In a recent Phoenix TV roundtable in Hong Kong, Chinese analysts returned more than once to the hope that North Korea’s belligerent nuclear statements and critiques of China might merely be “smoke bombs” of rhetoric. Kim Il Sung, the old guerrilla fighter and connoisseur of the surprise attack, would surely appreciate the analogy. But even if North Korea is just going through the propaganda motions, hurling words at Beijing and Washington while keeping its actual powder (and nuclear tunnels) dry, the public signs are piling up that its relationship with China is becoming more fractious than ever. How bad have things gotten?
By some rather important measures, China and North Korea are getting along splendidly, and 2012 was accordingly an unprecedently intense year for post-war China-DPRK trade and cultural exchanges. Bilateral trade reached an all-time high, with North Korea nearly making up for its trade deficit with China by exporting more than $2.5 billion of minerals to its northern neighbor. North Korean opera companies toured the breadth of the PRC twice, to the acclaim of audiences eager to bask in the socialist nostalgia. The Dandong Trade Fair went off well in October 2012, and North Koreans have been pouring into that city in ever-larger numbers.
The sacrifice of North Korea’s relationship with the Xiyang Company, the North Korean detaining of Liaoning fishermen, and the DPRK’s angry response to China’s disapproval of its April 13th missile test were surely significant, but hardly fatal. None of these steps either individually or cumulatively derailed fundamental China-DPRK relations. Those who would lean on op-eds from Global Times editor Hu Xijin in Beijing as indicating a true turning point in China’s relations with the DPRK should keep in mind the recent upsurge in exchanges. When money is changing hands, it tends to resist central directives that hamper the flow of the “RMB spatter” on the northern frontier. And China is more than capable of throwing its own “smoke bombs,” talking tough to North Korea in English.
Even as North Korea and China disagree over denuclearization and the need for Six-Party Talks, the countries share an interest in keeping the common border secure. Only in the most oblique way have Chinese analysts suggested that China would be so upset with North Korea as to change its long-standing policy of refoulement and open that border fully to refugees. In reality, China spent 2012 very actively staunching the flow of refugees through the northeast via tighter restrictions on private transport, restricting train travel south, and having the PRC media open up a conversation about the refugee issue in a way that emphasized the need for vigilance against South Korean religious organizations operating in the border area.
That North Korea is still painting Manchuria as a land flowing with spiritual poisons and ROK special agents could signify many things, but overall the DPRK bureaucracy should be rather pleased with the level of cooperation it received this past year from its Chinese counterpart and new security czar Meng Jianzhu. The security bureaucracies on either side of the border remain very much in common cause, proving the German scholars Stephan Blancke and Jens Rosenke correct when they describe the relationship as one where “blood is thicker than water.”
Yet focusing on nuclear rifts, ironically, obscures other areas where China and North Korea are in fact drifting apart or in danger of fracturing. The very sensitive issue of possible Chinese cooperation with “Mister Yu,” the ethnically-Chinese North Korean spy in the Seoul City Government, is one such issue. Chinese sources have still not explained how Yu was able to transit through China and into North Korea so easily, and a January 23rd article in Huanqiu Shibao indicated that he probably had contacts in the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang.
North Korean reluctance to move more quickly with the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) near Shinuiju is another outstanding bilateral issue. Jang Song Taek has done precisely nothing public about the zones since his high-profile promises in Beijing last August, and Chinese concerns over flooding on Wihwa Island are not being met with much activity. Construction on the bridge connecting China to North Pyongan province is continuing, but many rather basic regulations for the SEZ are still unresolved, according to an extensive December 3rd report in a Chinese business magazine.
Finally, how the Chinese media describes North Korea within the frame of Chinese foreign policy goals matters a great deal, and carries the possibility of irritating the DPRK greatly. One very prominent thread since December, when North Korea was in negotiations with Japan, has been to depict North Korea as China’s “attack dog” against Japan. In other words, China would let North Korea go ahead with its nuclear tests primarily to aggravate Japan, the country with which the PRC has been wrestling for control over the remote Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
Koreans in both North and South are accustomed to being the proverbial “shrimp between whales,” but no one wants to be seen so inartfully or explicitly as China’s animal; to jump, bark, and bite upon command. North Korean media recently attacked a Chinese report implying the Kim Jong Un had surgery to look like his grandfather, but it is indeed going to take a strategy that employs Kim Il Song’s smoke bombs – and perhaps even his propensity to retreat to survive another day – for North Korea to remain autonomous.
* The viewpoints expressed in Guest Columns are not necessarily those of Daily NK.