After Zhao Leji’s Visit, What’s Next for China-North Korea Relations?

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After Zhao Leji’s Visit, What’s Next for China-North Korea Relations?

Recently, North Korea’s relations with Russia have seemingly outpaced ties with China. But Pyongyang has more to gain from China than from Russia.

After Zhao Leji’s Visit, What’s Next for China-North Korea Relations?

In this photo provided on April 12, 2024, by the North Korean government, Choe Ryong Hae, right, vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of North Korea, talks with Zhao Leji, left, chairman of the National People’s Congress of China, during a reception, at the Mansudae Assembly Hall in Pyongyang, North Korea, on April 11, 2024.

Credit: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

A Chinese party and government delegation led by Zhao Leji, the third-highest ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party and chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, made a visit to North Korea on April 11-13. Zhao’s visit has attracted significant attention from the international community, with experts predicting a likely increase of cooperation between Beijing and Pyongyang in the near future.

North Korea’s relations with China seem weaker compared to its relations with Russia. Pyongyang and Moscow have significantly boosted their economic, political, diplomatic, and military cooperation since the summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last year. 

For instance, while Russia sent Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to Pyongyang last year to commemorate the signing of the Korean War Armistice Agreement, China sent Li Hongzhong, a lower-ranking official who is vice chairperson of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. 

Beijing decided to send a higher-level official like Zhao to North Korea this time, suggesting that it may intend to strengthen ties with Pyongyang. 

Another factor that likely influenced China’s decision is the perception that China is manipulating North Korea within the framework of a new Cold War with the United States. As such, from China’s perspective, cozy ties between Russia and North Korea, both internationally defiant states, are a major variable, and Beijing means to show the international community that its relations with Pyongyang remain solid. 

From North Korea’s perspective, the fact is that it has more to gain from China than from Russia. Even though Russia is reportedly sending rice, flour, and oil products (such as gasoline and diesel) to North Korea, China could send much larger quantities of those same products if it chose to. The same goes for tourism. While Russia accounts for a small number of tourists to North Korea, Pyongyang may see tourism from China as a great opportunity to generate funds. 

Moreover, another key variable that North Korea must keep in mind is the fact that there is no guarantee that Russia’s war in Ukraine will continue indefinitely. Although North Korea is taking advantage of Russia’s “war economy” by sending weapons in exchange for food, Pyongyang surely knows that this arrangement has an expiration date. Accordingly, it can be concluded that cooperation with China is necessary for North Korea to achieve its long-term political and economic aims.

Since China and North Korea’s interests align, Beijing sent a high-level official to Pyongyang, and the two sides are highly likely to take steps to further improve relations in the near future.

Even within North Korea, some see it as entirely possible that Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping will hold a summit this year to commemorate 75 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. There are rumors that preparations and discussions are being carried out behind the scenes in connection with a possible Kim visit to China, followed by a return visit by Xi to North Korea.

The Possibility of Wide-ranging Collaboration Between North Korea and China

What will China-North Korea relations look like moving forward? 

First of all, it is highly likely that the movement of people between the two countries will increase significantly. Mutual exemptions have already been made for diplomatic visas and other visas related to official government business. When diplomatic representatives from the two countries are in close communication, they can play the role of enablers, helping expand each other’s influence in the international community. 

The possibility of increased economic cooperation is also likely in the form of Chinese traders going to North Korea to discuss the establishment of joint ventures. All these forms of cooperation could be interpreted as falling under the category of official “government business.” Under this broad definition of cooperation, North Korea will actively seek to send students to China and could also use student visas as a pretext for sending not only workers but also cyber experts (such as hackers). 

Since North Korea’s IT experts are being closely monitored by the international community, many will have to be replaced. Pyongyang’s plan seems to be using unknown individuals to carry out cyberattacks and virtual currency theft. North Korea’s  sprawling and illicit foreign currency-earning operations will likely expand under Chinese protection.

Also noteworthy is how China and North Korea agreed to ease customs-related quarantine measures. That is related to the “20×10 regional development policy” that Kim Jong Un has been promoting. North Korea’s goal now is to gain quick access to the raw materials and intermediate materials necessary for the construction of factories in rural North Korea.

Pyongyang seems to have concluded that taking such steps is needed to circumvent international sanctions and that relying on its “big brother” China can help it get projects off the ground. Also, given the mutual visa exemptions for government business mentioned above, it is now easier for Chinese investors to visit North Korea. As a result, Pyongyang seems to expect that the construction of factories in the countryside will be accelerated thanks to Chinese investment.

Second, we should not overlook cooperation in the cultural field. Particularly noteworthy here are the mutual translation and publication of classical works and cooperation in TV and radio broadcasting. North Korea is trying to keep a lid on South Korean entertainment and publications while simultaneously bringing in Chinese works on a large scale. That can be seen as Pyongyang’s strategy for rooting out interest in the “Korean Wave” from the minds of its citizens.

North Korean authorities seem to believe that if they can provide the public with an unlimited supply of Chinese movies translated into Korean, they can satisfy North Korean people’s desire for foreign content while nipping ideological defections in the bud. Pyongyang may also assume that China’s abundance of media centered on anti-Japan and socialist ideology could serve the dual purpose of reinforcing government-approved ideology among the masses. 

As such, a large amount of Chinese media is being imported and translated under the oversight and control of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Once this work is done, the apparent plan is to upload this Chinese content to North Korea’s video streaming service “My Companion” so that North Koreans can freely watch it.

Third, North Korea and China are also likely to strengthen cooperation in surveillance and control. Since many North Koreans go to China, it is important for the North Korean authorities to figure out how best to manage and supervise these citizens. Accordingly, many North Korean security agents will be sent to China and request close cooperation with Chinese authorities to monitor North Korean workers there. (According to some reports, an arrangement has already been reached for mutual cooperation in this area).

That makes it highly likely that China’s intelligence authorities will cooperate closely with North Korea on monitoring and arresting North Korean workers in China for problematic behavior. Ultimately, the political freedom of North Korean workers will likely be violated in China, just as it currently is in Russia.

What should the international community’s role be here? The first thing is to keep an eye on when and how North Korean workers are sent to China. We also need to make note of who comes in as students and carefully examine how they are subjected to labor exploitation. Careful attention should also be paid to where North Korean IT experts are sent and what they plan on doing in the future. To keep North Korea’s actions in check, in other words, the international community must keep sending the message that it will never tolerate Pyongyang’s bad behavior. 

It is also important to consider whether increasing cooperation between China and North Korea could serve as a valuable opportunity for the international community. As more people and materials move across borders, that creates more openings for communicating with North Koreans. It is surely important to make the most of that opportunity.