Saturday, May 28, 2016, 8:07 AM CST – China


North Korea

The New Normal

China’s lukewarm attitude toward the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice indicates a subtle but significant policy shift

Kim Jong Un (R) meets with visiting Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao in Pyongyang, July 25, 2013 Photo by Xinhua

North Korean military parade marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, July 27, 2013 Photo by Xinhua

Kim Jong Un visits Chinese war graves in North Korea, July 29,2013 Photo by Xinhua/ KCNA

On July 27, the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement ending the Korean War in 1953 was marked by grand commemorative ceremonies in both North and South Korea. A memorial ceremony was also held in Washington DC, where President Obama made a high-profile speech honoring veterans of the conflict.

China, however, did not officially mark the occasion, despite the People’s Liberation Army’s pivotal role in the war. While China did not intervene in the conflict until October 25, 1950, when the PLA crossed the Yalu River into North Korea, the absence of any official ceremonies, usually an opportunity for the Communist Party of China (CPC) to reassert solidarity with the North Korean regime, was unusual.

China’s relationship with North Korea has previously been compared to the relationship between “lips and teeth” in reference to the Chinese proverb “if the lips are gone, the teeth will suffer the cold.” In recent years, however, both lips and teeth appear to be feeling a chill.

On the 50th anniversary of the armistice in 2003, a grand ceremony was organized in Beijing at which the then Chinese President Jiang Zemin made a speech. The government’s silence this year comes after a difficult decade of relations with its closest Asian ally. Repeated North Korean nuclear and missile tests in defiance of UN resolutions and North Korean attacks on South Korean targets in the last few years have left the Chinese leadership frustrated with the DPRK. Hundreds of thousands of PLA soldiers died in defense of North Korea, and the Party is perhaps becoming reluctant to overstress the PLA and China’s vital role in both creating and perpetuating the rule of the Kim dynasty.

The only official participation in the anniversary celebrations by China was a visit by Vice President Li Yuanchao to Pyongyang during the commemoration. Observers believe that although Li’s visit was a nod to China’s partnership with the North, there are signs that China is adjusting its strategies regarding the Korean Peninsula.


One of the delicate changes is reflected in terminology – a key indicator of policy in China’s secretive government. In announcing Li’s visit to North Korea, Hong Lei, spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said on July 24 that the vice president would be present at the grand parade in Pyongyang to commemorate the end of “the Korean War.”

The seemingly routine announcement immediately raised eyebrows, as China has traditionally referred to the war as “the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea,” a term coined in official language on the eve of the PLA’s entry into Korea.

The significance of this change was not lost on Koreans. “Beijing uses the term ‘Korean War’ for the first time,’” ran one headline in South Korea’s Joongang Daily on July 26, a publication which has long floated the idea that Beijing is edging away from its commitment to the North in light of Pyongyang’s increasing belligerence and resistance to Chinese-style economic reforms.

Although Chinese officials tried to downplay the change in language, it is clear that Vice-President Li Yuanchao is easing out a watered-down official line on China’s historical role in the Korean War. In response to North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s remarks that the North “values its traditional friendship with China,” Li stopped short of drawing a clear line between the two camps engaged in the conflict and said rather generally that China entered the war “to defend peace and justice.”

“We deeply feel that today’s peace is hard-earned and, for this reason, should be cherished all the more,” said Li in remarks interpreted by many as a veiled warning against North Korea’s bellicose behavior in recent years.

Besides the change in language, Li’s visit itself has been interpreted to indicate cooling relations.

  Despite his official position, making him by far the most senior Chinese official Kim has so far received in Pyongyang, Li Yuanchao is not one of the seven members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo – China’s paramount leaders. Unlike earlier Chinese leaders who visited Pyongyang in both Party and government roles, Li represents the government alone – essentially the Party’s administrative arm. In both North Korea and China, Party to Party relations are the most important diplomatic avenues. While not exactly a snub, it is hard to imagine that the absence of a senior Chinese Politburo member from the podium in Pyongyang was not intended to send a message.

“It  [Li’s visit]means that China will handle the bilateral relationship on a government-to-government basis,” Professor Zhang Liankui, an expert on North Korea from the Institute of International Strategic Studies of the Central Party School, told NewsChina. Zhang suggested that this again affirms Beijing’s disavowal of a military alliance between China and North Korea, which Beijing consistently characterizes as a normal diplomatic partner.

Zhang’s observation is echoed by Professor Zhu Feng, an expert on international policy from Peking University, “What used to make the China-DPRK relationship different from other bilateral relations was that it was primarily a relationship between the two parties, for the war 60 years ago was largely driven by ideology,” argued Zhu in a commentary published by Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao.

“By downgrading the bilateral relationship from the party level to the government level, China has made it clear that it will not restore its traditionally close ties with the North unless the latter makes concrete steps towards denuclearization,” Zhu added.

Change in Priority

In view of North Korea’s nuclear tests and military provocations, China has been pushed into taking a tougher stance on Pyongyang. Many believe that North Korea’s third nuclear test, conducted in February this year, proved to be the tipping point.

Geng Xin, deputy director of Japan’s JCC New Japan Research Institute, for example, argues that China’s strategic priority regarding North Korea has undergone important changes. “In recent years, China has adopted three basic principles in the region: maintaining peace and stability, solving disputes through dialogue and nuclear non-proliferation,” Geng told our reporter, “In the past, China emphasized the former two principles, but now denuclearization has become the primary concern.”

Geng’s view is echoed by Professor Qu Xing, director of the China Institute of International Studies and a member of the Advisory Committee on Foreign Policy under the Foreign Ministry. “Since North Korea launched its third nuclear test earlier this year, China has stepped up demands that North Korea abandon its nuclear program.”

On May 24, Chinese President Xi Jinping told Choe Ryong-hae, special envoy of Kim Jong-un, that denuclearization in the Korean Peninsula represents “the will of the people and the general trend.” This statement has been taken as a new “bottom line” for the Beijing-Pyongyang relationship. According to a report in South Korea’s Joongang Daily, China also turned down Kim’s proposal to stage joint military exercises.

Newly released figures by China’s General Administration of Customs also show that Chinese exports to North Korea in the first six months of 2013 shrank by more than 13.6 percent to US$1.59 billion over the same period of the previous year. The flow of Chinese crude oil, upon which North Korea’s military has become reliant, was the most significantly hit.

New Strategic Thinking

The apparent coldness Beijing showed towards Pyongyang contrasts sharply with its friendlier relationship with South Korea. In late June, Beijing rolled out the red carpet for the newly-inaugurated South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who offered to send back the remains of about 360 Chinese solders buried in a cemetery just south of the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. This friendly and unexpected gesture was taken to signify warming ties between the two former adversaries.

In early June, Fang Fenghui, chief of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff met with South Korea’s top military chief Jung Seung-jo, a meeting interpreted as an effort to strengthen military ties between the two countries. It was also a meeting dubbed by some Chinese media outlets as “the first step to turn former foes into military partners.”

According to Professor Zhu Feng, Beijing’s recent moves indicate that it is ready to get rid of its historical liability by adopting a “forward-looking” approach in dealing with North and South Korea. “It is part of the grand new international strategy under China’s new leadership,” commented Zhu.

However, despite China’s tougher stance, North Korea’s leaders have remained intractable on the issue of their nuclear program, though officials occasionally pay lip service to international hopes of a disarmed Pyongyang. North Korea’s vice foreign minister Kim Kye-gwan remarked during a June 19 visit to Beijing on that denuclearization is the “teachings and wills” of both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, but stopped short of mentioning the views of Kim Jong-un.

When Li Yuanchao reiterated China’s non-proliferation stance to Kim Jong-un, the latter made no direct response, other than promising to “support China’s effort to restart the six-party talks.”

While Beijing is a long way from abandoning an increasingly isolated and unpredictable North Korea, the new leadership, unlike their predecessors, seem willing to entertain the idea, at least, of change. 


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