A recent visit to Beijing by a top Pyongyang envoy may be the precursor to reigniting of negotiations between the two Koreas. Eyes now on Xi Jinping's visit with Barack Obama.
BEIJING - The Korean Peninsula seems to be entering a period of relative peace after several weeks of intense rhetoric and threats of war.
Although tension in the region is still simmering, there is potential for diplomatic negotiations and compromise to replace confrontations.
Several meetings have taken place between participants in the “six-party talks” recently, but North Korean Vice-Marshal Choe Ryong-hae coming to China on May 22 has perhaps attracted the most attention. Choe was the first envoy North Korea has sent to China since Kim Jong-un took power in late 2011, which is significant for several reasons.
Sino-North Korean relations have been strained since North Korea launched a rocket last year and then conducted its third nuclear test. The Chinese media began to criticize North Korea for ignoring China’s advice and repeatedly violating U.N. Security Council resolutions. Public opinion on the Internet similarly came down hard on North Korea, calling for a tougher stance on the country.
China’s leaders issued stern warnings and recently some institutions initiated economic sanctions. China’s four state-owned commercial banks, for example, stopped transactions with North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank.
On the other hand, ties between China and South Korea have been off to a good start since Park Geun-hye became president in February. Before she took office, she formulated blueprints to strengthen Sino-South Korean ties and hoped to upgrade strategic dialogues between the two countries to the ministerial level. Park has also repeatedly called for China to play a greater role in Korean Peninsula affairs.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has likewise said on several occasions that China attaches great importance to relations between the two countries and sees South Korea as an important strategic partner. North Korea’s provocative actions have now provided an important opportunity for China-South Korean relations. President Park is even preparing to visit China in late June.
Passing on messages
The dynamic with the U.S. is also shifting. After North Korea launched its rocket, China and the U.S. went head-to-head within the U.N. Security Council and disagreed over what resolutions should be adopted. Nevertheless, after North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, U.S. officials said that China’s stance started to subtly shift. This has given the U.S. and China more opportunity for cooperation.
From June 6 to 7, President Xi will meet President Obama for an informal working visit in California. The two are expected to discuss bilateral issues as well as the situation with North Korea.
Given Xi’s upcoming visit to the U.S. and Park’s visit to China, the timing of North Korea’s envoy to China was deliberately chosen. And in order to avoid tarnishing the visit, a Chinese fishing crew that was seized by North Korean soldiers was quickly released after media condemnation.
The North Korean envoy sent to China was very high level. Vice Marshal Choe holds many positions at the top of the country’s leadership, and is a close confidant of Kim Jong-un. During his trip, he likely had a few major objectives. Firstly, an easing of tensions between China and North Korea, perhaps by explaining the fishing boat incident.
Secondly, he may have passed on a message or hand-written letter from Kim to China’s leadership. That may include a request to pass on a message to Obama and Park, or even invite China to mediate the dispute between North and South Korea over the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
During a telephone call with Park in March, Xi said that North and South Korea are brothers and that the relationship between them is important; so China is willing to help promote reconciliation and cooperation between the two.
Thirdly, Choe may have gone to discuss a potential visit by Kim to China. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expressed his desire to meet with Kim, so there’s little reason for China to refuse such a visit. However, the issue is whether Kim’s visit could bring about the resumption of the six-party talks – something China expects.
Finally, there is a possibility that North Korea wants food aid from China. However, the chances of that being granted are small considering the cool relations between the two at the moment.
The North Korean envoy probably didn't come away having accomplished much, also because his authorization to make decisions is limited. Fundamental policies and decisions still have to be made by Kim himself. But in any case, visits and talks are better than nothing.
* Associate professor with Renmin University's School of International Studies.
Article translated by Yu Menglu