North Korean Envoy Visits Beijing: Groundwork for a Sino-DPRK Reset?

By Andy Lim

Kim Jong-il, father of Kim Jong-un, shown during a secret visit to China in 2010. President Xi Jinping and China's new leadership face pressure from Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo to reign in North Korea.

Following the death of Kim Jong-il, shown here during a 2010 visit to China, North Korea’s relations with Beijing have deteriorated. New leader Kim Jong-un’s provocations have strained ties with its sole ally, and placed President Xi Jinping’s recently minted regime under pressure. Photo utilized under fair use guidelines.

The arrival of Choe Ryong-hae in Beijing on May 22 for a three day consultation marked the first high-level visit between China and North Korea since Pyongyang’s missile test of December 2012 froze such interactions. Choe, the director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army, is the third-highest ranking official in the North Korean leadership, and therefore is the most senior North Korean official to have visited China since Kim Jong-un came to power in December 2011.

The biggest question throughout Choe’s trip was whether he was going to meet President Xi Jinping, and that mystery was finally answered on Friday evening, May 24, when Choe was granted an audience with China’s leader, where he presented a personal letter from Kim Jong-un to President Xi. The two reiterated their wish to maintain strong bilateral relations and their traditional friendship. Director Choe reaffirmed that North Korea is “ready to work” with relevant parties to solve the issues on the Korean Peninsula through dialogue and consultation, including the six-party talks. President Xi on the other hand reaffirmed his stance on denuclearization and for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula through dialogue and consultations.

The timing of the visit is significant in that it came during a time of uneasy relations between the two allies. This friendship was tested even more recently by the revelations that the Bank of China has stopped its dealings with North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank, news which came out during the Park-Obama summit earlier this month on May 7 in Washington. Furthermore, in another sign that Beijing is cooperating more closely with Washington and Seoul, they were notified in advance of the North Korean envoy’s visit to China. Just last August when North Korea’s Jang Song-thaek visited Beijing, Chinese officials did not inform Washington or Seoul.

Upon his arrival, Choe met with Wang Jiarui, the head of the International Liaison Department, who also acts as the main Chinese intermediary to Pyongyang. During their meeting, the two reportedly reached an agreement to resume high-level bilateral cooperation, which has been suspended since last December. The last high-level visit took place in November 2012, when China’s Li Jianguo, the vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress visited Pyongyang.

On May 23, Choe met with Liu Yunsan, the fifth-highest ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and a member of the Standing Committee. CCTV reports that Liu suggested to his North Korean visitor during their talks for them to take “practical steps to alleviate the tense situation” on the Korean Peninsula and to return to the six-party talks. In response to this suggestion, Choe expressed his willingness to accept his host’s proposal and for North Korea to return to dialogue with all parties. Such remarks were not mentioned at all by KCNA’s reporting of the meeting.

Prior to his meeting with President Xi, Choe called on the military leader General Fan Changlong, the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. Xinhua reported that during the meeting Fan expressed that the Chinese position remains a peaceful and denuclearized Korean Peninsula, to which Choe responded that while there “is no guarantee of peace,” North Korea is willing to work with all sides to solve the problem through dialogue. Once again, this seems to reaffirm a new willingness by the North Koreans to return to the six-party talks, although whether this is still too premature remains to be seen, given the well-known opacity of North Korea’s real intentions.

With the upcoming Xi-Park state-level summit tentatively planned for late June 2013, and the scheduled Xi-Obama Sunnylands June 7-8 summit, the only kid left on the block is a Xi-Kim Jong-un summit. This visit lays the groundwork for a reset in relations permitting such a meeting.

Mr. Andy Lim is a researcher with the Korea Chair at CSIS.


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