See-Won Byun is an assistant professor of international relations at San Francisco State University. Her research centers on Chinese politics and international relations in Asia. She focused on US-Asia policy issues as a research associate at The Asia Foundation’s Center for US-Korea Policy in Washington, and non-resident Kelly Fellow of Pacific Forum CSIS. Before joining SF State, she taught Asian politics and international relations at Bates College. She received a Ph.D. in political science and M.A. in international affairs from The George Washington University, an M.A. in international studies from Yonsei University, and B.A. in economics from Brown University.
Articles by See-Won Byun
PRC State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s November visit to Seoul produced limited substantive results while signaling Beijing’s deeper strategic intentions toward the United States’ Asian allies. China’s commemorations of the Korean War’s 70th anniversary in October provided reassurances to North Korea while triggering a war of words with South Koreans, ranging from the foreign ministry to the K-pop group BTS. On social media, the history controversy was a prelude to wider cultural clashes on a host of issues. While the repercussions of COVID-19 and US-China trade tensions challenge China and South Korea’s economic agenda, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership’s signing in November raised prospects for regional multilateralism. Meanwhile, North Korea’s self-imposed quarantine resulted in a precipitous drop in North Korean imports from China according to China’s official trade statistics. UN Panel of Experts-led monitoring of North Korean off-the-books exports of coal and sand to China drew harsh US criticisms and catalyzed the announcement of a US Treasury-administered rewards program for reporting on primarily Chinese entities engaged in illicit trade with North Korea. Coupled with the incoming Biden administration’s envisioned regional architecture and the campaign’s declared reliance on multilateral approaches to North Korea, Asia’s multilateral initiatives may heighten Seoul’s US-China dilemma.
The Korean Peninsula appears divided in what some analysts call a “new cold war” as US-China tensions escalate over issues ranging from COVID-19 to Hong Kong. Washington’s new China strategy prompted Pyongyang to voice its alignment with China while heightening Seoul’s dilemma of choosing sides. As the North Korean economy suffered the combined effects of ongoing sanctions, the global pandemic, and severe weather, a leaked UN report in August sharpened international criticism of China’s sanctions enforcement. The region’s current domestic political priorities reinforce Beijing, Seoul, and Washington’s trilemma over alternative approaches to DPRK denuclearization.
The outbreak of COVID-19, first in China and then in South Korea, placed plans for a highly anticipated summit between Xi Jinping and Moon Jae-in on hold. Beijing and Seoul’s priorities focused on fighting the virus together through aid exchanges, a new inter-agency mechanism led by their foreign ministries, and multilateral cooperation with Japan and ASEAN. As cases spread across borders, political frictions emerged over entry bans and relief supplies. The public health crisis triggered efforts to mitigate its socioeconomic repercussions, raising questions over long-term US influence. The virus also dramatically interrupted the normal diplomatic and economic interactions between China and North Korea.
North Korea conducted five rounds of missile launches in this period as prospects for resuming dialogue with Washington dwindled. Although People’s Republic of China State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi praised Pyongyang’s diplomatic efforts during his September visit to the North, US-DPRK talks in October made no progress. The nuclear impasse loomed over 70th anniversary celebrations of China-DPRK diplomatic ties, highlighting the expanding friendship Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un envisioned last June. Amid concerns over escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula, Beijing and Moscow proposed a draft UN resolution in December calling for the partial lifting of sanctions.
For their part, Beijing and Seoul advanced their strategic partnership through talks between Xi and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the China-ROK-Japan summit in December, Wang’s visit to Seoul earlier that month, and the resumption of defense talks in October. But Moon’s latest China visit drew much domestic criticism for failing to secure Beijing’s cooperation on bilateral and regional priorities. Wang’s December visit to Seoul, meanwhile, was most remembered for his attacks on US “unilateralism” and “bullying.” US-China trade tensions and public clashes over Hong Kong present new challenges for the China-ROK partnership.
Beijing and Pyongyang celebrate 70 years of diplomatic relations this year. Xi Jinping traveled to Pyongyang in June for a fifth summit with Kim Jong Un, the first visit to North Korea by China’s top leader in 14 years. The meeting aimed to advance the bilateral friendship to a new phase of comprehensive development and drive regional coordination on the Korean Peninsula. In contrast, Xi’s 40-minute meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka seemed to marginalize Moon, subordinate the relationship with South Korea, and place Xi as an intermediary between North Korea and the rest of world. Pyongyang’s missile tests, however, showed the limited effects of such diplomacy, even after surprise exchanges between US, North Korean, and South Korean leaders in Panmunjom on June 30. The current expansion of China-DPRK political, military, economic, and cultural exchanges also presents challenges to sanctions implementation and human rights promotion.
China consolidated relations with North Korea through a fourth summit between President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that set the stage for a second US-DPRK summit in Hanoi. This process was further symbolized by the presence of Xi and the senior Chinese leadership at a concert by a flagship North Korean art troupe in Beijing. The no-deal Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi left Kim empty handed and caught the Chinese leadership by surprise, removing any possibility of a fifth Xi-Kim meeting during Kim’s return train ride through China from Vietnam. It left Beijing concerned about the impasse, but hopeful that a mutual compromise might be salvaged. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s reaction to the Hanoi summit failure had much in common with that of Beijing. But despite the visit to Beijing by Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, smog hangs over China-ROK relations. Post-THAAD fallout and recriminations toward China resulting from worsening air pollution across the peninsula will set the diplomatic agenda for China-ROK relations through the rest of 2019.
2018 was a diplomatic breakthrough year for Kim Jong Un, including three summits each with Presidents Xi Jinping and Moon Jae-in and a historic meeting with President Trump. After years of frustration over North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK in September was an occasion for consolidating the China-DPRK friendship. Prospects for regional coordination on North Korea, however, have been hindered due to challenges of implementation of international sanctions and deadlocked US-DPRK denuclearization negotiations. The focus on inter-Korean progress both overshadowed and enabled the gradual recovery of China-South Korea economic and political relations, but progress on North Korea’s broader regional integration remains murky, and the regional dimension of the Korean puzzle remains unclear.
Building on the first Xi-Kim summit held in March, Kim Jong Un visited China twice on May 7-8 and June 19-20 for talks with President Xi Jinping, before and after the Trump-Kim summit on June 12. The Xi-Kim meetings affirmed Pyongyang’s commitments to peninsular peace and denuclearization embodied in the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration, but also raised South Korean uncertainties over China’s role and intentions. Although North Korea took its first step toward denuclearization by destroying its Punggye-ri atomic bomb test site, skeptics questioned the significance of the move. Beijing and Seoul forged a favorable environment for regional security cooperation by resuming working-level defense talks. Trilateral talks with Japan also resumed after a three-year deadlock. Despite indications of improving economic and cultural ties, the China-ROK security relationship remains constrained by strategic differences regarding implementation of the peace and denuclearization process.
The early months of 2018 may well be remembered as Kim Jong Un’s coming-out party. Beginning with his New Year speech calling for better inter-Korean relations, he suddenly became the topic of global attention and the “must have” partner for summits with both friend and foe. After seven years without any direct contact, Kim managed to meet both President Xi Jinping and President Moon Jae-in, and get a commitment for a meeting with US President Donald Trump within the span of two months. With the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games and the flurry of diplomatic activity surrounding the Kim-centered summits serving as the primary catalysts, the prospect for a “breakthrough on the peninsula” became the central focus for China-Korea relations.
North Korea showcased its sprint toward the capability to launch a nuclear strike on the US with a sixth nuclear test and more missile launches. Beijing supported sanctions adopted under UN Security Council Resolution 2375 and Resolution 2397, but continued to rejected calls for further pressure on the North. China continues to call for the North’s suspension of nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the suspension of US-ROK military drills, along with dual-track denuclearization and peace talks. Seoul and Beijing’s Oct. 31 agreement to “normalize” ties was a step toward returning the relationship to normalcy following a year-long dispute over THAAD, and paved the way to two summits between Presidents Xi and Moon. While defense ministers’ talks resumed on Oct. 24, these efforts at reconciliation relied on setting aside core security differences to avoid the economic costs of conflict. But these differences persist despite Beijing and Seoul’s shared desire to promote dialogue with Pyongyang and find ways to address rising peninsular tensions and the prospect of US-DPRK military conflict.
Days after Moon Jae-in’s presidential victory in Seoul on May 9, Pyongyang continued a series of missile tests that demonstrated the range and capability of its weapons, including an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the United States. Early exchanges between Chinese leaders and the new Moon administration provided a chance to reset bilateral ties, including at Beijing’s Belt and Road Forum in June and South Korea’s hosting of the AIIB meeting in Jeju a month later. China supported the adoption of new UN Security Council Resolutions 2356 and 2371 on North Korea, pledging to enforce expanded sanctions and announcing domestic measures to enhance sanctions enforcement. The China-ROK strategic dialogue in June and the first Xi-Moon meeting in July, however, failed to narrow differences over THAAD, clouding Beijing and Seoul’s 25th anniversary celebrations of diplomatic normalization in August. Meanwhile, public attacks between Chinese and North Korean media indicate continued deterioration in the China-DPRK relationship.
Pyongyang tested regional and domestic politics on six separate occasions by conducting missile launches between February and April. The latest tests coincided with the Xi-Trump summit in Mar-a-Lago and Vice President Pence’s visit to South Korea. They also marked the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung on April 15 amid intense speculation that North Korea might conduct a sixth nuclear test. In addition to supporting five UN Security Council statements on North Korea this year, Beijing on Feb. 18 announced a suspension of DPRK coal imports through December. DPRK military threats also catalyzed US-ROK plans to deploy THAAD, a source of mounting tension that affected all aspects of the China-South Korea relationship. Beijing’s retaliation took the form of restrictions from March on business and tourism. South Korea appealed to the WTO for redress and South Korean lawmakers passed resolutions condemning China’s retaliation. THAAD emerged at the center of domestic political debate in Seoul after Park Geun-hye’s ousting on March 10, following which PRC nuclear envoy Wu Dawei in April engaged major presidential contenders ahead of the May 9 elections. Beijing’s falling out with both Koreas presents a major challenge for coordinating regional policy with new administrations in Washington and Seoul.
North Korea’s fifth nuclear test on Sept. 9 and the intensified test-firing of a range of missile types throughout 2016 underscored existing weaknesses in using dialogue and sanctions as a response. The timing of Pyongyang’s latest provocations coincided with the G20 Summit in Hangzhou and ASEAN-related meetings in Vientiane. President Park Geun-hye used the venues for sideline talks with President Xi Jinping and President Obama. The nuclear test directly challenged a nonproliferation statement adopted by East Asia Summit (EAS) members on Oct. 8, which urged North Korea to abandon its weapons programs. Following extended negotiations with the US, China finally joined the international community in adopting UN Security Council Resolution 2321 on Nov. 30. In addition to strains in the China-DPRK relationship, regional coordination on North Korea remains challenged by disputes between China and the ROK over THAAD and illegal Chinese fishing.
Vice Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee Ri Su Yong visited Beijing at the end of May to deliver a message of friendship from Kim Jong Un and to report on the results of the May 6-9 WPK Congress, which reportedly marked the “official start to Kim Jong-un’s era.” Ri’s visit drew attention to Pyongyang’s nuclear policy as a continued source of friction in relations with Beijing. China-ROK tensions rose with the announcement of a US-ROK agreement to deploy the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea and South Korean protests against illegal Chinese fishing. Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) remain another point of China-ROK tension. Although China and South Korea seek to advance trade within various frameworks, such efforts only highlight a widening gap between the economic and political aspects of their relationship. Current security priorities require effective approaches to both immediate differences over THAAD and EEZs and longer-term preferences over how to effectively promote lasting stability on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January and long-range rocket launch in February drew global opposition in the form of UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2270 and condemnation by regional leaders. Pyongyang, however, promptly dismissed such calls with a series of short- and mid-range missile launches in March and April. Presidents Xi Jinping and Park Geun-hye expressed support for full implementation of UN sanctions in bilateral talks at the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in Washington. Foreign Ministers Wang Yi and Yun Byung-se pledged their commitment to denuclearization at the fifth Foreign Ministers Meeting of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Beijing on April 27-28, where Xi declared that China “will absolutely not permit war or chaos on the peninsula.” Despite Beijing’s hardened rhetoric, current tensions on the Korean Peninsula point to enduring differences between Beijing and Seoul’s strategic preferences.
The September China-ROK summit in Beijing catalyzed the resumption of trilateral talks with Japan in October and the launch of the China-ROK Free Trade Agreement in December. Beijing’s Korean engagement also included a visit to North Korea in October by Politburo Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan for 70th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). The visit was credited with preventing a rocket launch by Pyongyang that had reportedly been planned to mark the anniversary. Meanwhile, Pyongyang’s reached out to Beijing with a “friendship tour” to China led by Choe Hwi. Despite new initiatives to expand economic cooperation, Pyongyang’s apparent defiance of Chinese diplomatic efforts on denuclearization suggests further difficulties in Sino-DPRK relations.
President Park Geun-hye’s participation in China’s 70th anniversary celebrations of the end of WWII in September affirmed Seoul’s ties with China, while enabling Seoul to go on the offensive to win Beijing’s acceptance of a Seoul-led reunification of the Korean Peninsula. The escalation of inter-Korean tensions in late August revealed the dilemmas underlying Seoul’s regional diplomacy that continue to undermine coordination on North Korea and other security challenges. Nevertheless, both China and South Korea are engaging in parallel efforts to revive commercial ties with the North. Meanwhile, South Korea has made clear for now that its ability to engage China lies firmly on the foundations provided by a strong US-ROK security alliance; however, we expect that Beijing will continuously test Seoul’s allegiances.
A theme of South Korean opinion leaders in recent years has been the desire to avoid choosing between Beijing and Washington, but this strategy became more difficult in early 2015, as Seoul had to decide how to deal with issues such as AIIB (Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank) and THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) where Beijing and Washington are on opposing sides. As South Korea weighed these choices, there was a series of high-level Chinese visits to South Korea, including Vice Premier Wang Yang’s to discuss furthering China-ROK economic and cultural cooperation on the foundation of closer political ties and State Councilor and Defense Minister Chang Wanquan to reaffirm opposition to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. On the economic front, China and South Korea are pushing to sign their FTA deal this year, holding the latest trade meeting on April 9. Meanwhile, normalization of regional relations in Northeast Asia moved forward with the resumption of trilateral foreign ministerial talks with Japan on March 21 in Seoul.
Although North Korea’s diplomatic activity in 2014 spiked with senior-level outreach to Southeast Asia, Iran, Russia, the Middle East, Africa, and the United Nations, Beijing has been little more than a stopover for these officials. China-DPRK security and economic ties remain strained as Pyongyang continues its dual pursuit of nuclear and economic development. Instead, South Korean politicians and diplomats have been flocking to Beijing for endless consultations. Multilateral engagements were the primary venue for maintaining the momentum in high-level China-South Korea exchanges following the Xi-Park summit in July. The seemingly perennial agenda for discussion between the two countries was North Korea, followed by discussion of China-South Korea trade, including the announcement that the two countries would meet their end-of-year target to conclude negotiations on a free trade agreement (FTA).
Presidents Xi Jinping and Park Geun-hye met in Seoul while North Korea conducted a series of short-range missile and artillery tests. The summit produced a joint statement reaffirming cooperation on Korean denuclearization, but Chinese efforts to form a united front in opposition to Japan on history and collective self-defense issues were rebuffed. Instead, they agreed to move forward on negotiating a China-ROK free trade agreement. Beyond the summit, China-South Korean exchanges remained focused on the North Korean nuclear issue and reviving the Six-Party Talks. Pyongyang has maintained limited contacts with Beijing while attempting to diversify its contacts with other political and economic partners.
In early January South Korean President Park Geun-hye said relations with China had reached an historic high point, but North Korean belligerence posed a challenge to implementation of the China-ROK Joint Statement. Despite increased tensions on the peninsula, China and the ROK have continued to build on their cooperative strategic partnership. President Xi Jinping and Park met on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit and talked by telephone a month later. Premiers Li Keqiang and Jung Hong-won met on the sidelines of the Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan, while Foreign Ministers Wang Yi and Yun Byung-se held periodic telephone talks. In contrast, China-DPRK contacts have been limited to low-level visits and routine “friendship” exchanges. The highest level meeting was between President Xi and Kim Yong Nam on the sidelines of the Sochi Winter Olympics. China’s engagement with the DPRK has focused primarily on mediating the resumption of the Six-Party Talks.
New strategic challenges have emerged in recent months that will influence China’s relations with both Koreas into the New Year. China’s declaration of an ADIZ that overlaps South Korean jurisdictional claims and developments inside North Korea emerged in November as two priority concerns in Sino-South Korean relations, obscuring more mundane areas of progress in implementing the June 2013 Park-Xi summit statement. Meanwhile, Sino-DPRK relations appeared to suffer a setback following the Dec. 13 execution of Jang Song Thaek, raising concern about policy changes that might result. Kim Jong Un’s strategy of simultaneous nuclear and economic development remains in conflict with Beijing’s priorities, reinforcing widespread pessimism over prospects for the renewal of talks on Korean denuclearization.
China-Korea relations entered an active phase of leadership exchanges following North Korea’s satellite launch, its nuclear test, and the passage of UN Security Council resolutions condemning these actions. Although the aftermath drove continued debate on the extent of Chinese leverage and patience with Pyongyang, Beijing has reaffirmed its commitment to bring North Korea back to multilateral talks through revived bilateral exchanges with Pyongyang. Beijing’s frustration with its North Korean ally has expanded Chinese willingness to include denuclearization as a policy objective it shares with the US and South Korea, but differences remain regarding long-term strategic interests and the preferred tools for pursuing the objective.
South Korea and China both welcomed new leaders as Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping began their presidential terms. Both leaders sent signals prior to assuming power that they wanted to repair relations that had frayed under their predecessors. They also faced an early challenge from Kim Jong Un as North Korea defiantly responded to two UN Security Council resolutions condemning Pyongyang’s December 2012 rocket launch and third nuclear test. Escalating tensions in Korea provided an urgent rationale for Park and Xi to redouble efforts to establish a stable relationship and to respond to North Korean provocations. China and South Korea must establish a productive relationship and coordinate policies toward North Korea in an increasingly challenging regional political and strategic environment.
The appointment of Xi Jinping as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party on Nov. 15 and the election of Park Geun-hye as president of South Korea on Dec. 19 raised hopes for improvement in China-South Korea relations. Pyongyang’s Dec. 12 rocket launch provides an early challenge at the UN Security Council, where South Korea begins a two-year term alongside permanent members China and the US. Xi and Park will face a full agenda that includes management of growing economic ties, policy toward North Korea, and a complex regional environment beset by territorial and historical disputes. Another factor complicating the regional picture is that both leaders face territorial disputes with Japan under returning Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.
Senior-level dialogue between China and North Korea resumed this summer when head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) International Department Wang Jiarui became the first senior foreign visitor to meet Kim Jong Un. Previously, there had been a great deal of speculation regarding the absence of leadership exchanges since Kim Jong Il’s death. Several other high-level exchanges followed. Discussions focused on reconciling priorities and Chinese support for Kim Jung Un’s consolidation of power. Although more subdued, there were also several high-level exchanges between China and South Korea as they celebrated the 20th anniversary of diplomatic ties, initiated talks on establishing a bilateral free trade agreement, held the second round of strategic defense talks, and sparred over South Korean concerns about human rights.
The 20-year anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea may provide a pretext for more active diplomacy to meet a growing list of potential disputes in the relationship. Presidents Hu Jintao and Lee Myung-bak have held two summits this year and there has been increased interaction among other senior leaders as well. These exchanges have sharpened focus on the prospects for the partnership. Meanwhile, high-level contacts between China and North Korea have stalled. Beijing renewed calls for restraint following North Korea’s failed launch of an “earth observation satellite” and a UNSC President’s Statement strongly condemning it. This has dampened China’s hopes for regional engagement.
Beijing underscored maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula following Kim Jong Il’s death. North Korea’s leadership succession raises questions about the future direction of China’s Korea policy, which was most recently reaffirmed during an October visit to the two Koreas by Vice Premier Li Keqiang, the presumed successor of Premier Wen Jiabao. Li met Kim Jong Il, top legislator Kim Yong Nam, and Premier Choe Yong Rim in Pyongyang, and met President Lee Myung-bak, Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik, and Parliamentary Speaker Park Hee-tae in Seoul.
Prior to Kim Jong Il’s death, China and North Korea maintained regular high-level contacts at the state, party, and military level. DPRK Premier Choe Yong Rim visited China in late September. He met President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing and toured Chinese companies in Shanghai and Jiangsu. A Communist Party of China (CPC) delegation led by Guo Shengkun, alternate member of the CPC Central Committee and secretary of the CPC Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Regional Committee, paid a visit to North Korea in early October and met top legislator Kim Yong Nam. Li Jinai, director of the General Political Department of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), led a military delegation to North Korea in mid-November and met senior DPRK officials including Kim Jong Il.
There have also been mutual efforts to stabilize Sino-South Korean relations despite many differences that have risen in the aftermath of North Korea’s 2010 provocations. The fourth China-ROK high-level strategic dialogue was held on Dec. 27 in Seoul, where Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun met ROK counterpart Park Suk-hwan, Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, and Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik. Foreign Ministers Yang Jiechi and Kim Sung-hwan met on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly session in New York on Sept. 20. President Lee and Premier Wen attended regional meetings in Bali on Nov. 18-19, including the ASEAN Plus 3 Summit, East Asia Summit, and a China-ROK-Japan trilateral meeting. Special Representatives Wu Dawei and Lim Sung-nam held talks on Korean Peninsula denuclearization in November and December in Beijing.
High-level exchanges between China and South Korea’s foreign and defense ministries appeared to recover momentum as the two countries marked their 19th anniversary of diplomatic relations on Aug. 24. The first China-ROK “strategic defense dialogue” was held in Seoul on July 27 following talks between Defense Ministers Liang Guanglie and Kim Kwan-jin in Beijing on July 15 and in Singapore on June 4 on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue. Foreign Ministers Yang Jiechi and Kim Sung-hwan met June 6 ahead of the Asia-Europe Foreign Ministers Meeting in Budapest and held another round of talks July 21 in Bali on the sidelines of ASEAN regional meetings. But efforts to consolidate the China-ROK strategic partnership have exposed policy differences over North Korea and the ROK alliance relationship with the US.
China and North Korea commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in July. Kim Jong Il visited China on May 20-26, holding talks with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. He returned Aug. 25-27 and met State Councilor Dai Bingguo in Heilongjiang province on his way back from a meeting in Siberia with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Kim’s May visit was publicly revealed during bilateral talks between Premier Wen and President Lee on the sidelines of the fourth Trilateral China-ROK-Japan Summit in Tokyo. Communist Party of China (CPC) and DPRK counterparts held an unprecedented “strategic dialogue” ahead of the 90th anniversary of the CPC in June. China and North Korea also agreed to strengthen military cooperation during a visit by a Korean Peoples’ Army (KPA) delegation to China on Aug. 25-26. China and North Korea’s new joint economic projects have raised debate on the prospects for North Korean reform. DPRK denuclearization efforts remain stalled despite apparent increases in regional diplomatic efforts toresume the Six-Party Talks.
In the aftermath of North Korea’s artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23, 2010, Chinese officials showed great concern about the possibility of escalation, focusing special concern on the possibility that South Korean military exercises might lead to military escalation. The January summit between Presidents Hu and Obama served to reduce tensions to some degree, especially through a call for resumption of inter-Korean talks in the US-China Joint Statement released at the summit. Following the apparent stabilization of inter-Korean relations, China has stepped up calls for “creating conditions” for the resumption of Six-Party Talks, engaging in diplomatic exchanges with both Koreas, including meetings between Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Affairs Wu Dawei and ROK nuclear envoy Wi Sung-lac on Feb. 10-11 in Beijing and again on April 26 in Seoul, and through DPRK Vice Minister Kim Kye Gwan’s meetings in Beijing with Wu Dawei, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, and Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun respectively in mid-April in China. Although South Korea in April agreed to China’s proposed “three-step” process toward restarting Six Party Talks – (1) Inter-Korean, (2) US-DPRK, and (3) Six-Party Talks – this plan makes the resumption of multilateral talks depend most critically on reaching consensus on the preconditions for inter-Korean talks, which remain stalled since a preparatory meeting for inter-Korean defense ministers’ talks broke down in February.
Despite the regional stalemate on DPRK denuclearization, China and South Korea have attempted to stabilize and consolidate cooperation on other issues. Foreign Minister Yang met President Lee Myung-bak in Seoul on Feb. 23. ROK Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan returned the visit on March 28-30 and met Premier Wen Jiabao and Wang Jiarui, head of the party’s international department. ROK Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik visited China in April, holding talks with President Hu Jintao in Sanya, Hainan Province on April 14, and with Wen Jiabao and China’s top legislator Wu Bangguo in Beijing on April 13. Chinese and ROK leaders also held a series of three-way talks with Japanese counterparts, including a ministerial conference on culture on Jan. 11 in Nara, a foreign ministers meeting on March 19 in Kyoto, trade ministers talks on April 24 in Tokyo, and an environment ministers meeting on April 29 in Busan.
North Korea’s artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23 placed the Korean Peninsula at the center of regional attention and intensified diplomatic pressures on China as an indispensable player. Beijing mobilized a remarkably swift diplomatic effort in response, sending State Councilor Dai Bingguo to Seoul to meet President Lee Myung-bak and Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, and to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong Il and Vice Premier Kang Sok Ju. Chinese calls for regional dialogue intensified with South Korean efforts to deter North Korea through joint naval exercises with the US in the Yellow Sea and live-fire artillery drills. Despite urgent Chinese entreaties to convene “emergency consultations” among senior envoys, North Korean provocations appeared to undermine already limited prospects for Six-Party Talks. Beijing’s persistent calls for both Koreas to return to dialogue and Seoul’s apparent support for inter-Korean dialogue and Six-Party Talks, may open the way for a return to negotiations, but South Korea’s position remains conditional upon North Korea acknowledging its responsibility for provocations and taking concrete steps to show its commitment to denuclearization.
Following North Korea’s Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Conference on Sept. 28, China and North Korea took unprecedented steps to consolidate political ties through historic high-level party and military exchanges in October commemorating the 65th anniversary of the founding of the WPK and the 60th anniversary of the entry of the Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPV) into the Korean War. Zhou Yongkang, member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and Secretary of the CPC Political and Legislative Affairs Committee, led a party delegation to North Korea and met Kim Jong Il and Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly. A week later, Kim Jong Il received CPV veterans and a Chinese military delegation to Pyongyang led by Guo Boxiong, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, who also held talks with Ri Yong Ho, vice chairman of the WPK Central Military Commission. ROK and Chinese leaders, meanwhile, met on the sidelines of major regional and international summits. Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Hu Jintao met at the G20 Summit in Seoul and Foreign Ministers Kim Sung-hwan and Yang Jiechi met ahead of ASEAN-related summits in Hanoi. President Lee and Premier Wen Jiabao met at the Asia-Europe Meeting in Brussels and held trilateral talks with Japanese Prime Minister Kan Naoto in Hanoi.
China reaffirmed its traditional friendship with a revamped leadership in Pyongyang that emerged from the historic Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) conference that re-elected Kim Jong-il as party and state leader. Kim Jong-il visited Northeast China, holding his second summit with President Hu Jintao this year. Immediately after Pyongyang’s party conference, Secretary of the WPK Central Committee Choe Tae-bok led a senior party delegation to Beijing to brief President Hu and other officials. Meanwhile, China-ROK relations remain strained following the March 26 Cheonan incident, marking the lowest point in bilateral relations since diplomatic normalization in 1992. The third China-ROK high-level strategic dialogue was held in Beijing. China and South Korea also held their first preliminary round of free trade agreement talks. Beijing promoted resumption of the Six-Party Talks, sending Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Affairs Wu Dawei to meet counterparts in Pyongyang and Seoul.
The March 26 sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in the West Sea that killed 46 soldiers served as the backdrop for a series of high-level exchanges between China and the two Koreas as China came under international pressure to provide a tough response to the incident. Kim Jong-il paid an “unofficial” visit to China on May 3-7 and met President Hu Jintao in Beijing, days after ROK President Lee Myung-bak’s summit with Hu. Kim’s delegation included senior officials from the Foreign Ministry, Worker’s Party of Korea, and the DPRK Cabinet. Lee attended the April 30 opening ceremony of the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, where President Hu also met the DPRK’s top legislator Kim Yong Nam. Lee and Hu held another round of bilateral talks on the sidelines of the G20 Summit on June 26 in Toronto, where they pledged to strengthen the China-ROK strategic cooperative partnership despite unresolved tensions over North Korea. Premier Wen Jiabao paid a three-day visit to South Korea on May 28-30 and met President Lee in Seoul prior to the third China-ROK-Japan trilateral meeting in Jeju. Foreign Ministers Yu Myung-hwan and Yang Jiechi also held talks on the sidelines of the fourth trilateral foreign ministers meeting with Japan on May 15-16 in Gyeongju.
South Korea formally referred the Cheonan case to the UN Security Council on June 4 after results of an international investigation were released on May 20 indicating that the warship sinking was caused by a North Korean torpedo. Meanwhile, Beijing has repeatedly called for “calm and restraint” in dealing with the crisis. South Korean media criticized President Hu for remaining “non-committal” toward the sinking of the Cheonan at his summit with President Lee in Toronto, where Hu stated that “China opposes and condemns any act that would undermine stability in the region” but did not make any reference to North Korea.
China and North Korea sustained high-level contacts during the quarter, but there seems to be little to show for it. Wang Jiarui, head of the International Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, met Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang and delivered a letter from President Hu Jintao, reportedly extending an invitation to Kim to visit China. Following the visit, the Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed Pyongyang’s “persistent stance” toward denuclearization while Hu affirmed that friendly ties is China’s “consistent policy” toward Pyongyang. Two weeks later Kim Yong-il, director of the International Affairs Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee, visited Beijing, where he met President Hu. North Korea’s major push to attract foreign investment appears to involve potential economic deals that Beijing has claimed do not violate UN resolutions toward the North. Meanwhile, Chinese leaders presented a positive outlook for the resumption of Six-Party Talks on the sidelines of the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in March. Having received the title of representative for Korean Peninsula Affairs, China’s lead representative to the Six-Party Talks Wu Dawei stated that talks might resume before July this year in light of favorable diplomatic contacts with Pyongyang. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi expressed support for improved inter-Korean and US-DPRK ties. China and South Korea officially launched Visit China Year 2010, pledging to strengthen their strategic cooperative partnership through intensified diplomatic, cultural, and economic exchanges. ROK Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan held talks with Premier Wen Jiabao and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Beijing.
The last quarter of 2009 raised hopes for developments in China’s relations with both Koreas. Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping received head-of-state treatment during his mid-December visit to South Korea. In Seoul, Xi presented a series of proposals to further the China-ROK strategic cooperative partnership, including pressing for a free trade agreement. President Lee Myung-bak and Premier Wen Jiabao held bilateral talks on Oct. 10 in Beijing on the sidelines of the China-ROK-Japan trilateral summit, which Lee used to promote his “grand bargain” on North Korean denuclearization.
There were also several exchanges between China and the DPRK. In early October, Premier Wen led a large delegation to Pyongyang and proposed a comprehensive set of deals with North Korea. As the first Chinese premier to visit Pyongyang in 18 years, Wen was warmly hosted by Kim Jong-il. Following Wen’s visit, the director of the United Front Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) and Pyongyang’s official in charge of inter-Korean relations, Kim Yang-gon, made a five-day trip to China. President Hu Jintao reportedly extended a formal invitation to Kim Jong-il to visit China “at a convenient time” at his meeting with Choe Thae-bok, secretary of the WPK Central Committee and one of Kim’s closest aides, who led a WPK delegation to Beijing in late October.
North Korea’s missile tests in early July marked an apparent peak in its provocative behavior as Pyongyang shifted to a “charm offensive” strategy toward the international community from August. Pyongyang’s turn toward diplomacy has shifted attention to a series of meetings between North Korea and the international community, including Kim Jong-il’s talks with former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Hyundai Chairperson Hyun Jung-Eun in August, China’s State Councilor Dai Bingguo in September, and finally Premier Wen Jiabao in early October. Kim Jong-il’s encouraging statement regarding prospects for renewed multilateral and bilateral dialogue during Dai’s visit and his further statement during Wen’s visit that “the DPRK is willing to attend multilateral talks, including the Six-Party Talks, based on the progress in the DPRK-U.S. talks” has set the stage for new engagement with North Korea by the U.S. and the international community. It remains to be seen if this engagement will lead to tangible North Korean actions in the direction of denuclearization.
Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Hu Jintao both traveled to the U.S. in September for the G20 summit in Pittsburgh and UN General Assembly in New York, where they met on the sidelines to discuss North Korea and other issues in their strategic cooperative partnership. The Lee-Hu summit came days after Lee’s “grand bargain” proposal for dealing with North Korea, which seeks complete and irreversible denuclearization in exchange for a full package of incentives. While Lee noted China’s recent diplomatic outreach to North Korea, it is unclear whether Beijing is on board with Lee’s plan or has its own plans for dealing with North Korea.
North Korea’s missile launch on April 5 and nuclear test on May 25 posed a test to the international community following two UN Security Council resolutions in 2006 condemning North Korea’s actions. For China, the tests again highlighted the tensions between its emerging role as a global actor with increasing international responsibilities and prestige and a commitment to North Korea as an ally with whom China shares longstanding historical and ideological ties. On June 12, China voted in favor of UN Security Council Resolution 1874 condemning North Korea’s nuclear test, banning sales of nuclear and missile-related technology and heavy weapons to North Korea, authorizing financial sanctions against companies involved with North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, and authorizing the implementation of an inspections regime for suspect shipments into and out of North Korea. China now must decide whether it will actively implement the resolution. As a result of North Korea’s declining trade with South Korea and the international community, China’s economic leverage with North Korea has grown. But it is unclear whether China will utilize such leverage given strategic concerns about regional stability and the impact on the political succession process now underway in Pyongyang.
Meanwhile, economic policymakers in Seoul are aggressively seeking to expand South Korea’s share of the Chinese market in an effort to shore up the economy and benefit from Beijing’s massive stimulus plan. However, there is growing Sino-South Korean competition to secure overseas export markets and energy sources. This competition is influencing South Korean assessments of China’s role as a global economic power.
Top-level diplomacy between Beijing and Pyongyang intensified this quarter in honor of China-DPRK Friendship Year and the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Prior to the Lunar New Year holiday in mid-January, Kim Jong-il held his first public meeting since his reported illness with Chinese Communist Party International Liaison Department Head Wang Jiarui. In March, DPRK Prime Minister Kim Yong-il paid a return visit to Beijing. The Chinese have accompanied these commemorative meetings with active diplomatic interaction with the U.S., South Korea, and Japan focused on how to respond to North Korea’s launch of a multi-stage rocket. Thus, China finds itself under pressure to dissuade Pyongyang from destabilizing activity and ease regional tensions while retaining its 60-year friendship with the North. Meanwhile, South Korean concerns about China’s rise are no longer confined to issues of economic competitiveness; the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis has produced its first public assessment of the implications of China’s rising economic capabilities for South Korea’s long-term security policies. The response to North Korea’s rocket launch also highlights differences in the respective near-term positions of Seoul and Beijing. Following years of expanding bilateral trade and investment ties, the global financial crisis provides new challenges for Sino-ROK economic relations: how to manage the fallout from a potential decline in bilateral trade and the possibility that domestic burdens will spill over and create new strains in the relationship.
High-level interaction between Presidents Hu Jintao and Lee Myung-bak continues to intensify following the upgrading of the Sino-South Korean relationship to a “strategic cooperative partnership” in August of 2008. The increase in the number of meetings between top leaders is in part a by-product of the proliferation of regional forums in which China and South Korea both have membership and in part an affirmation of the rising importance of the relationship to both sides. This quarter Hu and Lee participated in the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Beijing in October as well as the G20 meeting in Washington and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Peru in November. Lee and Premier Wen Jiabao also met as part of the first trilateral meeting among Chinese, South Korean, and Japanese leaders held in Dazaifu, Fukuoka in mid-December. In contrast, Chinese and North Korean leaders rarely meet these days, and Chinese officials confess ignorance regarding the health of Kim Jong-il despite being North Korea’s closest of neighbors.
The global financial crisis and the widespread effects of China’s tainted food exports are the latest wild cards in the Sino-South Korean relationship. Likewise, North Korea’s intransigence brings China and South Korea closer together, while its vulnerability may pose insurmountable contradictions between Seoul and Beijing. Chinese analysts suggest that their government has reconciled itself to maintaining relations with North Korea at some level in order to preserve stability and secure its own strategic interests, although some suggest that things will never be the same as before as long as North Korea retains its nuclear weapons capability. Chinese analysts voice heightened concern about the deterioration of inter-Korean relations, South Korean expressions of “extreme nationalism,” and South Korea’s apparent tilt toward the U.S. under President Lee. In order to meet emerging challenges as a by-product of intensified relations, China and South Korea continue to develop new mechanisms for bilateral and multilateral engagement, both to address “strategic issues” and emerging nontraditional security issues like public health.