Is China warming back to Pyongyang?

SEOUL–Is China thawing relations with North Korea, its nuclear saber-rattling ally?

Chinese president Xi Jinping’s sudden meeting with a top North Korean envoy on June 1 is raising eyebrows in Seoul.

iceIt was the first such top-level meeting in three years, prompting speculation that Beijing, exploiting the worsening confrontation in the South China Sea with the US, might be using the geopolitical leverage by inching closer to North Korea, the most dangerous spot in today’s Northeast Asia.

Xi’s meeting with Ri Su-yong, the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s new right-hand man on foreign relations, came against the backdrop of US President Barack Obama’s history-making visit to Hanoi. It was a trip to bring Vietnam into the chain of encirclement against China in the South China Sea dispute. And Xi’s ending a three-year freeze on meeting with Pyongyang officials appears to be his own move to counteract the US action.

As for the North, Kim himself could take advantage of this rift to improve ties with Beijing, his economic and security lifeline. For one thing, he has been hard at work trying to wrangle an official invitation to visit Beijing. That would be his first imprimatur of acceptance by the international community.

By all indications, Ri, 76, a newly installed politburo member in Pyongyang, was carefully picked to convey a sense of gravity from Pyongyang. Not only is he the dictator Kim Jong-un’s most trusted foreign policy official, he’s also a family confidant, having managed the Kim family’s clandestine overseas bank accounts.

Leading a 40-strong delegation, Ri went into talks at two levels. He met with the Chinese Communist Party’s head of international department Song Tao, conveying Kim’s verbal message that Pyongyang wanted to strengthen and develop bilateral relations, despite differences over the nuclear issue. Conveying the results of the North Korean party’s congress in May, he said the North has officially confirmed the “pyongjin” policy of pursuing nuclear weapons while simultaneously seeking economic development.

China's President Xi Jinping (R) meets with Ri Su Yong, one of North Korea's highest-profile officials, in Beijing, China, June 1, 2016. Xinhua/Pang Xinglei/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA. NO ARCHIVES.NO RESALES TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

China’s President Xi Jinping (R) meets with Ri Su-yong, one of North Korea’s highest-profile officials, in Beijing, China, June 1, 2016. Xinhua/Pang Xinglei/via REUTERS

Shift in Chinese position?

How Song responded to this statement has not been revealed. But North Korean official media claimed that China has agreed and accepted this policy line.

If true, that would fly against China’s stated policy of opposing North Korea’s nuclear development. It contravenes Beijing’s participation in the UN Security Council’s resolution in March that imposed heavy sanctions following its fourth underground test in January.

Xi, for his part, said China placed a high value on relations with North Korea, saying Beijing wanted to strengthen and consolidate the present relations with the Kim regime. Was this a reconfirmation of established policy, or does it represent readiness to mend fences and seek a thaw with Pyongyang?

In the face of tightening sanctions that have practically blocked all commercial trade between the two sides, it would not be surprising at all if Pyongyang sought to improve ties with Beijing. Diplomatic sources in Beijing also said Kim came looking for new food aid — as much as one million tons of grain to meet a current shortage. China, it was learned, was ready to offer half of that amount, presumably on humanitarian grounds to stop the regime from facing a dire shortage that could entail political unrest. China also provides half a million tons of crude each year, which account for 80% of its total energy needs, according to one Chinese source.

Thus despite the sanctions, China is likely to continue providing food and energy needs, on the understanding that they are vital for sustenance of the Kim regime which, Chinese analysts contend, could collapse if nothing came. Under the present sanctions, China has suspended imports of coal and other minerals from the North, thus cutting off a large portion of Pyongyang’s foreign exchange earnings.

Xi’s omitted nuke line

Officially, China remains committed to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula (this means it opposes South Korea’s nuclear armament too). Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and peaceful settlement of differences through negotiations are two conditions put forward by China. But Xi omitted repeating the oft-stated declaration of “resolutely opposing” Kim’s nuclear program when meeting with Ri. Why he omitted reiterating the statement puzzles analysts here.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un looks at a rocket warhead tip after a simulated test of atmospheric re-entry of a ballistic missile, at an unidentified location in this undated file photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on March 15, 2016. REUTERS/KCNA

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un looks at a rocket warhead tip after a simulated test of atmospheric re-entry of a ballistic missile, at an unidentified location in this undated file photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on March 15, 2016. REUTERS/KCNA

On the surface, however, Beijing adheres to an international collaboration on denuclearization. At the recent US-China Strategic Dialogue in Beijing, US and China agreed not to accord North Korea the status of a nuclear weapons state. Such agreement behooves Beijing to strongly oppose any further nuclear test by the Pyongyang regime, but it’s by no means clear how China will react to another underground test. According to US analysts, the latest satellite aerial photos indicate renewed activity at Yongbyon nuclear complex where bomb-making plutonium is produced. It could mean Kim is preparing for a fifth underground test anytime soon.

There’s no doubt that another such test will seriously undermine trust between Washington and Beijing, whose collaboration so far has provided the basis for UN sanctions. But in recent months, China’s attitude has shown subtle changes in this collaboration. Privately, Chinese officials have floated the idea that the US should accept peace talks with Pyongyang in exchange for a moratorium on further test. In short, that would leave the already existing bomb material – said to be adequate for making at least ten Hiroshima type atomic bombs — intact.

Neither Washington nor Seoul is interested in that kind of compromise, especially as it includes the North’s demand for removing US ground forces from the South. Such a formula clearly would benefit China, as it regards North Korea as a buffer against the US and Japan.

China’s insufficient cooperation on the whole North Korean issue is palpable in other areas too. When the US declared North Korea a “primary money laundering concern” on June 1, in order to cut its international financial links, the Chinese foreign ministry quickly indicated Beijing’s reluctance to cooperate. “We have consistently opposed any country using its domestic law to impose unilateral sanctions on another country,” said foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.

Such arguments will not provide Beijing with much consolation. The US Treasury department’s move is aimed at blocking money moving to Pyongyang from a variety of sources, including payment for weapons and other illicit businesses. China has remained extraordinarily sensitive to this kind of sanction because Chinese banks have mostly been used for this purpose. Under the money laundering designation, Chinese banks doing business with North Korea, directly or otherwise, will be automatically barred from doing business with the US.

Washington already has some experience in halting North Korean funds. In 2005, when the US Treasury clamped a similar sanction on a $24 million account held by Kim Jong-il, the present leader’s father, in Banco Delta Asia in Macau, he quickly backed down.

US pressure

hi-res-china-dprk-puzzle-300x199This time, the financial sanctions are coming with an added incentive. US officials have started investigating China’s electronics giant Huawei, to see if it’s sold any equipment containing US technology to North Korea. If this suspicion is confirmed, Huawei could be suspended from doing business deals with the US.

Beijing seems to be taking the threat seriously. Chinese authorities have recently raided the office of a North Korean trade official, seizing a large amount of yuan cash. It was a clear sign of China reluctantly cooperating under pressure from the US.

Given China’s conflicting web of relations with North Korea, it is safe to assume Beijing’s degree of cooperation on Kim’s nuclear gambit will depend on US-China geopolitical movements. If the US-China confrontation worsens in the South China Sea or elsewhere, we might expect lesser cooperation from Beijing on the North Korean nuclear issue.

Shim Jae Hoon is a distinguished Korean political analyst and commentator who served as Seoul bureau chief of the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review. He also was the Review’s Taipei bureau chief.

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