As had been speculated, Chinese President Xi Jinping recently met with North Korean envoy Choe Ryong-hae on the last day of his visit to China, and accepted a personal letter from Kim Jong-un. The meeting has four noteworthy details, which may help illuminate the increasingly subtle nature of China-DPRK relations and perhaps even suggest trends on the Korean Peninsula.
First, the arrangements for the visit. The visit seemed hasty, but Pyongyang must have communicated with China through the embassy and the International Liaison Department to determine which Chinese officials would receive Choe.
Xi left Beijing for local visits one day before Choe arrived, raising questions about whether he would even meet with the envoy. This might indicate that China wasn’t considering the meeting when arranging Choe’s visit, but delayed a final decision until it got the response it wanted from Pyongyang. China has expressed some dissatisfaction with North Korea for exacerbating regional tensions, although the pressure has been restrained. Before meeting with the Chinese president, Choe had met with officials at all levels and visited Beijing’s high-tech development zone. Overall, China appeared to be accommodating to Choe while subtly expressing its own position.
Second, we have Choe’s sartorial choices. On day one, Choe met with Wang Jiarui, Director of the International Liaison Department directly responsible for Sino-DPRK exchange. The next day, he met with Liu Yunshan, standing member of the CPC Central Committee, ranked No. 5 in the party and in charge of interparty diplomacy. This was a working-level conference. On the third day, Choe met with Fan Changlong, CMC Vice Chairman and a long-time figure in the Shenyang Military Region. This was likewise a working-level discussion in the military sphere. Although Choe has both a political and a military role in North Korea, on these three days he stayed in uniform.
But in his meeting with the Chinese president, it was notable that Choe opted for mufti, even as other DPRK military officials remained in uniform. That might seem a minor point, but Choe appeared to be underscoring his role as special envoy for Kim Jong-un while conforming to diplomatic etiquette and perhaps trying to elevate the status of the meeting.
Then we have Xi’s own utterances. The Chinese president was quite solemn when meeting with Choe, even when accepting a personal letter from Kim Jong-un. What he said was worth noting.
First, the statement that the “China-DPRK friendship is in line with the common interests of peoples of the two countries” reassured Pyongyang that it still had China’s support. Second, the remark that “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and lasting peace and stability represent the popular sentiment and the general trend” sent a clear warning to North Korea on its nuclear aspirations. Third, in mentioning exchanges between the DPRK and South Korea, the United States and Japan to “solve the problem through dialogue and consultation”, Xi indicated that China will oppose military provocations by any side. Fourth, the call to “restart the six-party talks process (to achieve the denuclearization of the Peninsula) and make unremitting efforts for the lasting peace and stability (of the Peninsula and Northeast Asia),” expressed Beijing’s requirement that the DPRK return to the six-party talks and for the parties to sign a peace treaty that can replace the armistice.
Finally, we have Choe’s reactions. Of course, his statements were made on behalf of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Choe said that North Korea cherishes its friendship with China and that it is willing to strengthen high-level exchanges, deepen communication, and develop friendly relations with China. This suggests more high-level exchanges to come, and that a visit to China by Kim is on the agenda. The remarks indicate how keen Kim is to avoid dissent with Beijing.
Commenting on the situation on the Peninsula and the nuclear issue during the meeting with Liu Yunshan, Choe repeated the expectation for “economic development to improve people’s livelihood in the DPRK”.
But the most important statement made by Choe came when he said that the DPRK is willing to make joint efforts with the parties concerned, properly solve related problems through the six-party talks and other forms of dialogue and consultation, safeguard peace and stability on the Peninsula, and take positive action. This implies that the DPRK will not only return to the six-party talks, but that it will also reach out independently to its neighbors, as seen for instance in the recent visit to Pyongyang by a Japanese envoy.
Overall, Choe’s visit to China is significant for the DPRK and good news for the region. It shows that the DPRK is normalizing two years into Kim’s rule. It also underlines China’s irreplaceable role in maintaining the security situation on the Korean Peninsula.