By Bonnie S. Glaser & Lin Kim
China-North Korea relations have been strained since Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test in February 2013. Chinese president Xi Jinping has yet to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, even though he has held two summits with South Korea’s president Park Geun-hye. Earlier this year, North Korea’s Kang Kon Military Academy posted a sign stating that China is “turncoat and our enemy.”During the late-July commemoration of the 61st anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War – what North Korea calls the “Day of Victory in the Fatherland Liberation War” – Pyongyang’s state media and officials made no mention of China’s participation in the war.
Friction was evident yet again in the message that Chinese leaders sent to North Korea marking the 66th anniversary of the founding of the Democractic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) on September 9. For the second year in a row, China’s congratulatory message did not refer to relations between China and the DPRK as “friendly neighbors linked with the same mountain and rivers.” That phrase was included in the 2011 and 2012 messages when Hu Jintao was Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary. After Xi Jinping came to power, it was dropped. Also missing this year is the usual reference to promoting bilateral ties “in the spirit of inheriting the tradition, facing up to the future, building good-neighborly friendship, and strengthening cooperation.” Instead, the missive states that along with the DPRK side, China will “ceaselessly consolidate and strengthen the relations of friendship and cooperation between the two countries.”
In keeping with the established practice in recent years, China’s congratulatory message was not reported by official Chinese media outlets and did not use the term “comrade” to refer to North Korean leaders. The last time that Beijing officially referred to North Korea’s leader as “comrade” was on the occasion of Kim Jong-Il’s death. On December 19, 2011, China’s four major government and party organs jointly sent a message of deep condolences to the Central Committee of North Korea’s Korean Workers Party (KWP), expressing the hope that the North Korea people would “unite under the KWP and continue to build a strong and prosperous socialist state under the leadership of Comrade Kim Jong-Un.” In an interview on September 9 with Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV, Zhang Liangui, a well-informed Chinese scholar on Korean affairs from the CCP’s’s Central Party School, said that the absence of both the term “comrade” and any reference to the “inter-party relationship” suggests that ties between China and North Korea are in fact becoming a “normal state-to-state relationship.”
Oddly, the appellation “comrade” is included three times – before Kim Jong Un, Kim Yong Nam, and Pak Pong Ju – in the version of the anniversary greeting published in Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of North Korea. (It was not included in the version published by KCNA, the state news agency of North Korea). Perhaps North Korean officials inserted “comrade” to signal its domestic audience that Sino-North Korean party ties are still in good shape. This is consistent with the insistence of Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, that China’s ties with North Korea remain on track despite the failure of the two leaders to visit each other’s country since coming to power. Kim told Kyodo News on September 10 that “China is our neighboring and friendly country” and that a visit would be “prepared in accordance with the actual circumstances.”
Pyongyang preferred to signal its dissatisfaction in its own way. It relegated China’s congratulatory message to page 3 of Rodong Sinmun, a clear break with past practice, according to South Korea’s Joon Ang Ilbo. By contrast, Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s greetings were published on the front page.
Beijing appears to be trying to let its erstwhile ideological ally know who is boss. North Korea is miffed. So far, the bilateral discord has not been consequential, however: China has yet to impose significant pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and it is unlikely to do so. Despite Xi Jinping’s distaste for the North’s hereditary dictatorship and dysfunctional economic system, preserving stability along China’s border and averting a rift in ties with Pyongyang remains a high priority.
Ms. Bonnie S. Glaser is Senior Adviser for Asia within the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. Ms. Lin Kim is a research intern with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS and a fellow at the Asan Academy.
Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at CSIS.