What’s the significance of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il having visited China three times in the past year? For a start it would seem to undermine the common view in the West that China-North Korean relations have deteriorated.
The problem is the view the Western media has on China-North Korea relations often becomes the de facto opinion of the international media, which in turn tends to affect broader perceptions of relations between the two countries.
The mainstream Western view has been that ties between the two are good on the surface, but that underneath, Pyongyang has been pulling away from Beijing. This view is based largely on comments from analysts in South Korea, Japan, the West and North Korean defectors.
The trouble is that the reports on which these views are based are typically one-sided and secretive. They may also not be as balanced and objective as we’d like to believe – certain views can be espoused to drive a wedge between China and North Korea in an effort to further isolate the Hermit Kingdom and push China into becoming more hostile to its neighbour. Certainly this would be in keeping with the strategic objectives of the West and South Korea.
But speaking to analysts and other journalists in China (who are ‘insiders’ on ties rather than their ‘outsider’ counterparts in South Korea), it seems the relationship between the two countries is far healthier than many outsiders imagine.
One incident I learned about underscores the point.
A friend of mine works as a journalist at a Chinese magazine that frequently covers North Korean issues, including the nuclear and succession issues. He’s a well-known writer, but has apparently been harassed by North Korean ‘agents’ several times.
He told me he had been reporting on the food shortage issue in North Korea, and shortly after received a text message from someone claiming to be a North Korean ‘agent.’ This person warned my friend to be careful of slandering North Korea, and more sinisterly, asked him to be careful over his own safety as well.
My friend said this wasn’t the first time this had happened, and added that he had also received a number of phone calls from unknown callers with a distinctive accent. It may sound strange, but for North Korean agents to be this bold, they would almost certainly have received some kind of tacit approval from Chinese authorities. Clearly, Pyongyang isn’t the only place that doesn’t want negative reporting of the situation in North Korea.
During Kim’s most recent visit to China, there was barely any local reporting of what took place, meaning foreign media was left guessing at what was said. The Chinese media has to be extremely careful when reporting on any issue tied to North Korea. On the nuclear issue, for example, reporting has to be consistent, while discussion of Beijing and Pyongyang’s plans to jointly develop a border island on the Yalu River have had to be carefully reviewed before publication. Indeed, some reports weren’t well received in North Korea, prompting the North Korean ambassador to complain to the media authority in China. (North Korea, it seems, has become the key media regulator for Chinese reporting on international news).
China and North Korea are, of course, two separate nations, with sometimes diverging national interests. However, these differences haven’t led to a fundamental split. This hasn’t stopped the West playing up supposed differences. But doing so is both wrong and risky as it can lead the international community to miscalculate, including over the nuclear issue.
Ultimately, China and North Korea are like relatives – they argue from time to time, but in the end they’re closer to each other than anyone else.