Beijing announced it will send Song Tao, a special envoy of China’s President Xi Jinping, to North Korea on November 17. A Chinese spokesperson Geng Shuang said that Song’s is travelling to North Korea to give a briefing on the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
China is essentially North Korea’s only ally. China is North Korea’s top ally and trading partner, responsible for supplying the country with the majority of its fossil fuels and much needed food. However, Xi Jinping and Kim Jung Un, North Korea’s Supreme Leader, have never met.
The general consensus is that this is a tense and un-cooperative alliance.
Further compounding this, many of Kim Jung Un’s actions since coming to power in 2011 have been viewed as hostile affronts to the alliance with Communist party in China. Xi Jinping was elected to the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party making him – informally – the paramount leader of China in December 2012.
Kim’s welcome greeting to the newly ordained leader included a satellite rocket launch that same month.
This rogue act was followed by a nuclear test in February 2013 during the Chinese New Year and on the eve of Xi Jinping’s first National Party Congress. Most damaging to the alliance, Kim Jun Un had his uncle-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, executed in 2013. Jang was North Korea’s primary spokesperson with Beijing and China’s most important channel of communication with Pyeonyang.
Strikingly, Xi Jinping met Park Geun-hye in 2013 and Moon Jae-in in 2017, months after Moon was sworn into office. This reflects China’s moved to a more pro-South Korea stance.
Strategy trumps ideology
Chinese policy toward the Korean Peninsula is not based on ideology but driven by strategic and economic interests.
Can China’s vision for a stable Korean peninsula prevail?
Despite the US calling for North Korea to completely denuclearise, China seems to have rejected this ultimatum. Rather, it appears in recent days that China would prefer the US to settle for a “dual suspension”: a freeze in North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for a freeze in the US’s military drills with South Korea.
Trump said Wednesday 15th November that he and Xi “agreed that we would not accept a so-called freeze-for-freeze agreement like those that have consistently failed in the past.”
However, in seemingly direct contradiction, one day later on Thursday 16th November, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that the “freeze-for-freeze” deal was the “most feasible, fair and sensible plan in the present situation.”
During the Chinese special envoy trip to North Korea this week, will this idea be floated with the North Korean dynasty? Will it endeavour to re-establish their once strong alliance with North Korea? Or will the trip only serve as a photo opportunity for two nations with irreconcilable differences on the future of East Asian region?