N. Korea's triumphal congress does little to win over a frustrated China

During his five years in power, Kim has shown little regard for his influential neighbor's concerns.

Damir Sagolj/Reuters
North Koreans participate in a mass dance in Pyongyang's main ceremonial square, a day after the ruling Workers' Party of Korea party wrapped up its first congress in 36 years.

At this week’s elaborately staged North Korean Workers’ Party Congress, Kim Jong-un sought to project the image of a feared and respected world leader. It may have worked at home, but has done little to win over a frustrated ally – China – which remains alarmed by its neighbor’s nuclear weapons program.

In an editorial Wednesday, the state-run China Daily opined that North Korea’s economic and nuclear goals conflict with each other, and that Mr. Kim doesn’t seem to care. 

“He appears unaware that his nuclear ambitions are poison for his country's economy,” stated the strongly worded editorial.  “They will not only exhaust his country's very limited resources, but will further isolate his country from the rest of the world, politically and economically.”

There seems little, however, that Beijing is willing or able to do to persuade Pyongyang of this, beyond supporting international sanctions that have so far proved ineffective. Fearful that economic collapse in North Korea could dangerously destabilize its own border regions, China is wary of squeezing the errant Kim too hard.

Shi Yinghong, a professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University, says that China’s leaders have no choice now but to recognize Kim as North Korea’s unchallenged leader. But that status, he predicts, doesn’t mean that China’s frosty relations with the Kim regime will soon thaw. 

“China will not recognize Kim’s demands to be recognized as nuclear power,” says Professor Shi. “China will continue to implement strict and harsh sanctions on North Korea through the UN Security Council.”

In recent days the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, has been awash with ceremonies, mass rallies, parades, and a party meeting that was closed to foreign reporters. It was the cloistered country’s first ruling party congress in 36 years, aimed at demonstrating Kim’s consolidation of power. To that end, the supreme leader delivered a nearly three-hour speech on Sunday, largely focused on economic goals.

Beijing played along with the political theater. Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a letter to Kim, congratulating him on adding another title to his name – chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman on Tuesday said China hopes to enhance its ties with the North. 

Yet during his speech, Kim made clear that North Korea will continue its development of nuclear weapons following a series of nuclear weapons tests and missile launches earlier this year. Those tests have so infuriated China that, in March, it joined the United States in increasing sanctions on North Korea.

China’s reasons for opposing North Korea’s nuclear program have only partly to do with fears of an accident or rogue attack. China worries that North Korea’s nuclear weapons give the United States an excuse to bolster its military presence on the Korean peninsula, part of a larger policy of “containment.” 

China is already worked up by US plans to deploy a missile defense system in South Korea. “It only complicates the situation,” says Wang Junsheng, research fellow at the National Institute of International Strategy, part of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, referring to the drills and proposed THAAD missile defense network.

Adam Cathcart, a specialist in China-North Korea relations at the University of Leeds in the UK, believes Beijing must be disappointed that Kim did not use the congress to send even the smallest signal of rapprochement. 

“In all of that wash of words, there was almost nothing that would make Chinese officials think they had any influence over North Korea, or that things were going in the right direction,” he says. 

Since Kim came to power following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011, Beijing and Pyongyang have barely been on speaking terms. Neither Kim nor China’s Xi have paid state visits to each other’s country. China last week did not send a delegation to the congress, as it did in 1980, apparently because it was not invited.

Up until two years ago, China had a friend in Jang Sung-taek, Kim’s powerful uncle. But the young Kim purged and executed Gen. Jang in 2014, leaving Beijing with little access to North Korea’s leadership elite.

One possible bright spot for Beijing is the recent elevation of Choe Ryong-hae to serve on the standing committee of the Workers’ Party politburo, says Mr. Cathcart. Choe attended last September’s military parade in Beijing that marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and is thought to be on good terms with Chinese officials. “The fact that he hasn’t yet been purged ... suggests there is some stability in place,” Cathcart says. 

For the past five years, Kim has advocated a policy of byongjin – parallel goals of growing North Korea’s economy and its nuclear capability. Yet without outside investment and assistance, analysts say North Korea will remain a backwater.

“Since Kim has taken office, byongjin hasn’t worked,” says Dr. Wang. “These two policies are in conflict with each other.” 

For its part, the United States harbors doubts as to whether China is really enforcing old and new economic sanctions along its border with North Korea. The isolated regime relies on China for more than 80 percent of its foreign trade, and almost all its oil, which is not subject to the United Nations embargo.

Cathcart notes that the provinces in northeast China are in an economic slump, making them increasingly keen on trade with next-door North Korea. While China must create the appearance of enforcing the UN sanctions, he says, “It is not going to strangle its neighbor. It wouldn’t be good for North Korea’s stability and it wouldn’t help China’s economy.” 

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