Assessing North Korea’s ‘Ground Game’ with China

Assessing North Korea’s ‘Ground Game’ with China


Has something changed about Chinese-North Korean relations behind the scenes?


August 27, 2015

Less than 24 hours after the ostensible end of “the August Crisis” along the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), Zhang Ming, one of China’s various vice-foreign ministers, revealed that the DPRK will send Choe Ryong-hae as its rather high-level representative to Beijing’s September 3 parade, bearing his Party titles. In spite of the borderline silly and solipsistic propaganda being produced about the parade by Chinese Communist Party media, the event itself and the activities around it promise to result in a high-stakes diplomatic event.

Not least, South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s attendance at the parade is sure to prompt a wave of speculation about the prospects for yet more inter-Korean talks. Given how low the proverbial bar is – the notion of “progress” in North-South Korean relations at present consists of any interaction that does not involve cursing at or trying to kill or intimidate the other party – it is hard to see how this could fail to induce hopes for a breakthrough.

Meanwhile, Chinese diplomats seem to want to frame Chae Ryong-hae’s arrival as a signal that talk is now encouraged about a possible revival of the Six-Party Talks. The problem is that these talks have long since reached zombie status, in spite of North Korean negotiator Kim Kye-gwan’s attendance at an extremely interesting Six-Party anniversary event in Beijing in September 2013, some reshuffling of American officials concerned with North Korea, and hopes that “an Iran deal” could be possible with Pyongyang.

A recent Global Times editorial, from August 24, captures China’s displeasure with North Korea’s behavior in the loudspeaker crisis, and the Kim regime’s deaf ear to Beijing’s needs. In fact, the Chinese version of the editorial was far more severe in its criticism, taking on an overtly frustrated and threatening tone toward North Korea. Author Mao Kaiyun’s August 23 editorial in another CCP newspaper, Youth Daily, voiced a similar set of concerns, saying that even “if North Korea doesn’t pay heed to China, China still needs to undertake its responsibility as a great power … being adjacent to the Korean peninsula, China certainly cannot permit any country to unleash trouble on its doorstep.”

Leaving aside the inter-Korean angle and the Six-Party canard, what does Choe’s possible presence in Beijing tell us about the state of China-North Korean relations? Perhaps here it is best to get out of the inbuilt stasis of the DMZ and start over with a foreign metaphor.