Keeping China in Check: How North Korea Manages its Relationship with a Superpower

On the 24-hour train from Pyongyang to Peking; "Le retour à Pékin se fait en train. Un voyage de 24h auquel participe également un militaire nord-coréen."  Photo A. de la Grange, via Le Figaro

On the 24-hour train from Pyongyang to Peking; “Le retour à Pékin se fait en train. Un voyage de 24h auquel participe également un militaire nord-coréen.” Photo A. de la Grange, via Le Figaro

The following essay was published at the China Policy Institute blog, University of Nottingham, on 28 July 2014 (link). 

Around the world today, knowing how and when to deflect the will of the Chinese Communist Party seems to be something of a common theme. Beijing’s confidence is manifested at every turn: When one of its top leaders arrives in London, China seems to expect nothing less than audiences with the Queen, massive and obligatory profits, and silence about Tibet. Chinese state propaganda continues to promote a version of history that emphasizes victimization by the West, but by and large the country’s government now gets what it wants.

Why, then, when China looks at its impoverished neighbour North Korea, does the PRC seem so stymied, and even impotent?

Economic leverage has been a key tool in Beijing’s kit. But, just as the existence of large economic ties does not ipso facto prevent war from breaking out between China and Japan, the notion of strong economic ties between China and North Korea does not necessarily lead to outright Chinese influence – or China’s ability to use that leverage. The DPRK is surely dependent upon foreign trade with China, Chinese oil, and consumer goods, and North Korean businesses operating legally in China are a major contributor to the Pyongyang regime’s balance sheet.

Pyongyang’s ability to survive on very little, and the implicit threat of its collapse, make it almost impossible for China to shut off this flow. A shutting-off of cross-border trade would not simply represent a backtracking after years of slow growth, it would be a total contradiction in Beijing’s broader policy to open up frontier areas for transportation and trade. Such a policy would also lead to a great deal of illegal cross-border activity which the PRC is already rather annoyed at having to police.

Cultural influence, or ‘soft power’ has been another element of Beijing’s global strategy. There are equivalents of the ‘Confucius Institutes’ in Pyongyang, with an estimated 700 graduates per year. But North Korea keeps its small population of overseas Chinese under careful surveillance (Kim Jong-un finally allowed them to have landline telephones, an improvement) and at Chinese New Year’s parties in Pyongyang, foreigners outnumber North Koreans. Chinese students at elite universities in Pyongyang will occasionally swap USB sticks with North Korean friends, but the content absorbed is just as likely to be Japanese pornography as tracts about marketization.

Kim Il-song was mortally opposed to Chinese language education in the DPRK, telling his successors not to trust Chinese capitalists. There is no need to conjure up a ‘last testament of Kim Jong-il’ to argue that anti-Chinese sentiment is hard-wired into the ruling arts of the North Korean leadership.

Using military power in North Korea is hardly a hypothetical for the PRC, which undertook three draining years of total conventional war against the US and United Nations in Korea (1950-1953) and spent another five years of occupation and reconstruction of the DPRK (1953-1958). Mao’s gamble that intervening in the Korean War would not result in either a huge defeat or American nuclear attacks on Chinese soil paid off. But Chinese leaders today have very little stomach for another war to either destroy or save the DPRK; North Korea’s nuclear deterrent provides yet more reason to stay out.

North Korea’s unique historical position as a sovereign state that had been fully occupied by Chinese communist troops understandably makes the North Koreans touchy and prone to exaggerated claims of Kimist power and genius. It also makes the Chinese extremely halting when any suggestion is tendered that such a turn of events could again come to pass. Even the fatuous editors elevated as ‘public intellectuals’ in PRC state media have to recognize Beijing’s sense of ambivalence in this area.

If history helps to immobilize China’s freedom of action with North Korea, the communist giant’s relationships in the region also prevent it from making much progress. Outright hatred of Abe Shinzo means that there is next to no policy coordination between Japan and China on North Korea – very much to the benefit of Pyongyang. And every forward step taken to heighten the symbolism of China’s relationship with Seoul makes North Korea all the more recalcitrant and obdurate. When Xi Jinping went to the South Korean capital on 3 July, the DPRK media said he shared Park Geun-hye’s ‘dog’s dream of denuclearization’; less than three weeks later, the country’s top political and military organ, the National Defence Commission chaired by Kim Jong-un, called China ‘weak-willed…clinging to the malodorous coattails of the US.’

North Korea is no poster child for doing Beijing’s bidding. Assertions that North Korea is China’s “savage attack dog” make for exciting reading, but are completely off-base. It is North Korea’s refusal to heed China’s pressure and insistence that in so many ways makes the country noteworthy.




Stephan Haggard’s Comment on Sinuiju SEZs

Hwanggumpyeong Island in 2011; image courtesy Al Jazeera news

Banners in lieu of factories on Hwanggumpyeong Island in 2011; image courtesy Al Jazeera news

Stephan Haggard is frequently described as one of the top North Korea analysts in the United States; his breadth of interest, range of expertise, and command of massive amounts of data, along with his keen analytical eye all serve to confirm his standing in the research community.  I was therefore glad to see that he took interest in one of my recent papers on the subject of North Korean Special Economic Zones in and near Sinuiju, the city that serves as a major conduit for North Korean trade with the People’s Republic of China:

Adam Cathcart’s SinoNK is one of our go-to sources, in part because Cathcart and the writers for the blog visit the border zone frequently, and in part because they draw heavily on Chinese sources others don’t pick up. Cathcart was recently in Washington where he presented a new paper at the Korea Economic Institute on the Hwanggumpyeong and Wihwa SEZ’s. (A direct link to the full text is here; for further background, see our own posts on the two zones and investment more generally.)

A new look at the zones is warranted by the fact that they appeared to fall under the management of Jang Song-thaek; as we noted at the time, Jang’s fall raised the question of whether North Korea’s commitment to the zones would continue. Cathcart provides an excellent overview of the troubled history of the two islands. He details early Chinese critiques, including that North Korea was not investing in basics such as flood control, as well as ongoing institutional and legal squabbles. Outside of investment in a costly bridge—Cathcart estimates as much as $350 million—the lack of Chinese investment in the zones reflected ongoing problems even prior to Jang’s demise. Cathcart details negative reactions to Jang’s purge in China, but he also makes an interesting and obvious link we had missed: that North Korea’s push to set up SEZ’s occurred at the same time as the Jang purge and effectively sidelined all of the effort that the Chinese had invested in the two islands; as Cathcart points out, one of the proposed SEZ’s in Sinuiju would be directly competitive.

Cathcart concludes that there are still political forces in China that are seeking continuity with the zone projects, in effect trying to calm the waters. But the larger arc of Cathcart’s narrative is that the North Koreans seem unable to commit to such projects in a sustained and credible way. The open questions are “why.” Possible answers include fear of Chinese dominance, ongoing struggles over rents, and interference from conservative forces opposed to the effort. Our favored explanation, however, is simple failure to understand the institutional and physical infrastructure required to make such projects work. A must-read piece for anyone interested in the prospects for reform.

Inter-Korean Sports Diplomacy: Comment in the Washington Post

A North Korean tug-o-war in Pyongyang for May Day, 2014. Image via Chosun Central TV.

A North Korean tug-o-war in Pyongyang for May Day, 2014. Image via Chosun Central TV.

Adam Taylor runs a key foreign affairs blog for the Washington Post. Today he was kind enough to ask for my views on this story of his about North Korea offering to send cheerleaders to Incheon for the Asian Games.

Here is the full text of my response:

I do think that [the offer to send a cheerleading squad to the South]  is important and noteworthy; I do not see this as just some throwaway proposition that North Korea only plans to use as leverage (and ultimately cancel, though that is always possible) in the short-term.

If you are an optimist, it indicates that the softer line taken towards South Korea by the North Korean regime early in 2014 still has a chance and that there is still room in North Korean ruling circles for an opening of peaceful gestures toward the South. In spite of calling the South Korean president some really awful names and complaining rather loudly about South Korean-US military drills earlier this year, North Korea still has the capacity to reach out to Seoul. Anytime you have North Koreans agreeing to send an official delegation of their own people to South Korea for any reason, it is a big deal, I think you take it, and I think you say yes.

At the same time we cannot lose sight of the fact that North Korea has periodically and since its very beginnings, gone on these kind of charm offensives with South Korea, as part of a larger strategy of manipulation of South Korean public opinion — and in the past, attempts at the full subversion of the South Korean state. Not that these are a bunch of “pom-pom commandos”; I’m sure they will follow every rule set out for them.

[...] Consider Kim Jong-un’s emphasis on sports and on sports diplomacy. To the extent that he has put his mark on the North Korean leadership system and on ruling think, I that he does next to throw his weight around when it comes to matters of sport and sport diplomacy. The Dennis Rodman visit being one very important example.

Like musical ensembles, sports are one of the few ways in which North Koreans can leave the country officially and take trips; I think that’s a really important conduit. It does not mean that they’re all going to discoverJohn Locke and Adam Smith, but I think that it does open their eyes a bit and make for some fascinating interactions.

Maybe the big game here is that North Korea is looking towards 2018 when the ROK will host the Winter Olympics; I think that Kim very much wants to keep the door open for possibly cohosting events. (Chris Green has a great essay on this here: That be good for his prestige and would feed into this notion he’s promoting internally of North Korea’s international importance.

Finally because his wife, Ri Sol-ju, was part of this cheerleading delegation at 2005 to Seoul, we cannot discount the fact that she might have personally lobbied for this; she might have had great experience then and want others to experience it today. It could be a nice reward for some über-loyal members of the elite to take such a trip; it’s obviously once-in-a-lifetime event.

Guardian Contribution: Xi Jinping and the Dog Days of Summer

Xi Jinping; via Xinhua

Xi Jinping; via Xinhua

For all the international frisson which is being generated around Xi Jinping’s preference for travelling to Seoul over Pyongyang, there is one large demographic that seems unlikely to know or care anything about it: the North Korean people. For the 23 million people trapped within the otherworldly bubble of DPRK state media, the current news cycle is far more fixated on the revolutionary repertoire of an obscure Russian wind band than the itinerary of China’s head of state. To the extent that they might be discussed at all outside of North Korean elite circles, Xi Jinping’s diplomatic goals in the South Korean capital do not perturb the North Korean regime in the least.

Nevertheless, ire must be displayed for the proper audiences. And, since well over 80% of its non-peninsular trade is with China, the North Korean state has to resort to indirect insults. One article referred to withstanding the “pressure of the great power chauvinists.” Another article in the Party newspaper called Park Geun-hye’s goal of denuclearization (a goal very much shared by Xi Jinping) a “dog’s dream.” Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un demonstrates an almost Rabelasian appetite for, and delight in, watching missile launches.

China has seen far worse, however, and the Chinese Communist Party continues to build up its northeastern frontier with the Korean peninsula. The Party Secretary for Jilin province was recently on the Sino-North Korean border, talking in Xi-inflected language about “accelerating the interconnection of Northeast Asian transportation routes” via new high-speed trains, and making the borderlands safe and prosperous.

Trade with North Korea continues, even as reports emerge of problems with oil exports, deadly accidents and a total cessation of construction on two islands leased to China. Perfectly-timed defector narratives recently asserted that a letter to Chinese leaders helped to seal the death sentence for Kim Jong-un’s very uncle this past December.

The People’s Republic of China has had diplomatic relations with Seoul since 1992, but its business ties to South Korea date back another decade. And South Korean business leaders are meeting with Xi in force on July 4, investing heavily in Northeast China and gambling on the long-term prospect of gaining access to the minerals and manpower north of the 38th parallel. China’s greatest leverage with Pyongyang is geographical, and Chinese dynasties have made a pattern of allying with southern Korean kingdoms to extinguish disrespectful foes in the north. As Xi Jinping cozies up to South Korean capitalists and dreams his canine dream of a nuclear-free peninsula, the North Korean leadership might keep that in mind.

This essay will appear shortly as part of a roundtable on the Guardian’s North Korea network

On BBC re: Xi Jinping in Seoul

This morning I spoke with Dan Damon of the BBC World Service. We talked about Xi Jinping in Seoul, Chinese-North Korean business ties, Russians in Pyongyang, denuclearization, and if China is fundamentally changing its North Korea policy. The program, which can be accessed here, should be available on iPlayer for about a week.

On PRI’s “The World” re: Show Trials and North Korea’s Foreign Relations

PRIYesterday I spoke on a broadcast interview with Public Radio International; topics included tourism, show trials, US-North Korean relations and of course China’s relationship with North Korea.  Text and audio of the interview is available in full on the PRI site.

New Allegations of a Chinese Link to the Jang Song-taek Purge & Execution

Jang Song-taek

Jang Song-taek in China, 2012 | Image via China Daily / Reuters

According to what would appear to have to be a very high source cultivated by New Focus International, sometime in early 2013 (i.e., in the aftermath of the satellite launch, or maybe the 3rd nuclear test) Jang Song-taek wrote “the Chinese leadership” a letter explaining he wanted to reform North Korea’s economy and rebalance the DPRK’s locus of power away from the Party and into the Cabinet.

The text of the letter (presumably read over the phone by New Focus’ source, or written down by someone extremely reckless and brought out by hand) described Jang’s view that North Korea had moved away from its administrative fundamentals established by Kim Il-sung.

Jang Song-taek’s alleged letter, coincidentally, works perfectly in keeping with New Focus International‘s historical interpretation of the 1980s (as described in the book Dear Leader), complaining that “following Kim Jong-il’s rise to power through the Party since the 80s, the country has functioned as a KWP-pivoted system.”

Is this enough to get a top official executed in North Korea? Perhaps. We aren’t supposed to ask questions about the way the system works, particularly when the questions or dirty laundry are being shared directly with unnamed Chinese counterparts.

According to New Focus, the main problem was that Kim Jong-un had given his uncle some leeway to approach Chinese leaders with this indecent proposal, suggesting again that the new leader’s diplomatic acumen and understanding of the system over which he presides was not very high.

During the “four day investigation” of Jang’s wrongdoing by the Ministry of State Security, Jang was said to repeatedly state that “the contents of the letter had not only had the approval of Kim Jong-un himself but his active support.” Thus the need for summary execution — leaving reformist impulses in the grave with Jang, and not implicating the new Supreme Leader.

While a few other details exist that bear discussion (the role of the Sinuiju SEZ, impact of the rumours domestically, ongoing crackdowns, partial confirmation of the story via the 13 December execution document, to name four), it seems that this story adds rather more weight than New Focus has done previously on the scenario of a powerless or at the very least, conflicted and ineffective, Kim Jong-un.