As soon as reports surfaced that Kim Jong Il was in China, there was an accompanying flurry of speculation over the causes as well as implications of his latest expedition. Was it a precursor to dramatic breakthroughs in nuclear negotiations or a portend of another provocation? Did the increased frequency of Kim’s China forays reflect a closer bilateral relationship or repeated failure to gain economic aid? Was it all related to the North Korea leadership succession?
The answer to these and other questions remain frustratingly unknown. Kim’s previous trips to China have preceded both dramatic diplomatic initiatives as well as increased tensions, so history provides sufficient fodder for all theories. But the results will most likely be far less intriguing than those predicted by the media soothsayers. Dramatic events (both good and bad) are always a possibility, but they are more likely to be driven by strategic objectives than Kim’s latest train ride.
It Wasn’t About Succession. Initial reports were that designated successor Kim Jong Eun was traveling rather than Kim Jong Il. This was interpreted as Jong Eun’s maiden solo trip as North Korea’s future leader, either to gain China’s “blessing” for his ascension or to elevate his stature. It was assessed that Jong Eun’s travel was reminiscent of his father’s 1983 trip as the hereditary successor.
Alas, Jong Eun wasn’t even a member of the entourage, instead waiting to greet Kim Jong Il upon his return. Jong Eun’s remaining behind doesn’t mean the succession has been derailed. However, Kim Jong Il appears healthier, at least as compared with his post-stroke condition in late 2008, which may have removed a sense of urgency for implementing the leadership transition.
Premature Predictions of Inter-Korean Breakthrough. There was speculation that Kim Jong Il might use his trip to re-energize North Korea’s charm offensive toward Seoul. After all, former President Jimmy Carter claimed during his lackluster trip to North Korea in April that Kim Jong Il was willing to have a summit with President Lee Myung Bak. Some pundits even cited Kim’s 2000 trip to China prior to announcing the first inter-Korean summit as precedent.
Yet, no sooner had Kim returned home than Pyongyang announced that it would sever military communications links and close a liaison office with Seoul. The North’s National Defense Commission threatened a “merciless full-scale military offensive” against South Korea and to “take physical action without any notice at any time” against South Korea’s “psychological warfare.”
Although typical of North Korean propaganda, it repudiated Pyongyang’s call for an easing of tensions on the peninsula. More significantly, it will undermine Pyongyang’s efforts to secure food aid from South Korea and the United States. As if to ensure the door to inter-Korean dialogue would remain firmly closed, Pyongyang declared on June 1 that, during secret meetings, South Korean officials had “begged” and offered bribes for a summit between Kim Jong Il and Lee Myung Bak.
With North Korea declaring it will “never deal with traitor Lee Myung Bak and his clan,” Seoul will have even less inclination to engage with Pyongyang. Moreover, the Lee administration can justifiably blame the North for the continuing dismal condition of inter-Korean relations.
Similarly, Washington will feel little compunction to rush back to engaging with the North while it continues to threaten South Korea. U.S. Human Rights Envoy Robert King was in North Korea in late May as part of a food aid survey team, but Washington has not yet announced its decision on whether to provide economic assistance.
China Claims North Korea Ready for Dialogue. During Kim’s trip, Beijing depicted North Korea as eager to engage in productive diplomacy. Chinese media reported Kim Jong Il said, “We hope to ease the situation on the Korean Peninsula, adhere to the goal of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and call for the early resumption of the Six-Party Talks.”
Xinhua reported Kim stated that North Korea “hopes relations between the DPRK and the ROK could be improved [since Pyongyang] is now focusing its energies on economic development and really needs a stable environment around it.”
China’s characterization of positive North Korean attitudes toward Six-Party Talks serves a two-fold purpose. First, to signal to Pyongyang that the Chinese leadership favored North Korea adopting a less belligerent and provocative strategy and return to nuclear negotiations to prevent a crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Second, to present Pyongyang in a more favorable light to the United States and South Korea in hopes of leading the allies to abandon their preconditions and return to the Six-Party Talks.
“Unconditional” Six-Party Talks Offer is Conditional. North Korea was far less accommodating than depicted by China in describing how it would return to nuclear negotiations. The state-operated North Korean Central News reported that President Hu Jintao and Kim Jong Il agreed that “elimination of obstructive elements” would be a key requirement for regional denuclearization.
Pyongyang would define “obstructive elements” as the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea, the bilateral U.S.-South Korean alliance, and Washington’s extended deterrence strategy. Additional North Korean conditions would be a refusal to accept responsibility for its attacks on South Korean in 2010 and international acceptance for its status as a nuclear weapons state.
Don’t Expect North Korea Economic Reform. As during his previous trips to China, Kim toured economic facilities such as automobile and electronics factories, and a high-technology center. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told South Korean officials that Beijing invited Kim to “offer the opportunity for him to understand China's development and utilize [the knowledge] for North Korea's development.”
Though seemingly indicative of greater North Korean receptivity to economic reform, Kim has made similar economically-focused tours in China during 2001 and 2006. Those trips also generated expectations of North Korean economic reform but to no avail.
Despite expectations of increased Chinese investment in North Korea, two planned groundbreaking ceremonies for bilateral economic projects were abruptly canceled. North Korea and China had been scheduled to hold a ceremony for a joint project to turn Hwanggumpyong, an island in the Yalu River near the Sinuiju-Dandong border, into an industrial complex. A similar ceremony in Rason, the North’s free trade zone on the northeast, was also canceled.
How Successful a Trip? Kim Jong Il’s trip objectives appeared to be acquiring Chinese food aid, economic assistance, possibly acquisition of weapons, and a positive Chinese response to North Korea’s hereditary succession. However, there were no announcements of Kim receiving any benefits, suggesting the North Korean leader came away empty-handed.
However, that should not be construed as a break in bilateral relations or that Beijing will be more amenable to pressuring Pyongyang. Despite being angry over North Korean provocations, China has shown itself willing to defend Pyongyang’s actions in the UN Security Council. Most recently, Beijing has prevented the release of a UN report documenting North Korea’s continuing proliferation activities that violate UN resolutions. The Chinese leadership also continues to call for an unconditional return to Six Party Talks rather than first pressing Pyongyang to come into compliance with its denuclearization commitments.
Beijing’s kind words but lack of tangible benefits during Kim’s trip reflects the Chinese leadership’s attempts to change North Korean behavior through gentle suasion. The approach has been unsuccessful and undermines international efforts to impose punitive measures as well as the conditionality inherent in the Six Party Talks process.
With an apparently unsuccessful train trip behind him, Kim Jong Il must now ponder his next move; a renewed charm offensive, another provocation, or perhaps yet another train ride to Beijing. As always, there is more speculation that substance when predicting North Korea’s next actions.