Indicators of a Chinese warming with North Korea are not hard to find these days. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent trip to Pyongyang was less of a breakthrough than the culmination of nearly a year and a half of enhanced ties and thickening lines of coordination, but it is surely as close to an indisputable signal of bilateral warming as may exist in the current environment.
But how far do these warm feelings and brotherly ties extend outward into the oceans around the Korean Peninsula, and the area of military cooperation in particular? Given that the security alliance between the two states remains an important element of strategic ambiguity between them, any evidence of military cooperation between the socialist neighbors is particularly significant. Some recent developments have signaled that a warming in the field of navy-navy relations might be in the offing between Beijing and Pyongyang.
For North Korea, naval development has become important for two primary reasons. First, this is the case because the North Korean navy — the Korean People’s Navy — has become tied to the nuclear program via leader Kim Jong Un’s personalized push for a submarine-based second-strike capability. Secondly, the North Korean navy plays the preeminent role in a significant economic sector — fishing — in which China’s interests are interbraided with those of the Korean Peninsula. In addition, the North Korean regime specifically stands to make significant profits from fishing.
North Korean Naval Delegation in Qingdao
Xi Jinping’s busy profile in military affairs brought him on April 22 to the port of Qingdao, once imperial Germany’s anomalous port on the Yellow Sea and a city with longstanding marine ties to the Korean Peninsula. It was a chance for China to show off some of its new kit, unleash a few new waves of peaceful rhetoric, and invite naval staff from a panoply of countries, including some, like India or Japan, with whom Beijing does not have particularly warm relations. The United States did not send a naval delegation, electing to decline the Chinese invitation and send instead the military attaché from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Jesse Johnson at the Japan Times termed this a “snub,” and it is hard to disagree.
Unlike the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, where former U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan tried to embarrass China’s Minister of Defense Wei Fenghe by handing Wei a dossier of intelligence photos of North Korean-Chinese ship transfers that violated UN sanctions, in Qingdao the mood was far more manageable and under the Chinese Communist Party’s control. The chair of Qingdao’s CCP Party Committee, Meng Fanli, thickly laid on the ambiance by praising Xi’s role in advancing the People’s Liberation Army’s naval technology and invited attendees to “see for themselves the huge developments and changes in China’s development in the new era,” using a catchphrase associated with Xi personally.
The Americans may not have sent their top-level colleagues, but the North Korean navy did. A delegation led by General Kim Myong Sik spent nearly a week in China, with this event being the centerpiece of the visit. Kim was not in Qingdao simply as a reward from the leadership to enjoy the highlife for a while in China — although he was pictured with a very large glass of red wine — rather, he was there to bask in the glory of Xi, with whom General Kim was formally pictured in a group portrait.
General Kim Myong Sik and Relations with China
North Koreans attending a major multinational gathering, however, is not entirely newsworthy on its own merits, even if it does help us to fill in the backstory of Xi’s contacts with North Korea prior to his June 2019 trip to Pyongyang. More significance can be attached to the follow-up from such events. Less than three weeks after returning from Qingdao, on May 16, Kim Myong Sik showed up at the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang, meeting with Ambassador Li Jinjun and the embassy’s military attaché. Although the official readout of the meeting was rather brief, the key takeaway was Kim’s overt push for further military-to-military ties. As he put it, after heightening political exchanges at the behest of the two leaders, “the KPA Navy will make greater efforts to further strengthen bilateral military exchanges between the DPRK and China.”
Such meetings have not been commonplace with Chinese officials in the Kim Jong Un era. If anything, they have been sporadic at best, and relations between all branches of the Korean People’s Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army have been in abeyance, if not full-on neglect or total breakdown.
As an interlocutor with Chinese comrades, General Kim has obviously gained some level of trust from Kim Jong Un. He was promoted to major general on April 15 by Kim Jong Un, having also been brought up a rank in spring 2016. In 2014, he helped to supervise a large offshore island attack drill which the Supreme Leader nominally oversaw, and was possibly temporarily demoted the next year. He has been involved in enhancing the Korean People’s Navy hovercraft capacity and denial of South Korea’s landing capacity along the coast.
But is his role in discussions with China some kind of a breakthrough? Not exactly. As a baseline, take General Kim’s earlier career as a conduit for relations with Beijing going back to the Kim Jong Il era. In August 2011, Kim Myong Sik hosted the last PLA Navy flotilla, which docked on the east coast for a four-day visit to North Korea. Spending some time with counterparts and about 2,000 Chinese students and businesspeople and 5,000 North Korean soldiers and civilians who had been assembled in Wonsan, General Kim oversaw a wide array of interactions between the Chinese and the North Koreans, including in the field of nautical education and development at universities in Wonsan.
Perhaps the months before Kim Jong Il died will be recalled as a kind of lost “golden era” in Sino-North Korean relations, when deals about special economic zones along the mouth of the Yalu River could still be discussed without tripping over purged bodies or torn-up plans, or when the prospect of joint military exercises between Pyongyang and Beijing did not seem so distant after all. But in the case of the Korean People’s Navy, it is largely the same cast of characters who already have set up some kind of working relationship, however spotty, with Chinese counterparts.
Red Tides and Red RMB: Fishing and Bilateral Relations
Longstanding relationships of course have their ups and downs; it is not all socialist dance parties and red wine receptions. The relations between the North Korean navy and China were really at their lowest ebb in 2012-2013, when several Chinese fishing vessels were interdicted by the North Koreans, resulting in an effective hostage situation, which the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang and the Chinese Foreign Ministry did their best to mitigate. The fact that this event went public at all was a clear indication of Chinese pique — but there have been few similar complaints in the past half-decade.
Elements of North Korea’s military are closely tied to its fishing capacity. Robert Winstanley-Chesters, a U.K.-based geographer who is publishing a book later this year on the historical geographies of fishing in and around North Korea, told me that institutions of the navy are essentially in control of all significant or viable fishing activity in the country. This also means that national security is always a concern wrapped up with the fishing industry. Winstanley-Chesters explains that even when engaged in scientific cooperation with an ally (including with the Soviet Union in the 1970s on the Sea of Okhotsk) that would presumably bring major benefits to North Korean consumers, the North Koreans tended to undermine that cooperation in some way, bringing further distrust with its neighbors.
North Korean seafood is typically discussed as important to the economy, and was a big part of the closing-off of avenues for North Korean export revenues to China via new UN sanctions in 2016 and 2017. Kim Jong Un surely wants to restore his ability to legally export aquatic invertebrates, but this is hardly the only way in which China and North Korea can cooperate to Pyongyang’s advantage in the sea areas.
Chinese fishermen and firms in Liaoning and Shandong provinces in particular are keen to fish in North Korean waters and to develop aquaculture there. The fees to the North Korean state — which ultimately accrue to the Korean People’s Navy — are paid for Chinese fishing rights in both the West Sea/Yellow Sea and the East Sea/Sea of Japan. As scholar Bo Gao describes in a small but beautifully detailed new book, China’s Economic Engagement in North Korea, “red tides” of pollution off of the Chinese coast and overfishing have severely hampered the ability of Chinese firms to haul in adequate seafood from waters adjacent to China.
North Korea’s relative lack of development and (compared to China) very clean coastlines have economic value for Chinese fishing as well as aquaculture firms. Gao describes one Chinese firm from a Shandong coastal community that set up sea cucumber cultivation facilities in the bay of Haeju, off North Korea’s southwestern coast — growth of the organisms (and thus the ability to profit) was more than one-third faster in North Korean waters.
As ever, it is not a picture of pure trust or smooth cooperation. Chinese firms set up agreements with North Korean naval representatives in an ad hoc fashion. Chinese officials in the vaguely-defined sea territory at the mouth of the Yalu River are advocating for more stringent controls of vessels in the area. The two countries have clearly not got their priorities aligned on jointly managing the new and unused bridge between Dandong’s new district and western Sinuiju. Kim Jong Un’s visit to Sindo and the Yalu River Estuary last summer was not accompanied by meetings with Chinese counterparts.
Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping have a wide map of issues to deal with, but amid the embraces and discussions, the role of sea power, naval cooperation, and the money that can flow from more cooperation on the fishing front should not be forgotten.
Adam Cathcart is lecturer in Chinese History at the University of Leeds and the editor of SinoNK.com.