North Korean leader Kim Jong-un dispatched a top military official to Beijing Wednesday on what appears to be a fence-mending mission to his closest ally, in a sign that Pyongyang may be ready to swap diatribe for dialogue.
The past three months of North Korean provocations, including a nuclear test and threats to fire missiles at Washington, have sorely strained China’s patience.
“The relationship has been in such bad shape that the DPRK realizes the time has come to repair it,” says Cheng Xiaohe, a North Korea expert at Renmin University in Beijing, referring to the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea by its official name.
That might open up possibilities for renewed diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula, in which Beijing would likely play a leading role.
Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, head of the North Korean Army’s political bureau, is the most senior envoy Pyongyang has sent to Beijing for nearly a year. On arrival he went straight into a meeting with Wang Jiarui, the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s international department, Beijing’s point man for contacts with North Korea.
Neither side made any official comment on the subject of their discussions. But Beijing has made little secret of its growing frustrations at North Korea’s recent behavior.
Last March China joined the US and other UN Security Council members in voting for tougher sanctions against North Korea in the wake of Pyongyang’s third nuclear test. What’s more, Beijing has made a point of implementing the sanctions: Earlier this month the Bank of China announced that it had frozen accounts belonging to Pyongyang’s major foreign trade bank, although some smaller Chinese banks in places like border trade zones like Dandong still do business with North Korean clients.
Top Chinese leaders have also issued unprecedented public warnings to the young North Korean leader, who has been in power for 18 months. Last month, at the height of Pyongyang’s saber rattling, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared pointedly that “no one should be allowed to throw a region, and even the whole world, into chaos for selfish gain.”
That reprimand, and signs that Beijing and Washington increasingly see eye to eye on the Korean crisis, appear to have had an effect. After exploding a nuclear device, abrogating the 1953 Korean War ceasefire, closing an industrial park operated jointly with South Korea, and unleashing repeated barrages of fearsome threats against the United States, North Korea has quieted down over the past two weeks.
Two medium range missiles, ready for launch, have been withdrawn from their launch pad, for example. On Tuesday, Pyongyang released 16 Chinese fishermen whom a North Korean naval vessel had detained for alleged illegal fishing in Korean waters.
Implicit in Chinese warnings is the threat of an economic squeeze: North Korea depends on China for almost all its energy and most of its food imports, and Chinese companies are responsible for the lion’s share of foreign investment in North Korea.
Cutting trade and investment, however, would hurt Chinese exporters and investors too, making Beijing reluctant to use its economic leverage. There are in fact few if any cases known of such leverage used with DPRK.
Vice Marshal Choe’s visit appears to be another oscillation in North Korean diplomacy, which swings between aggression and retreat.
As President Xi prepares to meet President Obama in California in two weeks’ time, and then to receive South Korean President Park Geun-hye shortly afterwards in Beijing, Choe may ask the Chinese to carry some sort of message to them, suggests Dr. Cheng.
But if Pyongyang wants China’s diplomatic help, he adds, “Choe had better not have come empty handed. North Korea will have to pledge to exercise self restraint, at least for the foreseeable future.”