China Power

Promises, Promises…

Kim Jong-il likely won’t make it to China until the end of the month. Will it be worth waiting for?

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s anticipated visit to China looks like it now won’t be taking place until later this month, according to reports including from Yonhap this week. There had been talk of Kim heading to Beijing earlier this month, but it now looks as if he’ll make the trip after Chinese President Hu Jintao returns from a summit in Washington on nuclear security (a meeting at which North Korea is bound to come up for discussion).

The Diplomat has just spoken with Chatham House senior fellow Kerry Brown (the transcript of the interview is available here) who broached the subject of how much influence China still has over its neighbour.

Brown is right to note that by any reasonable measure China should have, despite its efforts to play down such notions, significant leverage over the Hermit Kingdom—90 percent of aid to North Korea comes from China, while 50 percent of North Korea’s trade is China bound.

Yet it would still be a mistake to expect too much from the visit. China may by reasonable measures have influence over Pyongyang, but the North Korean leadership is far from reasonable. One need only look at its decimated economy, paranoid official statements and insistence on cocking a suit at the only country (China) in the region it could reasonably call an ally to see that the usual rules don’t apply.

The uncomfortable fact is that North Korea just doesn’t want to give up its nuclear potential and will simply continue to take what it can get, make a few promises it doesn’t have any intention of keeping, then flounce off demanding more when other parties have the audacity to ask North Korea to prove it is making good on said promises.

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Even if Kim does make it to China later this month (a trip that would be his first overseas jaunt in four years) there’s little reason to believe there’d be anything more substantive than there was from his last visit to China, back in January 2006.

Kim may agree, perhaps with Chinese prodding, to return to Six-party talks. But we’ve been there before.