Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to North Korea on June 20-21 has garnered significant international interest on the impact it will have on the lives of ordinary North Koreans, who continue to suffer from the impact of international sanctions.
There is also interest in the “bag of gifts” that Xi will bring to North Korea for his upcoming visit. Past Chinese premiers visiting North Korea typically brought gifts for the regime: Jiang Zemin promised food, fuel and manure to North Korea during his visit in 2001, while Hu Jintao promised two billion USD in aid in 2005.
One potential reason that Xi has not made an earlier trip to North Korea may be because China’s hands are somewhat tied in regard to such gifts while international sanctions remain in place. In all likelihood, however, the fact that Xi has decided to make the trip suggests that China intends to provide economic aid to the country.
Some observers say that China will have difficulty providing aid that goes outside the boundaries of international sanctions. There may be limits to only providing humanitarian aid such as food or manure as a show of sincerity.
Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) researcher Cho Han-bum told Daily NK on June 18 that “China will not be able to lift the sanctions or become a game-changer on the international stage in regards to North Korea,” but that “it wants to influence events on the Korean Peninsula so it will try to maintain a strong relationship within the framework of international sanctions.”
“China can provide large shipments of food and other necessities,” Cho also noted. “They might try to strengthen the bilateral relationship by increasing human exchanges and tourism to North Korea.”
While China has acquiesced to many of the international sanctions imposed on North Korea, the country may aim to improve the lives of the North Korean people given that it publicly opposes sanctions that damage the civilian economy.
“The Chinese government believes that the sanctions are damaging North Korea’s civilian economy while failing to denuclearize the country,” Gyeongsang National University professor Park Jong-chul told Daily NK when asked for comment. “I predict that China will drastically increase humanitarian aid that does not run afoul of international sanctions.”
Park opined that Xi’s visit to North Korea could lead to more human exchanges, which could in turn positively impact the North’s civilian economy. “Many more Chinese business people, scholars, students and tourists will go to North Korea […] this could soften the impact of the sanctions on North Korea while still abiding by them,” he said.
Xi’s visit to North Korea could also change the atmosphere in the Sino-North Korean border region. China could scale back its strong-armed efforts to eliminate smuggling in the area or even allow North Korean workers to return to China.
Daily NK reported in January that smuggling was widespread in the border region after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s fourth visit to China. A Chinese source also reported that large numbers of North Korean workers were seen heading into China after Kim’s first visit to the country in March last year.
“The Chinese government is cracking down on smuggling, but tends to soften its stance during and after summits,” Park said. “There is an increasing number of North Korean workers at companies in Beijing and other places in China […] The Chinese government seems to be developing a visa that can allow these workers to stay under non-worker visas.”
“An increase in Sino-North Korean exchanges may lead to positive changes in the lives of North Koreans. The North Korean authorities may try to ensure stability and strengthen Kim’s position by providing the massive amount of aid China can give to ordinary civilians,” Cho said.
Meanwhile, Daily NK sources in Pyongyang reported on Thursday that the North Korean authorities issued a mandate on June 17 to heighten security and further restrict entry to the capital. Residents have also been stocking up on necessities in case market operations are curtailed for the duration of Xi’s visit, which many North Koreans are hopeful will translate to positive economic improvements on the ground.