Assessing North Korea’s 'Ground Game' with China
Image Credit: REUTERS/KCNA

Assessing North Korea’s 'Ground Game' with China


Less than 24 hours after the ostensible end of “the August Crisis” along the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), Zhang Ming, one of China’s various vice-foreign ministers, revealed that the DPRK will send Choe Ryong-hae as its rather high-level representative to Beijing’s September 3 parade, bearing his Party titles. In spite of the borderline silly and solipsistic propaganda being produced about the parade by Chinese Communist Party media, the event itself and the activities around it promise to result in a high-stakes diplomatic event.

Not least, South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s attendance at the parade is sure to prompt a wave of speculation about the prospects for yet more inter-Korean talks. Given how low the proverbial bar is – the notion of “progress” in North-South Korean relations at present consists of any interaction that does not involve cursing at or trying to kill or intimidate the other party – it is hard to see how this could fail to induce hopes for a breakthrough.

Meanwhile, Chinese diplomats seem to want to frame Choe Ryong-hae’s arrival as a signal that talk is now encouraged about a possible revival of the Six-Party Talks. The problem is that these talks have long since reached zombie status, in spite of North Korean negotiator Kim Kye-gwan’s attendance at an extremely interesting Six-Party anniversary event in Beijing in September 2013, some reshuffling of American officials concerned with North Korea, and hopes that “an Iran deal” could be possible with Pyongyang.

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A recent Global Times editorial, from August 24, captures China’s displeasure with North Korea’s behavior in the loudspeaker crisis, and the Kim regime’s deaf ear to Beijing’s needs. In fact, the Chinese version of the editorial was far more severe in its criticism, taking on an overtly frustrated and threatening tone toward North Korea. Author Mao Kaiyun’s August 23 editorial in another CCP newspaper, Youth Daily, voiced a similar set of concerns, saying that even “if North Korea doesn’t pay heed to China, China still needs to undertake its responsibility as a great power … being adjacent to the Korean peninsula, China certainly cannot permit any country to unleash trouble on its doorstep.”

Leaving aside the inter-Korean angle and the Six-Party canard, what does Choe’s possible presence in Beijing tell us about the state of China-North Korean relations? Perhaps here it is best to get out of the inbuilt stasis of the DMZ and start over with a foreign metaphor.

North Korea’s Strategy and Beijing

American football is a struggle for forward progress against extreme resistance, broken by inordinately long periods of waiting around, assessing what has just happened, and planning what to do next. (In that sense, it is very much like diplomacy.) For a team that is undersized and unable to make forward progress on the ground, the temptation exists to simply throw the ball deep downfield. The so-called “Hail Mary Pass” method can, in extreme circumstances, result in a victory in spite of having lost any number of local battles.

For the ultimate Hail Mary in Sino-North Korean relations, we need look no further than Kim Il-sung’s desperate request to Mao Zedong and the CCP for their intervention in the Korean War. In October 1950, Kim faced the crumbling of nearly all of his military and Party institutions and confronted the Wagnerian twilight of his regime everywhere except for in the bunkered timberland of Jagang province. The request worked, and the DPRK remains in business today.

So much for precedents; the North Korean envoy still needs dealing with today.

Is Choe Ryong-hae going to Beijing in September as part of a methodical and logical policy planning process in Pyongyang? In other words, is his presence in Beijing indicative of a strong North Korean “ground game,” which has been amply prepared by the country’s foreign affairs apparatus, perhaps even in tandem with nominal allies in China?

In a recent interview with BBC television, my colleague Aidan Foster-Carter properly noted the abilities of North Korea’s professional diplomatic class. In this reading, the men and women of the DPRK Foreign Ministry are certainly able to construct a gradual strategy leading toward rational goals, including an improved relationship with China. But Foster-Carter, a long-time Korea watcher, also noted his fears that Kim Jong-un was acting impulsively without an endgame in mind. Improvisation on the Korean peninsula can lead to murderous consequences.

Kim Jong-un’s public meeting (if it can be called that) with his country’s entire corps of Ambassadors earlier this summer did not inspire confidence that he is listening carefully to their reports, much less that he is aware of both the big picture and the minor details. Probably the most expensive photo op of the year, if only in terms of the plane fares it required, the meeting seemed to consist mainly of the entire corps of diplomats standing on risers and leaping collectively into a bout of screaming and weeping at the very sight of Kim Jong-un. The Foreign Minister whispered into Kim Jong-un’s ear while Kim Kye-gwan held back discreetly; the leader waved a bit as if at a campaign rally, shook a couple of hands amidst the “Manseis,” and got back into his armoured black Mercedes.

Surely there is more going on behind the scenes, as any defector previously employed by the DPRK Foreign Ministry would doubtless confirm, but the optics of this interaction did attest to Kim Jong-un’s intimate involvement with the machinery of diplomacy. After all, this is a young man to whom extensive treatises have been attributed on a wide variety of other subjects, and his grandfather,who is his template and Alpha in many important ways, was certainly not afraid of launching into long speeches to his diplomatic staff (or simply purging them).

In this interpretation, which stresses a kind of neglect of the professional diplomats, Choe’s dispatching to China is in effect a Hail Mary pass, an improvised step intended to get the country out of hot water temporarily with China, and to see what happens with the South.

In terms of recent signals, the evidence indeed seems to point toward such an interpretation. We can draw causation this way: The North Korean Foreign Ministry insulted China on 23 August. Pyongyang’s leadership was promptly, personally, and overtly threatened by CCP media on 24 August. At some point after the conclusion of the inter-Korean negotiations either on 24 or 25 August, the country agreed to send Choe Ryong-hae to Beijing.

Choe is hardly just another envoy. His lineage is that of the Manchurian guerrilla faction, he knew Kim Jong-il well (while Choe looks quite young, in fact he is about the same age as the deceased Dear Leader), and he has been a core member of Kim Jong-un’s inner circle. After all, there were other members that could have been sent: Kim Yong-nam, still exceptionally active as a world traveller at 86, with recent trips to Indonesia, Uganda and Russia, was surely an option. Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong could have been sent as a logical choice, or another elder of the Worker’s Party of Korea, such as Yang Hyong-sop, who was instrumental in getting China to accept the succession of Kim Jong-il (which the CCP was far from thrilled about) in 1982.

Choe’s biography and stature within the regime is a signal to China that the DPRK respects the relationship, and his presence should not be underestimated. Choe has also met Xi Jinping in 2013, and, if only by default, is emerging as the late Jang Song-taek’s effective successor as a key North Korean interlocutor with Beijing–which, it hardly needs to be said, is a rather perilous position in which to be.

A New Game?

As the speculation continues over Pyongyang’s intentions toward Seoul, the Chinese-North Korean relationship – and Seoul’s role in trying to leverage Beijing’s North Korea policy – ought rightly to remain an important area of observation. If the goal has been to frustrate the Chinese leadership, stress out the PRC Foreign Ministry, ignore the CCP Party structure, and threaten to burn a handful of remaining bridges with the Chinese public, the DPRK has done signal work.

Perhaps it was fitting that a handful of tanks rolling through traffic in Yanji in the PRC’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture created a bit of a social media frenzy as things heat up in Korea. The fact that literally any movement in the Shenyang Military District of the Peoples Liberation Army can be interpreted as a “signal to DPRK” makes this activity of interest. Surely the North Koreans have enough men and women in Yanji with cell phone connections to Pyongyang so that they aren’t left desperately casting around Weibo for confirmation of tank activity that will never come.

More verifiable and concrete than the tank story was Xi Jinping’s curiously downplayed visit to the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture earlier this summer, which saw the Chinese leader making pointed references to food supplies, doing so just across a North Hamgyong province badly hit by drought, and going to Helong, a county that had seen a rash of North Korean border guard attacks. Xi did not stand and peer across the Tumen; he doesn’t need to in order to send a message.

Meanwhile, China’s diplomats in Pyongyang are getting very little public contact with North Korean comrades. So open is his calendar that Ambassador Li Jianjun has taken to publicizing his meetings with Romanian and NGO visitors. Li’s highest-level interaction with North Korean officials since he received his credentials in March from Kim Yong-nam happened at a Chinese cooking festival set up by his Embassy on August 1-2, at which he praised North Korea’s openness to sending chefs to study in Bejing – in the 1960s. Li’s interlocutor at the event, Mun Jae-chol, is a clear downgrade: His portfolio is cultural friendship with foreign countries. China didn’t even bother to list the other North Korean officials who attended. Similarly, Chinese journalists in Pyongyang operate under the same restriction as other foreigners in the country, covering stories like the Women Cross DMZ march and looking longingly at tourist snaps of kindergartens in Sinuiju that are, in fact, more revealing.

Now that Choe is coming to Beijing and one visible concession to China’s all-important master narrative has been made, the CCP leadership is going to do its best to mandate that a happy face is put on the relationship, however temporarily. Although no North Koreans were involved in the announcement, the CCP is holding out yet another tariff-free zone on the Chinese side of the border as an October trade fair approaches. China’s “wax museum” diplomacy with North Korea continues to pay whatever odd dividends of DPRK goodwill they can recoup.

By dispatching Choe to Beijing, the Korean Workers’ Party buys some time and a momentary relaxation of Chinese pressure. If the Hail Mary pass works, the relationship may get back to a slightly more traditional dynamic, if not the somewhat dizzying pace of interaction that prevailed in the months just prior to Kim Jong-il’s death.

In the meantime, as the loudspeakers are put back in storage in wait for the next “abnormal situation,” it is not the airwaves along the DMZ that need Kim Jong-un’s focus. Rather, it is the North Korean ground game with Beijing that may need more of Pyongyang’s attention.

Adam Cathcart is a lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds and Editor-in-Chief of

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