Saturday marked the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK), the ruling party of North Korea. As expected, the event was marked with a massive military parade – despite the lingering threat of COVID-19, which has scuttled many public celebrations elsewhere in the world.
To mark the occasion, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent an effusive congratulatory message to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In the statement, Xi hailed the WPK’s “long and glorious revolutionary tradition” and “remarkable achievements in building the grand cause of socialism.” But he saved his most fulsome praise for Kim’s “strong leadership” in particular, saying that under his guidance North Korea had “unswervingly followed the pathway of socialism, made great efforts in strengthening Party building and economic development, tackled with all kinds of difficulties and challenges with utmost solidarity, actively participated in foreign exchange and cooperation, and gained fruitful key achievements.”
“As comrades and friends, we heartily rejoice over the achievements,” Xi added.
Notably, however, the Chinese leader shied away from highlighting what Kim apparently sees as one his main achievements: cementing a nuclear deterrent through advances in the North’s missile and nuclear programs alike. As Ankit Panda noted in his analysis, the highlight of the pre-dawn military parade was the unveiling of a new intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM) “the largest road-mobile missiles on integrated launchers seen anywhere in the world.”
North Korea’s ballistic missile program is in violation of several United Nation Security Council resolutions, backed by China. While the display of a new ICBM in a parade clearly didn’t cross a red line for China (in the way that a test launch, for example, might have), China’s government also was keen not to draw too much attention to the display of military prowess. The Foreign Ministry made sure to downplay the entire exercise; “it is not something unusual for many countries around the world to hold military parades on important occasions,” spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters on Monday.
Zhao added that “China’s position on the Korean Peninsula issue is consistent and clear. We stand ready to work with all relevant parties to continue to push for a political settlement of the Peninsula issue and enduring stability on the Korean Peninsula.”
That was the only direct mention of the diplomatic process centered on North Korea issues from either Zhao or in Xi’s statement. After a flurry of meetings between Kim and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in in 2018, and three meetings between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019, both the U.S.-North Korea and inter-Korean diplomatic initiatives have stalled out.
The one lasting change from Kim’s high-profile diplomacy in 2018 has been renewed relations with China. COVID-19 might have frozen any exchanges for now – North Korea was quick to shut it border with China in an attempt to contain the coronavirus, despite serious economic consequences – but the political will remains. If anything, Xi seems more interested in keeping the relationship close amid “complex and profound changes” in the “international and regional situations” – likely a reference to the growing U.S.-China tensions.
China is ready to “to maintain, strengthen and develop the PRC-DPRK relations, promote stable and sustainable development of the socialist cause, benefit both countries and the peoples, and make new positive contribution to peace, stability, development and prosperity of the region,” Xi said in closing.