Korea was buttressed when People’s Daily reported quite lavishly between March 18 and March 23 that North Korean Premier Kim Yong-Il was enjoying a fruitful sojourn in Beijing and—at China’s invitation—had brought along with him North Korea’s "Sea of Blood Song and Dance Troupe" (Xuehai Gewutuan)—to deepen Sino-Korean friendly cultural exchanges (Renmin Ribao, March 20).  No irony there.  

The "Sea of Blood" performance in Beijing on March 18 marking the opening of "Sino-Korea Friendship Year" must have been a real treat.  They sang a "major chorale work" entitled "Dream of the Red Chamber" for a Beijing audience of over 2,000 Chinese and Koreans including both China’s and North Korea’s premiers. According to People’s Daily, North Korea’s "Dear Leader" rehearsed "Dream of the Red Chamber" with the Sea of Blood troupe just a few days before their departure for Beijing (Renmin Ribao, March 23, 2009).  Kim Jong Il’s thoughtful gesture was a delightful reminder of how deeply Kim cherishes this "Sino-Korean Friendship Year" of 2009.

Despite all evidence, however, most Western media, after a thorough working over by "confidential" Chinese "sources", now appear convinced that Pyongyang has finally pushed Beijing over the line; the "line" being North Korea’s second nuclear weapons test on May 25 [4].  

China’s propaganda department is indeed permitting a bit more leeway in Chinese-language news reporting on North Korea. Huanqiu Ribao editors, for example, observed that the Chinese policy analysts interviewed were evenly divided (ten against ten) over whether the "international community" (not necessarily China) should "more tightly sanction" North Korea or "oppose the international community’s attempt to do this" (Huanqiu Shibao, May 26).  Yet, the more prominent Chinese scholars seem more inclined to make excuses for North Korea. Zhang Liangui of the CCP Party School sees Pyongyang’s quest for a nuclear weapon as driven by internal politics. "They want to establish a strong and powerful nation" in order to deal with the United States and a "nuclear weapon is part of their comprehensive strength" [5].  PLA Major General Peng Guangqian comments that North Korea has had a "long-term quest" for nuclear weapons to assert North Korea’s "international posture" so that it "need not fear" dealing with other countries (China Central Television [CCTV], May 28).  Peng also believes that a nuclear weapon could guarantee North Korea’s "short- and mid-term security," but not its long-term survivability, a view that suggests China could live with a North Korean nuclear weapon for the short and mid-term, at least.

In the United States, analysts predict that China is now at the breaking point with North Korea.  But in reaching this conclusion, they are inclined to conflate views like Zhang’s and Peng’s with what they judged to be unusually tough language from the Chinese foreign ministry (MFA) to the effect that China "resolutely opposes this." The "this" in the MFA statement, however, was North Korea’s nuclear test—not North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons.  Further, alas, the PRC Foreign Ministry’s language was not unusually tough.  In fact, it was even a little milder than it was in October 2006, when the MFA called Pyongyang’s first test "brazen" (hanran), an adjective omitted from its May 2009 statement [6].

The fact is that the Chinese-North Korean alliance is as strong as ever in 2009.  This 60th anniversary year of Beijing-Pyongyang diplomatic relations is, after all, "China-Korea Friendship Year" and on May 27, two days after the North Korean nuclear blast, a Chinese emissary, Song Enlei conveyed the message that "the traditional China-DPRK friendship, which has steadily developed, standing all trials of history, is being further strengthened under the deep care of President Hu Jintao and General Secretary Kim Jong Il" (KCNA, May 27).  On Friday June 5, China’s ambassador in Pyongyang, Liu Xiaoming and staff members of the Chinese embassy "gave helping hands to the DPRK-China Friendship Thaekam Co-op Farm" to show that there are no hard feelings (KCNA, June 5).

Conflicting Signals from Beijing

It is understandably difficult to put all this into context if one concentrates on what is said in English but does not thoroughly absorb the Chinese media.  Professor Zhu Feng of Beijing University blogs in English that North Korea’s May 25 nuclear weapons test was a "slap in the face" to China’s leaders [7]. Yet, to a Chinese audience, he eschews the "slap" metaphor and instead dispassionately explains that North Korea’s test is a "well-plotted" step in gaining de facto "nuclear weapons state" status as part of Kim Jong Il’s "legacy" in Pyongyang’s succession process [8].  

The professor was just one of a large number of experts interviewed by Chinese television and print media to elucidate the North Korean situation to Chinese audiences after the nuclear test (Huanqiu Ribao web, May 25), but he was one of the few who filed a blog in English on an influential U.S. foreign policy website. So, the difference in the tone of his two commentaries was striking.  The discrepancy reflects precisely the conflicting messages about North Korea that the Chinese leadership has crafted for its separate target audiences. A careful review of CCP propaganda suggests that one should always watch what the Party leadership "does" more intently than what it "says"—or permits to be said—to foreigners, particularly foreigners from non-socialist, fraternal states.

Perhaps in no case is this rule as clearly in focus as in China’s relationship with long- time "lips and teeth" ally, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—especially in light of Professor Zhu Feng’s assertion that North Korea had been preparing its nuclear weapons test since last November’s presidential election in the United States.  Without mentioning North Korean "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il’s debilitating stroke, Professor Zhu believes that Kim has been extremely anxious to "speed up domestic power arrangements" and to bequeath to his successor the legacy of North Korea’s "nuclear weapons state" status.  It was, Professor Zhu opined, a "minutely planned" process—not a "reactive" one; one that would allow Pyongyang to take advantage of President Obama’s "diplomatic adjustment" and gain leverage with an even more "hardline" stance [9].  All perfectly plausible; and suggestive that if Professor Zhu was aware of it, China’s intelligence services were even more clued-in.

Lips and Teeth

That Beijing routinely and actively strategizes with Pyongyang on how to manage international alarm over North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions is amply documented [10].  North Korea’s top general, Jo Myong-rok, consulted with China’s top military leaders in Beijing for five days just before the Beijing-sponsored "Three Party Talks" in April 2003.  Less than a week before the first round of "Six Party Talks" in August 2003, General Xu Caihou, director of the PLA’s powerful General Political Department, conferred with North Korean counterparts in Pyongyang for four days.  

Over the past six years, North Korea’s "brazenness” has been enabled by a series of high-level leadership visits (including by Hu Jintao and Kim Jong Il), military exchanges (which seems no longer publicized), grandiloquent praise of North Korea in the People’s Daily, and dramatic growth in Chinese exports to North Korea indicating tremendously high levels of economic aid (how else does North Korea pay its bills?) (Chosun Ilbo, February 24).  Chinese exports to the North continued to increase through the first quarter of 2009, while South Korean and Japanese trade dropped off (The New York Times, April 3).

In any event, the past six years of China’s diplomatic cover for North Korea are a prologue to the 2009 "China-Korea Friendship Year," a year that provides renewed evidence of the ongoing strong patron-client relationship across the Yalu River. 


1. Craig Covault,  "North Korean rocket flew further than earlier thought," Spaceflight Now, April 10, 2009, at
2. United Nations Security Council Presidential Statement S/PRST/2009/7, April 13, 2009.
3. "Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Jiang Yu’s Remarks on the Presidential Statement adopted by the Security Council on the DPRK launch," April 14, 2009, at
4. American analysts similarly misunderstood China’s "anger" at North Korea’s October 2006 nuclear weapons test, citing the Chinese foreign ministry’s description of the test as a "brazen" (hanran) violation of its international commitments and China’s "resolute opposition"—to the test (The New York Times, October 10, 2006).
5. See interview: "Zhu Feng: Chaoxian Tuichu Tingzhan Xieding Yi zai Queli Youhe Guojia Diwei," [Zhu Feng: North Korea’s withdrawal from Armistice is to bolster its claim to nuclear weapon state status", Xin Lang Wang, [New Wave Net], May 27, 2009, at
6. The Washington Post reported that "unusually critical statements and harsh coverage in China’s state media" reflect the "anger" of China’s leaders.  The Wall Street Journal sees China as "More Open to Tougher Restrictions Against Reclusive Regime."  Reuters noted on June 3 that the website of the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang posted, as its top item, the Chinese foreign ministry’s criticism of the nuclear test – though, by June 3 Washington D.C. time, the top item on the site was instead a "Sino-Korean Friendship Year" children’s art and calligraphy exhibit (Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang,  June 1).  The Financial Times, a bit more circumspect, pointed to evidence of Chinese government exasperation with North Korea contained in a collection of short essays and interviews of Chinese scholars – most critical of the U.S., although some were indeed also uncharacteristically irate at North Korea (Huanqiu Ribao internet edition, May 26).  But the preponderance of the evidence was in the opposite direction.
7. Zhu Feng, "North Korea Nuclear Test and Cornered China," Asia Security Initiative, MacArthur Foundation, May 27, 2009, at
8. Zhu Feng interview.
9. Zhu Feng interview.
10 John J. Tkacik, Jr. "Getting China to Support a Denuclearized North Korea," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder #1678,  August 25, 2003, at; and John J. Tkacik, Jr., "Does Beijing Approve of North Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions?" Heritage Foundation Backgrounder #1832 March 15, 2005, at