One day after Jang Song-Thaek was executed, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its attitude during a news conference. In this piece, I analyze the MFA’s statements in the context of the diplomatic situation and China-DPRK relations. Will China-DPRK relations be affected by the “Jang incident”?
First, we can glean a lot from the way the Chinese side broached the topic. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not take the initiative to introduce Jang’s death, the biggest political earthquake in the neighboring country, at the press conference. Instead, the spokesperson passively answered questions from reporters. This is China’s usual practice in response to international affairs. The idea is to demonstrate China’s calm and cool position in response to the change in the North Korean situation and even weaken the impact of the incident.
Interestingly, the media questions were not only about the death of Jang, but illustrated the impact of the incident on China-DPRK economic and trade relations. The MFA response showed that China’s usual diplomatic language of no intervention in the internal affairs of other countries still dominates its official thoughts. At the same time, the response was a relatively subtle attempt to dispel the notion that the incident would impact China. The accusations of the DPRK against Jang after the execution mentioned about Jang had sold national resources at very cheap prices. The South Korean media believes that the country benefiting from the cheap sale of national resources is probably China, given that Jang had long been responsible for economic and trade cooperation with China.
A further analysis of the keywords in the MFA’s carefully worded reveals some interesting news points.
The following is the full literal translation of the statements made by Hong Lei, the spokesman of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “This is North Korea’s internal affair. Economic and trade cooperation between China and North Korea is normal and serves the common interests of both countries and peoples. We are committed to carrying out economic and trade relations with North Korea on a friendly and mutually beneficial basis and to promoting the mutually beneficial cooperation. We hope to continue such relations on the track of healthy development.” [Ed. Note: this translation is somewhat different from the MFA’s official English translation. The keyword analysis in this piece was based on the original Chinese remarks, and so we have opted to use a literal translation of those comments.]
Within these remarks, keywords include: internal, normal, common, mutually beneficial, healthy and continue.
Overall, the statement expressed two meanings. First, there’s an evaluation of Jang’s death. Second, the spokesman evaluates the prospects for the China-DPRK relations. As to the former, Hong only used one sentence: “This is North Korea’s internal affair.” Obviously, this answer is not in response to the questions of China-DPRK economic and trade cooperation, but to the reporter’s question as to the view of China on the death of Jang. China’s attitude was the same when Jang stepped down a few days prior.
The term “internal” has three meanings: First, it indicates that in public China adheres to the principle of non-interference in internal affairs. Second, the word implies that China didn’t did not use its influence or make suggestions regarding Kim Jong-un’s detention and execution of Jang. This keyword may also predict that, although the Jang incident might cause general political changes, China’s position will be unchanged.
The word “normal” shows China’s defensiveness. “Normal” is China’s rebuttal to foreign media speculation about Jang’s cheap sale of North Korea assets or Jang otherwise taking advantage of the relationship with China for his own profit. “Normal” represents both a rebuttal to and a denial of accusations of “abnormal” behaviors, including the possibility of rent-seeking activities. This has been the most obvious Chinese affirmation of the recent years of China-DPRK trade.
The keywords “common” (as in common interests) and “mutually beneficial” are used to justify normal China-DPRK trade, which has been criticized by some. These keywords also bond together the common interests of both countries. Trade between China and North Korea does not damage the interests of one party and benefit the other party; rather, the interaction is based on customary rules of international practice. As such, the relationship is characterized by natural and necessary cooperation. The Chinese side takes a positive attitude on “promoting” such relations. Additionally, the two words imply both a reminder and a warning from China to the DPRK, which might have some concerns about trade in the wake of the Jang incident. The emphasis on “mutually beneficial” and “common” aspects of trade represents positive declaration from China with a hint of persuasive meaning aimed at dispelling the doubts of DPRK and eliminating speculation from the outside world.
The term “healthy” is used specifically to describe economic and trade relations, but in fact the word reveal China’s overall attitude towards development of China-DPRK relations. Because economic and trade relations are an important dimension of the bilateral relationship, if the economic and trade relations are “unhealthy”, or suffer from unforeseen events or undesired results, it will cause inevitable damage to the political relationship. As a result, only the synchronous development of political and economic relations can be seen as a “healthy” bilateral relationship. “Continue” is a straightforward expression of China’s hope that the China-DPRK trade will not be disrupted or damaged due to the death of Jang.
“Healthy” and “continue” can be seen as the two words most representative of China’s position on the development of the China-DPRK relations, especially the importance of the economic and trade relations. These two words carry a hint of hope and even warning: they express China’s subconscious desire to develop normal relations with North Korea and give a strong hint that North Korea should not return to the old path of isolation.
From Hong Lei’s statement, we can infer that China has been calmly observing North Korea’s recent political changes and did not rush to conclusions. China has been vigilant and expressed concerns as to the DPRK implicating (intentionally or unintentionally) China in Jang’s “crimes.” Hong also expressed views on the further development of the DPRK while proposing recommendations for the future of China-DPRK relations. But the biggest implication behind the statements of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is this — when Kim Jong-Un was most in need of support, China did not publicly express support for Kim’s decision to execute Jang. This is rather unusual, and does not mesh with the close political relationship between the two countries. Based on this, future statements from Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding the DPRK deserve close attention.