Chinese state media are calling on Chinese leaders to arrange for North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un to visit Beijing, suggesting that such a trip may be forthcoming.
A Global Times editorial on Tuesday, which was reprinted in the official People’s Daily, said that “China should help bring about Kim Jong-un’s visit to China as soon as possible, which will benefit the North’s long-term stability and bilateral friendly ties.”
The statement came at the end of an article that assessed China’s interests in North Korea following the purge of Kim Jong-Un’s uncle and North Korea’s number two, Jang Song-thaek. Jang was a close confidant of China and visited the country on Kim’s behalf on a number of occasions. Jang is also believed to have been a strong proponent of advancing economic reforms in the Hermit Kingdom, which is a path that China has long advocated for Pyongyang.
The GT editorial argued that Jang’s purge demonstrated that North Korea is stable and that Kim Jong-Un is in complete control over the country. It then stated, “A friendly relationship between China and North Korea is not only critical to the North, but also a strategic and diplomatic leverage for China…. To keep this friendly relationship should be China’s mainstream mentality toward this neighbor.”
The editorial went on to imply that the best way to maintain friendly bilateral ties with North Korea was by engaging Kim Jong-Un more closely.
“Kim Jong-un is young, which can possibly become the country’s decisive factor in promoting the nation to move forward,” it said.
Since Kim Jong-Un came to power following his father’s death in late 2011, China has been seen as trying to keep the young dictator at arm’s length. This has been especially true following North Korea’s third nuclear test earlier this year.
Instead, Beijing has appeared to favor using more experienced North Korean officials like Jang as intermediaries between it and Kim. Analysts have long suspected that Kim Jong-Un was sending these intermediaries to Beijing at least partly in an effort to convince China to invite him to Beijing for a state visit. Kim Jong-Un has yet to visit China since becoming North Korea’s top leader, although he did accompany his father on at least one trip to China before taking over the reins of power.
The GT editorial suggests that Jang’s purged has spooked Beijing enough for it to rescind its long-standing opposition to a Kim visit. Part of China’s concern likely has to do with fears that the North Korean regime is unstable, and Beijing may want to get information on the stability of the regime straight from Kim himself. Beijing may also feel that the visit could shore up Kim’s power in North Korea and make it less likely that military officials will try to orchestrate a coup against Kim.
China’s likely invitation may also be motivated by a desire to keep North Korea’s economic reforms on track. Back in October, Pyongyang announced that it was significantly expanding the number of special economic zones in the country, which are used to attract foreign investment. Jang was seen as the main driver of these policy changes, and his purge suggests that domestic opponents of limited economic reform may have won over Kim (whether through persuasion or fear). Should China invite Kim to Beijing, China is likely to try and prevent a complete rollback of these economic reforms.
China may also be seeking to invite Kim to Beijing simply because it now fully realizes that it will have to deal with him. As the editorial itself noted, Jang’s purge underscored that Kim has a tight grip on power and China may therefore have finally concluded that it has no alternative to forging a better relationship with the young leader.
Regardless of the reasoning behind the likely invitation, this development once again highlights that the weaker party, North Korea, tends to dictate the bilateral relationship to its much larger and more powerful neighbor, China. This is nothing new, although Beijing’s reaction to North Korea’s third nuclear test strongly suggested that Xi Jinping was intent on changing these dynamics. Kim being invited to Beijing at this time will be a clear signal that Xi’s effort has failed and is being abandoned.