Since the beginning of 2010, rumors of an imminent visit by Kim Jong Il to China have been floating around. It was not surprising then that during the investigation of the Cheonan incident and in the midst of a stalemate in the Six Party Talks, Chairman Kim traveled to China for a series of meetings with its top leaders, including President Hu Jintao.
During these meetings, President Hu and Chairman Kim agreed to five points: to continue high-level personnel exchanges; to strengthen strategic communication over internal affairs and diplomacy; to deepen economic cooperation; to expand social, cultural and sports exchanges; and to cooperate on international and regional issues. Both leaders underscored a commitment to maintain the tradition of friendship between the two countries into the future. Chairman Kim also clarified North Korea’s position on the nuclear issue—his commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and to joint efforts among the concerned parties to create an atmosphere conducive to the resumption of Six Party Talks.
Although the trip itself came as no shock, the timing of the event did raise questions: Why did Chairman Kim go to Beijing at this moment? Why did the Chinese allow him to visit now? What were the objectives of the visit? What issues did China and North Korea discuss? Is this a sign that international cooperation regarding North Korea is eroding? What are the implications of Kim’s visit? These questions can essentially be divided into two groups: questions on possible changes in the strategic setting and tactical questions over pending issues.
Over the years, China has pursued three objectives in its policy towards the Korean peninsula: peace and stability; denuclearization; and maintaining or increasing its influence. Among these objectives, China now seems to be putting more emphasis on the first and third, and its acceptance of Kim’s visit can be interpreted as a way to achieve these two objectives. As such, recent provocations by the North have made their realization even more difficult. Since Pyongyang’s two nuclear tests, it has become more isolated. No dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea is currently taking place. Even worse, in the midst of this nuclear stalemate, the Cheonan incident has taken place.
Consequently, China may have surmised that the situation on the Korean peninsula is headed toward a head-on collision. For Beijing, avoiding further deterioration of the security situation by restraining both sides and creating opportunities for dialogue has become urgent. By emphasizing a need for “strengthening strategic communication over internal affairs (emphasis added) and diplomacy,” China may be expressing a view that there should be closer prior consultation between Beijing and Pyongyang before making any strategic moves and that the North should not take steps that adversely affect its national interests.
In trying to enhance its influence over North Korea by emphasizing strategic communication and offering economic assistance, China also seems to be trying to place itself in a better position to urge the other parties to exercise more flexibility in handling Pyongyang. Furthermore, by decoupling the Cheonan incident from the Six Party Talks, Beijing is attempting to prevent the situation from escalating and to create opportunities for dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea. From Beijing’s perspective, the Six Party Talks may be more important than the Cheonan incident and thus it seems to feel a need to minimize the adverse impact of the incident on those discussions.
Second, China’s strategic objective in holding the summit may have been to counterbalance U.S. influence in and around the Korean peninsula. The relationship between South Korea and the U.S. has grown stronger and deeper recently, whereas the strategic cooperative partnership between South Korea and China has not yet fully matured. At the same time, relations between North Korea and China have gradually deteriorated since the North’s first nuclear test, while Pyongyang has tried to pursue direct dialogue with the United States. All in all, from Chinese perspective, if these trends continue, they will seriously undermine China’s ability to play an important role as mediator. Thus, to offset or prevent a U.S.-centered strategic landscape from emerging in Northeast Asia, China might have felt it necessary to restore its relationship of friendship and cooperation with North Korea. As a result, President Hu emphasized the special relationship between the two countries.
In addition, Chairman Kim’s visit to China could have served Chinese tactical objectives, such as diffusing tensions and containing the potential impact of the Cheonan incident; creating momentum for the Six Party Talks; and strengthening and broadening economic cooperation with North Korea. Compared to its strategic objectives, however, these tactical objectives could just be minor concerns for Beijing.
From North Korea’s perspective, Chairman Kim’s visit to Beijing seemed to have five purposes: to dilute the Cheonan incident; to divide the other five parties in the multilateral talks, especially the U.S. and China; to seize an opportunity to jump start U.S.-North Korean talks; to acquire economic assistance from China; and finally, to get Beijing’s support for the eventual succession of Kim’s youngest son.
Whether Chairman Kim succeeded in achieving those goals remains to be seen. But, at the very least, North Korea succeeded in watering down the impact of the Cheonan incident by having the Chinese reaffirm the separation of the sinking from the Six Party Talks. Second, North Korea seems to have secured limited Chinese support for its leadership succession plan. Both Chairman Kim and President Hu highlighted the tradition of friendship between the two countries and underscored the maintenance and further development of that relationship for generations to come. On the other hand, North Korea did not get a Chinese pledge for additional economic assistance, although Beijing did promise further cooperation. On the Six Party Talks, both parties simply reiterated their previous positions. Thus, from a North Korean perspective, Chairman Kim’s visit to China may have fallen somewhat short of his objectives.
The North Korean leader’s visit to China has given some food for thought to South Korea. First of all, in view of that trip, South Korea needs to take a close look at China’s policy vis-à-vis the Korean peninsula as well as Northeast Asia. Beijing might well have different policy preferences in pursuing its national interests. While recognizing these differences, South Korea, along with its allies, should work to narrow gaps and to foster common ground. That does not mean South Korea should accommodate China’s interests. Rather, based on its understanding of Beijing’s policy, South Korea should seek to identify new avenues to secure and expand Chinese cooperation. In other words, South Korea should formulate a new engagement policy towards China.
Second, we should begin to look beyond immediate concerns such as the Six Party Talks, the Cheonan incident, and economic assistance. As was mentioned earlier, China’s long-term strategic goal may be to strengthen its influence over the Korean peninsula and to balance U.S. influence in Northeast Asia. In a word, China might envision a different regional strategic landscape than what the United States has in mind. Chairman Kim’s visit to Beijing and both leaders’ emphasis on the traditional friendship can be seen as the beginning of a new game geared towards a strategic configuration that counters American influence.
In conclusion, while the U.S. and South Korea are consulting each other on pending near-term tactical issues, it is time for both countries to expand the scope of their dialogue well beyond current challenges to consider steps to shaping the future strategic landscape on the Korean peninsula and in East Asia.
 The views and ideas in this article are those of the author. They do not represent those of IFANS or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.