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China–North Korean Ties in the Wake of the Death of Kim Jong Il 1

Bonnie S. Glaser and Brittany Billingsley
2

Many analysts today continue to portray Sino–North Korean ties as a close alliance; however deeper analysis suggests that the relationship between China and North Korea is better understood as a marriage of convenience. As Kim Jong Un passes the six-month benchmark of his reign as North Korea’s leader, China–DPRK ties appear to be especially troubled. This paper analyzes the key developments that have influenced Sino–North Korean relations in 2012, includ ing the interaction surrounding Kim Jong Il’s funeral, the April 2012 missile launch and its aftermath, the seizure of Chinese fishermen by North Korea. It also evaluates the pattern of official bilateral exchanges and assesses Chinese media commentary. Based on available evidence, several observations are offered: North Korea’s insistence on proceeding with the April satellite launch despite Beijing’s clear and public expression of opposition has created new strains in the relationship; bilateral exchanges continue, but have slowed and high-level visits have been curtailed on both sides; and criticism in China of the government’s pol icy toward North Korea appears to be growing.

Keywords: Asia, China, North Korea, China–DPRK bilateral relations, regional security, Chinese foreign policy, East Asia, Korean Peninsula
1 The authors are deeply indebted to Cristina Garafola, CSIS intern, for her research in preparing this article. 2 Bonnie Glaser is a senior fellow with the CSIS Freeman Chair in China Studies where she conducts research on Chinese foreign and security policy. She is also a senior associate with CSIS Pacific Forum. Prior to joining CSIS, Ms. Glaser was a consultant for the U.S. government on East Asian security. she received her B.A. in political science from Boston University and her M.A. with concentrations in international economics and Chinese studies from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Brittany Billingsley is a research associate and program coordinator with the CSIS Freeman Chair in China Studies. She previously served as a visiting fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS and as an intern with the U.S. Department of State. She received a B.A. in East Asian studies from Pennsylvania State University and an M.A. in international policy studies from the Monterey Institute in International Studies.

106 Korea Review, Vol. II, No. 2

November 2012

China Signals Desire for Continued Close Ties High-Level Visits Curtailed Initial Test of Ties Upping the Ante? Growing Frustration and Concern Bilateral Ties Enter Warming Trend Conclusion

In the aftermath of the Korean War, leaders of China and North Korea often described relations between their two countries as close as “lips and teeth.” Many analysts today continue to portray Sino–North Korean ties as a close alliance. Some experts argue that in the wake of the death of Kim Jong Il, Beijing and Pyongyang are moving even closer (Carpenter, 2011). Deeper analysis suggests, however, that the relationship between China and North Korea is better understood as a marriage of convenience. Perhaps partly as a consequence of its growing economic dependence on Beijing, North Korea is resentful and even contemptuous of its bigger neighbor. Although some Chinese may continue to view the regime in Pyongyang as a strategic asset, China’s leadership increasingly considers North Korea as a liability that it has no choice but to tolerate. There is ample evidence of growing discord between the two neighbors in recent years, as North Korea has stubbornly pursued a nuclear weapons program, has refused to adopt Chinese-style economic reforms, and has occasionally taken provocative actions against South Korea that have exacerbated regional tensions. For six months following the death of Kim Jong Il, China–DPRK ties appear to be especially strained. Pyongyang’s apparent disregard for Chinese interests and concerns has led Beijing to employ various means to express its frustration and displeasure. At the same time, North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong Un, undoubtedly consumed with the succession, also miffed at China’s policies and eschewed opportunities to promote the Sino–DPRK relationship. Then in July and August 2012, both nations signaled their

China–North Korean Ties in the Wake of the Death of Kim Jong Il 107

readiness to engage, and a warming trend began to rise. This paper will analyze the key developments and incidents that have influenced Sino–North Korean relations since Kim Jong Un assumed the helm as North Korea’s top leader. It will assess the bilateral interaction surrounding Kim Jong Il’s funeral, the pattern of official exchanges, the April 2012 missile launch and its aftermath, the seizure of Chinese fishermen by North Korea, and Chinese media commentary. The upturn in the relationship in the summer of 2012 will then be explained. Securing hard data on Sino–North Korean ties is difficult, and there are many facets that cannot be fully known, which requires observers to assess this complex relationship based on available information and to attempt to tease out tensions lying beneath the surface.

China Signals Desire for Continued Close Ties
In the days following Kim Jong Il’s death, China moved quickly to solidify its position as the steadfast ally of the new leadership under Kim’s son, Kim Jong Un, through diplomatic condolences and high-level representation. On December 19, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party sent a formal letter of condolence to Pyongyang (PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2011). On December 20 and 21, all nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, including CCP Secretary General Hu Jintao, visited the North Korean embassy in Beijing to express their condolences in person. During his visit, Hu emphasized China’s “persistent policy” was “to continuously consolidate and develop the traditionally friendly relations with North Korea” (“Chinese Leaders Mourn,” 2011). Xinhua, China’s state-run media agency, also reported Hu’s conviction that North Koreans would “turn their grief into strength under the leadership of comrade Kim Jong Un, and make unremitting efforts for the realization of sustainable peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula” (“Chinese President Hu,” 2011). The positive language used in the condolences and the turnout of the entire Politburo Standing Committee were undoubtedly intended to signal China’s desire to sustain good bilateral relations.

2012). although it did allow some foreign representatives residing in Pyongyang to attend.” 2012). China’s Ambassador Liu Hongcai was among the few foreigners permitted to pay his respects at the funeral (Phillips. the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. however.108 Korea Review. As a gesture to China. 2 November 2012 Beijing reportedly planned to dispatch a special envoy to North Korea to attend the State funeral. but he did not personally attend (KCNA. According to many reports. the State Council of China. .” 2011). 2011). and the Central Military Commission (“Hundreds of Millions. diplomatic interactions between China and North Korea had been curtailed.3 KCNA reported that wreaths were sent to be placed around Kim Jong Il’s coffin by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. 2012). Vol. a Hong Kongbased Phoenix TV reporter maintained that in the aftermath of the funeral. China proposed sending Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang. One Japanese media outlet even suggested that Hu Jintao would go to the funeral (“Chinese Leader to. II. In late January. North Korea decided to ban official foreign delegations. China was notably absent from a long list of recipients of thank-you letters from Kim Jong Un replying condolences on the death of Kim Jong Il (“Kim Jong Eun. however. the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress. Some observers suggested that Kim Jong Un may have made a separate expression of gratitude expressly for China through Ambassador Liu (Park. 3 China’s Ambassador Liu Hongcai was the only foreign delegate to attend the funeral. 2012). No. Sino–North Korean relations were not getting off to a good start. and that the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang was not interacting closely with Kim Jong Un or his inner circle (Lu. A few weeks later. a member of the Politburo who had studied at Kim Il Sung University (Makino. Others speculated that in fact no thank-you letter was sent and that the failure to do so was a deliberate diplomatic snub. 2011). Kim Jong Un arranged a reception for individuals from China with close ties to North Korea who were invited to mourn the demise of his father.” 2012). It seemed that despite Chinese efforts.

however. various media reports. as it can be difficult to determine if an exchange is one or the other when both counterparts occupy both high-level party and state positions. but the same number as was carried out in the first half of that year. Nos. only 10 exchanges took place between Chinese and North Korean officials and/or delegations. the types of delegations indicate some new trends. The year 2011 saw a . Table 1 Bilateral Exchanges. That number of bilateral exchanges was almost half the number of exchanges conducted in the second half of 2011.China–North Korean Ties in the Wake of the Death of Kim Jong Il 109 High-Level Visits Curtailed Over the past few years. No.14. Comparative Connections.13. Sino–North Korean bilateral exchanges at all levels have steadily increased. Sources: OSC Charts of PRC–DPRK Exchanges. Vol. In the first six months of 2012. 1–3 and Vol. 2009) and an analysis of bilateral exchanges in 2011 shows an increase in the number of publicly reported delegation trips to 29 (see Table 1). 2011–12 Note: “Political exchanges” refer to both party and government exchanges. In addition to a lower frequency of meetings since Kim Jong Il’s death. In 2009 there were approximately 20 bilateral exchanges between the two countries (Snyder & Byun.1.

and Kim Yong Il. Even more notably. 2 November 2012 mix of economic. By contrast. military. While it may be true that the North Korean regime has been focusing on the transition of power and other internal matters. secretary for international affairs of the Korean Workers Party). and the Central Military Commission member Li Jinai led a PLA delegation to Pyongyang in November. and Premier Choe Yong Rim traveled there. where he reportedly sought economic advice (Petrov. In 2011 the North Korean side sent four senior delegations to China: North Korean leader Kim Jong Il visited China twice. it is notable that Supreme People’s Assembly Presidium Chairman Kim Yong Nam’s first trip abroad after Kim Jong Il’s death was not to China. Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Fu Ying has already . Political exchanges clearly dominated. but rather to Singapore. Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu met the top North Korean leadership in February. However. including the visit of a CCP head of a Chinese tourism company to North Korea and a Red Cross Society delegation from Pyongyang that traveled to Beijing. with no economic exchanges occurring yet in 2012. In 2011. Vol. and political exchanges. in the first six months of 2012 there had only been one delegation led by a senior Chinese official (former foreign minister Li Zhaoxing. but there were also three military. Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho attended a forum hosted by China in Beijing. initial data from 2012 shows a drop in both military and economic delegations. and two separate visits were made by Politburo members Li Yuanchao and Zhang Dejiang. No. That same year. 2012). II. who is currently chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the National People’s Congress but visited under his title as chairman of the party-affiliated China Association for International Friendly Contact) and two North Korean delegation visits to China by senior officials (vice chairman of the Central Military Commission Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho. senior-level exchanges in 2012 have slowed significantly (see Table 2). six delegations from China to North Korea were led by senior officials. cultural. and two cultural exchanges. For example. Li Keqiang. Beijing dispatched one member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo to Pyongyang. Delegation visits have been headed primarily by lower-level officials. Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Vice Chairman Chen Zongxing led a CPPCC delegation in May.110 Korea Review. two economic.

“China openly backs. Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying also extended an open invitation during her two visits to North Korea in 2012. It is possible that Beijing is with- . senior-level delegations could include members of the ninemember Politburo Standing Committee. ministers. Even before the funeral in late December 2011. they separately conveyed Beijing’s invitation for Kim Jong Un to visit China (“ . members of the Central Military Commission.China–North Korean Ties in the Wake of the Death of Kim Jong Il 111 traveled to North Korea twice in 2012. or members of the Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee Secretariat. senior-level delegations could be headed by members of the Presidium of the Politburo.” 2011) and. members of the National Defense Commission. Table 2 Senior-Level Delegations. while in Pyongyang. members of the Central Military Commission. In December 2010 and February 2011. Additionally. China’s efforts to arrange a state visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have yet to come to fruition. the leadership transition to promote Kim Jong Un was already in full swing. It is unclear as to why there has been such a decline in senior-level consultations between the two countries. 2010. On the Chinese side. State Councilors Dai Bingguo and Meng Jianzhu respectively visited North Korea (PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs. and senior members of the National People’s Congress or the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. the 25-member Politburo. 2011–12 2011 6 1 2 1 1 1 4 2012 1 0 0 0 0 1 2 Total Chinese senior delegations to North Korea Chinese Politburo Standing Committee Chinese Politburo Chinese Minister Chinese CMC Chinese NPC/CPPCC Total North Korean senior delegations to China Note: “Senior-level delegations” are defined here as visits led by senior officials.” 2011). On the North Korean side. state councilors. China reportedly has extended invitations for a state visit by North Korea’s new leader through several channels.

Or it could be signaling its own displeasure with China’s policy (especially Chinese condemnation of the April satellite launch) and seeking to distance the regime from Beijing for the time being.” 2012).” 2012. Meanwhile. the pattern suggests new strains in the Sino–North Korean relationship. 2012a). Initial Test of Ties North Korea’s March 16 announcement of its plans to launch a satellite in mid-April posed the first publicly evident test of bilateral ties under the new Kim Jung Un regime. Three days later. Pyongyang may be unwilling to guarantee that a visiting high-level Chinese official will be met by Kim Jung Un. China’s Foreign Ministry engaged the media as well as . Zhang also stated that China had “taken note” of North Korea’s plans. China’s Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying also traveled to Pyongyang in an effort to persuade the North Korean leadership to stave off the launch (Perlez. but regardless. II. The new North Korean leadership may be focused on domestic matters and the leadership transition. The meeting lasted four and a half hours and marked the second time within a week the two sides had met (“China Says It. The two reportedly held a “frank” discussion—terminology Beijing usually uses to express disagreement—on safeguarding peace and stability on the peninsula. as well as the international community’s response. Altern a t i v e l y. Vol. “summoned” North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho to Beijing on 19 March. No. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun met with North Korean Ambassador to China Ji Jae Ryong to express China’s “concerns and worries” about the situation. 2012). exercise restraint and avoid bigger complexity caused by the escalation of situation” (PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 2 November 2012 holding high-level visitors to signal Chinese leaders’ dissatisfaction with the bilateral relationship over the past six months. “China Flexes Muscle.” 2012). and urged “relevant parties to remain calm. Wu Dawei. which were publicly reported—a signal that China viewed the launch as unwelcome. Within hours of the announcement (“China Says It. China’s special representative on Korean Peninsula affairs.112 Korea Review. There is insufficient evidence to support any of these assertions.

a high-level Chinese delegation led by Vice Premier Hui Liangyu proceeded with a visit to North Korea for a four-day “good will” trip starting July 10.–North Korea relations and pave the way for resumption of the six-party talks. China joined the leaders of other nations in an attempt . That Beijing expressed concerns about the April 2012 launch openly and immediately following the announcement by Pyongyang suggests that there was agreement among China’s top leaders that North Korea’s planned satellite test was poorly timed and would be damaging to Chinese interests. Public reporting of Chinese concern and the demarche of a North Korean official in advance of a North Korean missile launch was unprecedented. 2006a). China supported the accord and hoped that it would result in improvement in inter-Korean and U. North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun visited China and met with Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing to discuss bilateral ties and “regional and international issues of common concern” (PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs. there was also no public mention of Chinese admonition prior to North Korea’s announced attempt to fire a satellite into orbit. In addition to conveying direct expressions of concern to North Korean officials. 2006b). In 2006. In 2009. After the missile tests.” 2006).” 2012. Despite the fact that Beijing had not been notified in advance by the North Koreans of the Leap Day Agreement between Washington and Pyongyang. including a long-range Taepodong-2.S. North Set. A month prior. “PRC FM Spokesman. though the Chinese may not have known of Pyongyang’s plans to launch a longrange missile shortly thereafter.” 2012). including the six-party talks (PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 2006. to “mark the 45th anniversary of the treaty of friendship” (“China. firing of seven missiles. 2006. Pyongyang’s announcement torpedoed these hopes and forced Beijing to redirect its diplomatic efforts to crisis control. There were no public signs of discord.China–North Korean Ties in the Wake of the Death of Kim Jong Il 113 Chinese netizens to ensure the consistent delivery of its message: that China opposed the satellite launch and was actively engaged in diplomatic discussions with other countries to ensure the preservation of regional stability (“Foreign Ministry Official. Chinese media did not report any signs of official Chinese opposition in advance of Pyongyang’s July 5.

” Comparatively. “China Flexes Muscle. Foreign Minister Yang held separate phone conversations with U. the 2009 UNSC Presidential Statement used somewhat milder language.” 2012). 2 November 2012 to discourage Pyongyang from proceeding with the launch.” 2012). and underscored that the action was a violation of the UNSC resolution passed in 2006. Presidents Obama and Hu “agreed to coordinate closely” in response to North Korean provocations. Vol.” 2012). No. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Sung-hwan. On April 13 and 14. China continued to coordinate closely with other states. listed several adjustments and additional restrictions to the resolutions.” and maintained that the situation “need[ed] to be worked out in a diplomatic and peaceful manner” (“China Troubled by.” 2012. II.” acknowledged that China was “troubled by the developments.S. On the sidelines of the March 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul. asking the Security Council committee . only three days after North Korea’s failed launch. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi agreed “to call for North Korea’s self-restraint. On April 16. It also called for expanded sanctions. which the statement said had “caused grave security concerns in the region. 2012). China joined other countries in supporting a UNSC Presidential Statement “strongly condemn[ing]” the launch.” It explicitly stated that any launch using ballistic missile technology—even those characterized as satellite or space vehicle launches—was “a serious violation” of UNSC Resolutions 1718 and 1874.114 Korea Review. It “condemn[ed]” the launch without specifying whether it was a missile or a satellite. and President Hu also reportedly said that China was taking the situation “very seriously” (“US Says China. The statement also expressed the determination of the Security Council “to take action accordingly in the event of a further DPRK launch or nuclear test. Yang emphasized that China’s stance on the Korean Peninsula issue was “consistent and clear-cut” and echoed past rhetoric calling for all sides to remain calm and utilize channels of communication to preserve peace and stability (“PRC Foreign Minister. and “demand[ed] that the DPRK immediately comply” with its obligations (United Nations Security Council. When the launch on April 13 failed. During an April 7 trilateral meeting with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts.

no further details. 2012). the I n t e rnational Civil Aviation Organization (Ryall. China signaled its displeasure with Pyongyang’s announcement by permitting five North Korean defectors who had been holed up in South Korea’s embassy in Beijing to leave for South Korea (“China Stops North. it was reported that China allowed at least nine defectors to leave China for South Korea. The Yomiuri Shimbun quoted a Chinese official as saying that the move was a reaction to North Korea’s failure to “disclose specific plans of the missile launch” to the Chinese side. and date window. As was the case when North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006. Beijing’s swift endorsement of a tough presidential statement was a clear indicator of China’s disapproval of North Korea’s provocation. Chinese leaders were especially irritated by Pyongyang’s flouting of their warnings. China has considered these escapees to be illegal economic immigrants rather than refugees and has generally maintained a policy of repatriation. were provided to China in advance. Separate from its actions with other states. Following the failed launch.” 2012).” 2012). But in April. expectations grew of an impending nuclear test in part because North Korea had used the 2009 UN Security Council condemnation of its missile launch as a pretext to conduct its second nuclear test. timeframe. They were also undoubtedly peeved that even though North Korea had informed the International Maritime Organization. Even before the launch. China may have unilaterally used its policy on North Korean defectors as a means to put added pressure on Pyongyang following the launch. indicating a suspension of its repatriation policy. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin publicly acknowledged that North Korea had not notified China of the exact launch date (“Pyongyang Failed to.China–North Korean Ties in the Wake of the Death of Kim Jong Il 115 responsible for monitoring sanctions against North Korea to add companies. including the exact date of the rocket launch. items and technologies to the list (United Nations Security Council. and the International Telecommunications Union (Green. 2012) about the launch trajectory. Traditionally. Predictions of a third nuclear .” 2012). Following the approval of the UNSC Presidential Statement. 2009). The official accused North Korea of not showing “the necessary attention to its friend China” (“North Korea Vows.

but at the same time tried to avoid triggering another round of escalation or causing a rift in its relations with Pyongyang. No. As China coordinated with other players to manage the developing situation. “China will oppose anything which might jeopardize peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia. Korea.” 2012). Nevertheless. This marked the first time a Chinese official had made a public comment discouraging a third nuclear test. Korea Vows to. Several media sources reported that the United States and EU had attempted to add as many as 40 firms. On April 22 and 23. “North Korea and.” 2012). and South Korea. China hosted Kim Yong Il. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. China likely sought to satisfy the nations of the international community that insisted on increasing the pressure on North Korea. North Korea on May 6 vowed to continue to pursue its nuclear and rocket programs despite UN Security Council condemnations (“N. Vol. officials in Beijing sought to enhance communication with Pyongyang. 2 November 2012 test were also fueled by reports that Pyongyang had essentially completed its preparations to conduct one (Lim.” but the three did not include such . China’s reluctance to further tighten the screws on North Korea were evidenced in mid-May at the fifth trilateral summit meeting between China.116 Korea Review. Secretary for International Affairs of the North Korean Workers Party. but Beijing opposed sanctioning such a large number of companies (“UN sanctions three. China hold.” 2012). 2012). freezing the assets of three North Korean firms which have financed and organized Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programs. and South Korean President Lee Myungbak reportedly “agreed to make efforts to prevent North Korea from committing further provocative acts. As supplementary punishment. as this would damage China’s national security interests and the interests of the relevant parties as well” (“China Makes Veiled. Following the bilateral meeting. the UN Security Council ordered additional sanctions on May 2.” 2012). Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai responded to a question regarding the possibility of a new nuclear test by North Korea at an April 25 press conference by saying. II.” 2012. and the highest-level North Korean official to visit China since Kim Jong Il’s funeral (“N. Japan. By supporting the addition of three North Korean entities. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

China–North Korean Ties in the Wake of the Death of Kim Jong Il 117 language in their joint statement because China was reluctant to further agitate Pyongyang (Karube. Such a declaration was likely viewed as a direct challenge to China’s firm insistence on a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and its desire to see the six-party talks commitments . North Korea announced that it had amended its constitution and designated the country as a “nuclear-armed state” (Yonhap News Agency. it appeared that a third nuclear test was not imminent. Beijing was undoubtedly miffed. Hu pledge. It remains unclear to what extent Chinese pressure on Pyongyang to forego a test has been responsible for the North’s restraint. 2012b). “Realizing the denuclearization of the peninsula and maintaining peace and stability are in line with the common interests of all sides and require the joint efforts of all sides” (PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Pyongyang may have reached the conclusion that conducting a nuclear test prior to a South Korean election could harden policies in Seoul that would negatively affect its interests. He also “expressed strong opposition to any additional provocations by North Korea (“China Won’t Tolerate. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said only. 2012b). On May 30. At the same meeting. 2012). Whether or not North Korean decision-making was influenced by China. and so is waiting for a more politically opportune time. Presidents Lee and Hu “shared an understanding” that the two sides needed to work together to “deal more effectively” with North Korea (“Lee. Insufficient quantities of highly enriched uranium could be another possible explanation. North Korea’s Foreign Ministry claimed the United States and its allies had “fabricated” claims of an upcoming nuclear test and stated that North Korea “only plans to develop satellite technology for peaceful purposes” (Wang & Xu. On May 22. Alternatively.” 2012). however. Liang’s remarks were not reported in the Chinese press. Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie reportedly told a delegation of retired South Korean military officers visiting Beijing that China would “not tolerate” another nuclear test. but he must have known that his South Korean interlocutors would leak his comments to the Korean media. 2012). In response to a question posed by a reporter at a regular news conference. In mid-June. it is indisputable that Beijing continues to signal its staunch opposition to a third nuclear test. By late May.” 2012).

the local foreign affairs office. the vessels’ owners and the families of the captured men took their plight online (“Probe Begins Into. Although such incidents are not unprecedented.” 2012).” 2011). Also noteworthy is how little public attention the Chinese government paid to the incident and how agitated the Chinese public became.000) for the safe return of both the men and fishing boats (“Probe Begins Into. Vol. on May 8.” that it hoped “this problem will be appropriately resolved as soon as possible. the owners of the fishing boats sought assistance from the Chinese authorities. 2012. including ocean and fisheries officials. But as the deadline for the ransom loomed and no apparent action had been taken by Beijing to secure the safe return of the crews and their boats. 2 November 2012 implemented by all members of the talks. Commentators from Chinese academic circles described the changes to the constitution as a “serious violation” of North Korea’s pledges to create a nuclear-free peninsula and “not at all beneficial for the peaceful stability of the Korean Peninsula” (CIIS. the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated only that “China [was] keeping close contact with the DPRK via relevant channels.2 million yuan ($189. a reaction similar to that of the murder of 13 Chinese sailors in the “Golden Triangle” area in October 2011 (“China to Join. a group of 28 Chinese fishermen and their three boats were taken captive roughly 10 nautical miles outside the border of Chinese waters and towed into North Korean territory by unidentified and armed North Koreans who demanded a ransom payment of 1. this case was unusual in that the North Koreans seized the Chinese fishermen in Chinese waters. When questioned about the status of the situation. 2012) and that the . II. No. After receiving news of the capture.” 2012) and the story quickly flooded Chinese and international media.” 2012).” (Cui. Upping the Ante? Another test of Sino–North Korean ties came on the heels of the April missile launch when. and fisheries offices in Dalian and Dandong (“Triads may be. the fishermen’s abduction elicited public outrage and criticism of the government’s slow response.118 Korea Review. 2012).

To address the public’s concerns.China–North Korean Ties in the Wake of the Death of Kim Jong Il 119 Chinese government had “stated to North Korea that it should ensure the legitimate rights of Chinese ship personnel” (“Chinese boats seized. after a 13-day ordeal. their equipment and personal effects had been stolen or destroyed.” 2012).” 2012). the Chinese Foreign Ministry subsequently announced that fishery authorities would open an investigation into the fishermen’s capture (“Probe Begins Into. Korean Soldiers.” 2012). Chinese fishing trawlers are usually permitted to fish in North Korean waters so long as they pay for a license to do so. Such revelations only fueled Chinese popular anger and many netizens demanded both an explanation from Pyongyang and steps by Beijing to prevent similar incidents in the future (Hao & Xu. Chinese firms generally obtain licenses from companies operating . Korean Soldiers. Meanwhile. Chinese media re p o rted that Chinese Ambassador Liu Hongcai and other Chinese diplomats had “worked actively on the case through negotiation and close contact” (“Kyodo: Update1. the Chinese fishermen and their vessels finally returned to port in Dalian.” and that North Korea “[understood] the complaints of the Chinese people” (“Rogue N. An unnamed North Korean official was quoted in several media outlets as saying that the incident “was something that should not happen between the two countries. the North Korean Foreign Ministry announced that the men and their boats had been released “with no strings attached” (“Rogue N. 2012). it was atypical for North Korean ships to cross the border in order to capture Chinese vessels (Cui.” 2012).” 2012). While Xinhua acknowledged that the group had been “detained by the DPRK” (“Chinese fishermen return. it was careful not to state whether their capture had been authorized by Pyongyang. and they were forced to sign false confessions that they had been fishing illegally in North Korean territory. 2012). Once safely home. the fishermen reported they had been severely mistreated while in captivity. On May 20. Unnamed Chinese officials acknowledged that while it was not uncommon for such incidents to occur along the China–North Korea maritime border. suggesting that the entire episode was unwelcome to both sides.” 2012). and in the early morning of May 21.

II. and in such instances. Korean Soldiers. A third possibility put forward is that rogue North Korean soldiers simply overstepped their bounds by cracking down on the Chinese fishing boats in an effort to earn extra money (Yonhap News Agency.000 depending on “the size of the boat and the type of species it catches. Articles in the South Korean media have noted a recent uptick in clashes between Chinese fishermen and South Korean maritime police due to illegal fishing and suggested that North Korea was experiencing similar problems and had used extreme measures by capturing the sailors so as to deter the brazen behavior of other Chinese fishermen.” 2012). Beijing and Pyongyang have worked to resolve such issues quietly (“Rogue N. which reportedly led to more incidents (“Summary: NFZM. isolated event that had nothing to do with the broader Sino–North Korean relationship. are an “unwritten rule” between Chinese middlemen and North Korean soldiers. alcohol and produce (“Capture of Fishing. is that Pyongyang captured the fishermen in Chinese waters to demonstrate its rejection of the current maritime border dividing China and North Korea’s overlapping exclusive economic zones.” 2012). 700–800 such licenses were issued to Chinese fishermen operating in North Korean waters in 2011. though less likely. The fishing boat incident may have been a local. Also possible.” Such fees. Other options available to Chinese fishermen seeking to avoid harassment and possible arrest include paying bribes with bottled water. According to media reports.” 2012).” 2012).120 Korea Review. 2 November 2012 under the North Korean military (“Rogue N. There have been cases in which Chinese fishing trawlers without licenses have been caught by North Korean Navy vessels. One Chinese analyst with many years of experience in the government dealing with North Koreans privately contended that it was “almost inconceivable” that the North Koreans who pursued and arrested the Chinese fishermen were not . but some Chinese experts on North Korea think otherwise. Apparently. which would suggest a budding maritime border dispute. the article maintained. Why this incident occurred in the first place has been a topic of widespread speculation. Vol. No. Chinese fishermen had recently asked for lower fees. 2012a). Korean Soldiers. An article published in Nanfang Zhoumo went so far as to call the fees extorted from Chinese fishermen operating in the area an “aid boat fee” which costs from $100 to $5.

and possibly even China’s suspension of the repatriation of North Korean defectors. provide further evidence for this hypothesis. After North Korea’s rocket launch. Official Chinese media reporting suggest that the Chinese government shares that view: Xinhua coverage of the episode indicated that the fishermen had been detained “by the DPRK. including Beijing’s blunt criticism of North Korea’s satellite launch. for example. opinion pieces that appear in media outlets that are less strictly controlled and statements by leading Chinese experts to foreign journalists nevertheless are an important barometer of a segment of opinion and reflect ongoing debate about Chinese policy toward North Korea.” 2012). An article carried by the China Daily. 2012). A possible reason for the aggressive North Korean action was to signal Pyongyang’s displeasure about China’s policies. Although not all articles published in China are authoritative. 2. Professor Shi Yinhong of People’s University. The reports that the ships could have come from West Sea Base No. April 13. Growing Frustration and Concern Beijing’s growing frustration with North Korea’s provocations has been evidenced in the Chinese media. 2012). 2012). articles in the Chinese press pinned blame on North Korea for the reversal in the positive developments that had been underway on the peninsula. its warnings against a third nuclear test.” suggesting that Beijing believed that North Korean officials were involved to some extent (Spegele. The publication of articles that employ tougher language criticizing North Korea may also be a signal to Pyongyang of China’s increasing displeasure with its policies.China–North Korean Ties in the Wake of the Death of Kim Jong Il 121 doing so on the instruction of the North Korean military or government (Personal Communication. sharply condemned North Korea’s policies in a statement to Kyodo News: . praised the Leap Day Agreement between the United States and North Korea and maintained that the “desirable momentum was brought to an end when Pyongyang announced its plan for the satellite launch on March 16” (“Restart Six Party. which is operated by the North Korean General Bureau of Reconnaissance (Choi. who is a counselor of the State Council.

” The article called on North Korea to “realize that any actions that it takes that baffle China would bring trouble on itself. the editorial indicated that “China does not seem to be taking a tough attitude toward them” (“China–North Korea. A Global Times editorial maintained. “this is wrong. a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “the importance of China’s strength and security to Pyongyang’s security is no less than that of its nuclear weapons” (“Editorial: Quick Stop.122 Korea Review.” 2012). If North Korea insists on doing so. there was a spate of articles in the Chinese media censuring the action and criticizing China’s policy as too soft. “There is no special room between China and North Korea. Vol. Following North Korea’s arrest of the Chinese fishermen. especially the lives and property of Chinese citizens. unambiguously asserted that “the nuclear program of the DPRK has had a negative effect on Northeast Asian security (“End region’s Cold.” 2012). Wang Junsheng. An editorial published a few months later called on the Chinese government to “publicly voice its opposition at once” to a third . A Global Times comm e n t a ry stated that “China firmly opposes new nuclear tests by Pyongyang. Warnings to North Korea to not conduct a third nuclear test have become increasingly explicit in the Chinese media. II.” 2012).” the editorial continued. Writing in China Daily.” 2012). 2012). such as proceeding with the launch despite international opposition. repeating provocative actions against South Korea and showing few friendly signs toward China” (Ko. 2 November 2012 “Looking back on Kim Jong Un’s first half-year in power.” And it called on North Korea to respect “China’s every concrete interest. Numerous articles in the Chinese press in 2012 have strongly criticized North Korea’s persistence in pursuing a nuclear weapons program and rebuked Pyongyang for refusing to listen to China’s advice. China is unhappy with the new leadership because it has exhibited bad behavior. No. China is unlikely to help Pyongyang shield itself from diplomatic consequences” (“Security dilemma in.” Noting “rumors about misbehavior” by North Korea in the border area. An editorial of the Global Times maintained that although Pyongyang may believe that a nuclear deterrent is a fundamental guarantee of the country’s security and would bring about positive changes in the attitudes of the international community. As its neighbor.

” It also noted that it was “necessary” for Beijing to criticize North Korea’s proclamation in its amended constitution that it is a nuclear state and “oppose its intention to legalize its nuclear status. South Korea.China–North Korean Ties in the Wake of the Death of Kim Jong Il 123 nuclear test and “not be held hostage by North Korea’s radical moves. 2012). “We don’t know when the rupture in the North Korean regime will begin.” 2012). who worked for six years in China’s embassy in Pyongyang and is now director of the Department of Asia-Pacific Security and Cooperation Studies at the Foreign Ministry’s China Institute of International Studies. a chain reaction would ensue that would result in Japan.” If North Korea becomes a recognized nuclear state. “It’s unlikely that the Kim Jong Un regime will last 20 years” (“China ‘Would Lose. speaking in Seoul at a seminar hosted by the Kwanhun Club.” 2012). Yu Shaohua. a senior journalists group in South Korea. a Central Party School analyst Zhang Liangui demanded that China “adopt a tougher stance toward Pyongyang” (Xu. In the aftermath of the UNSC condemnation of North Korea’s 2012 rocket launch. Newspaper editorials and comments by Chinese analysts suggest that there is growing uncertainty about internal stability in North Korea. but it has to face its eventual collapse.” the article concluded (“Editorial: China Must. “This will lead to the most serious crisis in China’s neighboring regions. A China Daily editorial bluntly stated that “The sudden death of DPRK leader Kim Jong Il added additional uncertainties to the already volatile situation on the Korean Peninsula” (“Editorial: Peninsula’s Breakthrough. which he stated “is stable. CASS expert Wang Junsheng opined that the satellite launch was undertaken to consolidate the new DPRK leadership. North Korea’s provocations have also prompted leading Chinese experts on North Korea to call for Beijing to put greater pressure on Pyongyang to alter its policies. Beijing University Professor Zhu Feng.” he said. and even possibly Taiwan demanding the right to acquire nuclear arms. 2012). Shi . the article warned. 2012).’” 2012). Concern is also being voiced about the state of China’s relations with North Korea. warned that the North Korean regime is breaking up. told the Global Times that “North Korea shouldn’t take for granted that China will support its every move and accept the consequences” (Xu. but still needs to be strengthened” (Zhao.

No. A visit later that month to China by North Korea’s Minister of Public Security Ri Myong Su signaled a thaw and suggested that preparations for a visit by Kim Jong Un might be underway. most Chinese analysts remain optimistic. 2012). 2011). director of the Korean Studies Center at Fudan University in Shanghai. that Chinese scholars have remained sanguine about the possibilities of economic reform in North Korea for decades. It should be noted. argued that Kim Jong Un may even have more motivation than his father to institute reforms because of his international educational background and his relatively young age (SIIA. an analyst of North Korean affairs from the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. Shi Yuanhua. on the priority issue of internal economic reform in North Korea. Bilateral Ties Enter Warming Trend A decision to advance the relationship with Beijing appears to have been made by North Korea in early July. director of the Chinese Communist Part y ’s Intern a t i o n a l Department. In addition. Zhu Feng maintained that the pressure of the leadership transition could lead the new leader to promote important economic reforms (SIIA.. 2 November 2012 Yinhong remarked in an interview in June that “the North Korean regime generally has taken quite an unfriendly attitude towards China. photos released by North Korea of Kim Jong Un sitting next to Chinese ambassador Liu Hongcai on a rollercoaster at a . After Kim Jong Il’s death. II. Vol. the situation is terrible” (Lim. Wang’s delegation was received by Kim Jong Un. visited Pyongyang.. marking the first time that the new leader received foreign dignitaries. 2011). Further momentum was provided a week later when Wang J i a rui. 2011). even in the absence of supporting evidence.124 Korea Review. however. highlighted the North Korean regime’s renewed emphasis on economic reforms in recent years and speculated that the Kim Jong Un successor regime would continue to follow these promising trends despite the obstacles involved in reforming the economy (Li. In an article published in early 2012 but largely conceptualized before Kim Jong Il’s death. Nevertheless. Li Jun. If you only look at China’s relations with North Korea.

China–North Korean Ties in the Wake of the Death of Kim Jong Il 125 theme park indicated that a warming of China–North Korea ties was in the offing. the visit revealed tensions between the two sides on investment and aid. He also called for encouraging investment by enterprises. and in Hwanggumpyong. Choe told a gathering to mark the 59th anniversary of the signing of the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War that “admirable sons and daughters of the Chinese people volunteered to the Korean front. 2012). An even stronger signal of an upturn in Sino–DPRK ties was the visit to China in mid-August by Jang Song Taek. KCNA published a prominent editorial entitled “Victory in Fatherland Liberation War is Common Victory of DPRK. Premier Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao. Jang attended meetings to discuss joint economic projects in Rason on North Korea’s eastern coast. Wen Jiabao told Jang that it was necessary to “give play to the role of the market mechanism” and improve conditions for investment.” Jang termed the Sino–DPRK friendship “indestructible” (“ . Another important gesture by North Korea that signaled a desire to improve relations with China was a speech by Choe Ryong Hae.” 2012).” Meanwhile. Kim Jong Un’s powerful uncle and the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. Both sides lauded their relations in glowing terms. China” (Chen. which borders the two countries. which. even after the severe . At the same time. There were no new agreements signed for aid. According to a Xinhua report. The six-day visit by Jang marked the highest level diplomatic exchange since the youngest son of Kim Jong Il assumed power in December 2011. needed help to “solve practical issues and difficulties (Xu. he said. 2012). Hu told Jang that the CCP and the Chinese government “placed a high and long-term strategic priority on the development of Sino–North Korean relations. He visited China’s northeast provinces and then traveled to Beijing where he met with Wang Jiarui.” Praising their traditional bilateral friendship which has “grown by the hands of older generations of leaders” and “withstood the storm and stress test in every era. Referring to the three-year military conflict. member of the Presidium of the Politburo of the KWP and director of the KPA General Political Bureau. in which he made a rare but direct acknowledgement of China’s assistance during the Korean War.

and despite Chinese media reports that Jang expressed a desire for a $1 billion loan (“ . II. but Jang Song Taek did not comment on this matter (Liu. 2 November 2012 flooding in North Korea. the dynamic of mutual interdependence between China and North Korea is such that the period of relative coolness in the relationship that followed Kim Jong Il’s death was bound to eventually give way to a warming trend. North Korea’s position in the bilateral relationship would be strengthened and its leverage increased. Since a mere six months have elapsed since Kim Jong Il’s funeral. calculating that when he reengaged. especially in the aftermath of serious floods. Conclusion This article has attempted to assess China’s relations with North Korea in the aftermath of Kim Jong Un’s rise to power. Jang notably made no mention of North Korea’s prior commitments to denuclearization. Increased need for food aid. Kim Jong Un’s intentions domestically and abroad remain unclear. it is only possible to make some preliminary observations about recent developments and trends in . 2012). Irritation over China’s reaction to the attempted satellite launch combined with pressure from Beijing to refrain from conducting a third nuclear test and return to North Korea’s commitments under the six party talks may explain the six-month long rough patch in Sino–DPRK relations. Alternatively.” 2012). he reiterated his readiness to make joint efforts to achieve denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Regardless.126 Korea Review. Kim Jong Un may have deliberately turned a cold shoulder to Beijing for a brief period. The motivating factors behind Pyongyang’s outreach to Beijing are as yet unknown.” by which he undoubtedly meant North Korea’s nuclear weapons. No. Pyongyang would then refocus its ties with China on economic matters and seek at least tacit recognition of its existence as a nuclear weapons state. In his meetings with senior Chinese leaders. Vol. Hu Jintao expressed China’s willingness to “forge closer communication and coordination on international and regional issues. may have spurred Pyongyang to ameliorate ties. When Kim Jong Il visited China in 2010 and 2011.

more evidence will have to be collected and evaluated in the coming months and years to reach more solid judgments.China–North Korean Ties in the Wake of the Death of Kim Jong Il 127 Sino–North Korean relations. Chinese analysts. China was also undoubtedly irritated by North Korea’s decision to pursue a course of action that was certain to undermine the nascent improvement in U. Third. and may support exerting greater pressure on Pyongyang. especially the seizure of innocent Chinese fisherman. Pyongyang was likely seen as failing to reciprocate China’s early goodwill gestures. These signs of discontent evaporated when the bilateral relationship took a positive turn.–North Korea relations and prevent the near-term resumption of the six-party talks. and may support exerting greater pressure on Pyongyang. North Korea’s decision to reengage in the summer and to promote bilateral ties was likely a relief to Beijing. and thus should be considered as a potential future factor in Chinese policy-making toward North Korea.S. like his father. First. North Korea’s insistence on proceeding with the April satellite launch despite Beijing’s clear and public expression of opposition has created new strains and put the relationship on uncertain footing at a critical juncture. the following observations can be made. Beijing attaches high priority to sustaining a positive bilateral relationship and made concerted efforts to get bilateral ties off to a good start. From China’s perspective. Even though the test took place on Kim Jong Il’s instructions before he died. are expressing their dissatisfaction with North Korea’s provocations more openly and bluntly than in the past and calling for a tougher approach toward Pyongyang. China viewed Kim Jung Il’s death and the transition of power to Kim Jong Un as presenting both uncertainty and opportunity. Second. Fourth. especially the seizure of innocent Chinese fisherman. albeit only a small number of them. There are also signs that the Chinese public is exasperated by North Korea’s behavior. There are also signs that the Chinese public is exasperated by North Korea’s behavior. the action suggested to China that Kim Jung Un. the source of strains in the bilateral relationship in the six . Based on available evidence. but could reemerge in the future if there are setbacks. criticism in China of the government’s policy toward North Korea appears to be growing. would defy Beijing’s wishes when it deems necessary.

Despite their differences. specifically.128 Korea Review. Vol. presidential election in November 2012. II. Fifth. the bilateral relationship is likely to remain intact. China has long counseled that economic reforms in the North will resolve all other problems. 2 November 2012 months following Kim Jong Il’s death are unclear. and other nations to be patient and adopt policies that support North Korea’s economic reforms. China will therefore likely urge the United States. U. Sixth. South Korea.S. Beijing will likely be willing to put the goal of denuclearization on the back burner in favor of supporting tentative steps by Kim Jong Un to implement economic reforms. North Korea’s implementation of economic reforms and opening up to the outside world will enable the country to improve its relations with its neighbors and become integrated into the global economy. Tension between China and North Korea is not extraordinary. having recognized that its growing dependence on China for food. there is a significant possibility going forward of a widening gap between the United States and China in policy toward North Korea. Japan. No. although China–DPRK ties appear to be back on track. while postponing denuclearization indefinitely. the bilateral relationship has endured numerous periods of strain since the founding of the PRC in 1949. and political support increased Chinese leverage and narrowed Pyongyang’s diplomatic and political maneuvering room. this will eventually produce a positive change in North Korea’s security environment that will create conditions conducive to the abandonment of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs.S. Sino–DPRK relations are best understood as a marriage of convenience. Regardless of which party wins the U. According to Beijing’s logic. It is uncertain whether Beijing withheld high-level official visits as a signal of its displeasure with North Korea’s policies or to exact commitments from Pyongyang to modify its policies.–China tensions over . it is unlikely that Washington will agree to set aside the goal of denuclearization and engage North Korea on other issues. or whether North Korea impeded high-level exchanges because it was irritated under Beijing’s pressure in response to the April satellite launch. the relationship is ridden with mutual suspicion and distrust. It is possible that North Korea deliberately put some distance between itself and the Chinese leadership. fuel.

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