Quick Take: North Korea Jabs at China in Reaction to Trilateral Summit

(Yang Seung Hak from the South Korean Office of the President)

In an unusually quick same-day reaction to the Ninth ROK-Japan-China Trilateral Summit held in Seoul, a North Korean Foreign Ministry “spokesperson’s press statement” on May 27 denounced the inclusion of “denuclearization” in the summit’s joint statement. Pyongyang did not issue a protest statement following the last trilateral summit hosted by China in 2019, despite its more explicit backing of denuclearization.[1]

Though the spokesperson’s press statement leveled its criticism at the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) and not at China, it took a veiled but undeniable swipe at Beijing for aligning itself with the call for denuclearization, when it warned against “anyone” denying the North’s status as a “nuclear weapons state.” The North’s relations with China have looked to be cooling over the last year, but this is the first time in recent years any signs of trouble have broken into the open. Furthermore, North Korea also notified Japan of its satellite launch plan just ahead of the trilateral summit, even though a high-level Chinese delegation was in Seoul for the major event, and then proceeded with the launch just hours after the summit ended. The timing of this launch was not a coincidence and should be viewed as part of North Korea’s messaging to China.

This jab at China appears more serious when considered in tandem with the last sentence in the Foreign Ministry pronouncement: “The DPRK will…make crucial efforts to build a new mechanical structure in the region based on justice and equity.”[2] This appears to point toward North Korean efforts to improve relations with Russia. In October 2023, a vice foreign minister used similar language when he asserted that improved North Korea-Russia relations were “ensuring the balance of the international mechanical structure.” A North Korean press release on Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui’s visit to Russia in January 2024 pointed in the same direction, though with a slightly different formulation, saying the two countries “expressed their strong will to further strengthen strategic and tactical cooperation in…establishing a new multi-polarized international order based on independence and justice.”

The Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) is scheduled to convene in late June for a plenary meeting to review each sector’s work during the first half of the year. The meeting almost certainly will discuss foreign policy and military issues, and it may be handy to recall the significance of this Foreign Ministry pronouncement then.

  1. [1]

    The 2024 ROK-Japan-China joint statement stipulated: “We reiterated positions on regional peace and stability, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the abductions issue, respectively.” This was a step down from a corresponding provision in a joint document from the 2019 trilateral summit, which said: “We are committed to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Italics added by the author for emphasis.

  2. [2]

    “Mechanical structure [ryokhak kudo; 력학구도]” is the Korean Central News Agency’s rendering in English. It would be better translated as “dynamics.”

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