North Korean Leader Kim Jong-il’s Visit to China

Kim Jong-il’s armored train arrived in the Chinese border city of Dandong on Monday, May 3, confirming months of media speculation that the North Korean leader’s fifth trip to China was imminent. Kim’s exact itinerary is unknown, but he reportedly toured areas in and around Dalian on Tuesday and is expected to visit Jinzhou next, followed by Shenyang and Beijing. President Hu Jintao of China is expected to meet with Kim and his delegation during the course of the visit. It remains to be seen if Kim Jong-un, Kim’s youngest son and North Korea’s heir apparent, is among his father’s extensive entourage of senior advisers and officials. His presence in the North Korean delegation would be another strong indicator that he is Kim’s intended successor.

Q1: When was the last time Kim visited China?

A1: Kim last visited China in January 2006, following an October 2005 trip by Hu Jintao to Pyongyang. In addition to bilateral talks and discussions on the nuclear issue, Kim took an extensive tour of southern China to survey the region’s great economic progress. At the time there was speculation that North Korea was considering Chinese-style reforms to jumpstart its ailing economy. No such reforms were ever initiated.

Q2: Why is China meeting with Kim now?

A2: The Chinese contextualize this visit as a regularly scheduled summit within their long relationship with North Korea. News reports indicate that Kim has brought a substantial delegation with him including senior party officials. Hu met with President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea in Shanghai on April 30. His meeting with the North Korean leader, scheduled to occur only days later, typifies Beijing’s efforts to maintain an equidistant stance from the two Koreas.

Q3: Why is Kim taking a rare trip outside the country to meet Hu?

A3: It is always difficult to fathom North Korean intentions, but it appears as though there may be three possible purposes. (1) To secure much-needed assistance from the DPRK’s only benefactor these days. Sino-DPRK trade amounted to $2.68 billion for 2009; this figure does not include any additional trade and aid that Beijing provides through unreported party or military channels. (2) To gain some face time with China as suspicions mount that the DPRK was responsible for the March 26 unprovoked torpedoing of a ROK naval vessel, killing 46 sailors; an audience with the Chinese sends an unsubtle message that Beijing is unlikely to sign on to any UN Security Council actions in response to the incident. (3) If press speculation is correct that Kim Jong-un, Kim’s youngest son and likely successor, is part of the delegation, then another possible purpose of the trip is to give the younger Kim some exposure to summit diplomacy with Pyongyang’s only remaining supporter in the international system.

Q4: Why isn’t Beijing delaying the summit with Kim given the unsettled situation regarding the sinking of the ROK vessel?

A4: Beijing has no formal pretext for delaying the scheduled meeting with Kim. There is no clear evidence of DPRK culpability. Nevertheless, 80 percent of South Koreans believe the incident was perpetrated by Pyongyang, and evidence strongly suggests so. In this context, Beijing might have sent a clear political message to Pyongyang by denying the meeting. It would have shown North Korea that there are costs to its provocative behavior. Moreover, it would have constituted a sign of respect and allegiance with South Korea. By any calculation, China’s future on the Korean peninsula is with the ROK. Bilateral trade between Seoul and Beijing is $186 billion compared with $2.68 billion between Pyongyang and Beijing. South Korea has over 50,000 students studying in China, more than any other country. Statistics suggest that less than 1,000 North Korean students study in China.

Q5: How does China view North Korean provocations?

A5: The dilemma faced by Beijing is that provocative acts by the DPRK put pressure on China’s strategic objective of separating its relations with North and South Korea. Since normalization with Seoul in 1992, China is the only major power (with Russia) in the region that has diplomatic relations with both Koreas and the potential to effect positive change. Yet, Beijing has consistently chosen to delink the two, neither calling on the DPRK to reciprocate ROK engagement, nor heeding Seoul’s entreaties for Beijing to use its material leverage to help curb Pyongyang’s bellicosity. While most understand China’s dilemma, many see Beijing’s “muddle through” strategy as a disappointing symbol of China’s inability to play a leadership role in East Asia commensurate with its rise. This inability to make hard choices on the peninsula helps to explain the gap between China’s rhetoric of cooperation with other members of the Six-Party Talks and its actions on the ground.

Q6: What is the road ahead out of the Kim-Hu summit?

A6: Very hard to tell. Beijing may hope that it can convince the DPRK to return to Six-Party Talks, dropping its previous resistance. But at this point—with the ship sinking incident unresolved—it is hard to imagine either Seoul or Washington being interested in such a return to the table. Denuclearization remains the paramount goal, but the unprecedented nature of the ship sinking makes it difficult to conduct diplomacy as usual.

Victor Cha holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair