Global Wire

Go back

Comforting Without Mediating: China's Role in the Korean Détente

Published 27 Apr 2018

“March madness” is not limited to US basketball courts but can define Pyongyang’s latest diplomatic overtures toward its neighbors. Frenzy basketball fever is accompanied by the unpredictability of the results of the college basketball tournament, which ranks the nation’s top 64 teams. Pyongyang’s diplomatic game is similar: full of surprises and unpredictability. Kim’s diplomatic game started out with his acceptance of a visit to Pyongyang by his South Korean counterpart’s special envoy. At the end of the visit, Kim surprised the world with two unexpected announcements. One was his acceptance without any hesitation of the invitation by the South for a summit in April. The other was its willingness to engage in a dialogue with his country’s arch-rival: the United States. Kim’s diplomatic tournament has been full of surprises, including his recent visit to Beijing. In doing so, the North Korean leader beat the international community, which did not believe that he would be able to fix his relationship with China. The tournament’s semi-final is scheduled for Friday, April 27th, when the two Koreas meet. The championship game then will feature the United States going against North Korea. The venue and date are yet to be announced.

What did the Chinese leaders have to do with all the new developments in North Korea’s diplomatic games? China certainly was not the referee of the games. It was instead a sort of coach nanny doing its best to contain North Korean megaphone diplomacy and xenophobia. North Korea in turn was in urgent need of such pampering after months and indeed years of isolation, and tense relations with Beijing. The success of Pyongyang’s leaders overcoming their xenophobia and mistrust depends on their feeling of comfort with the external world. In other words, North Korea will be looking for engagement and pursuing diplomacy when it feels comfortable enough with the world outside of its domestic comfort zone. Such a sense of comfort can only be secured by Chinese display of political support, diplomatic backing, economic aid and a commitment to defend the North militarily.

The first inter-Korean summit in June 2000 was preceded by the improvement in the relations with both China and the United States. After a seven-year hiatus of high-level contacts, the normalization of the relationship with North Korea was announced in Beijing in early May 1999. At the time North Korea’s second in command, Chairman of the People’s Supreme Congress Kim Yong-nam visited Beijing. High-level engagement with the United States was resumed in late May 1999 when the then U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry visited Pyongyang. In the summer of 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Pyongyang and North Korean relations with Japan too saw signs of improvement, leading to the first North Korean-Japanese summit in Pyongyang in 2002. In 2007, Seoul and Pyongyang met for the second inter-Korean summit.

One common denominator found in the previous two inter-Korean summits is an improved external environment, in which North Korea feels comfortable enough to be engaged. A friendly enough external environment spearheaded by the United States and supported and guaranteed by China. It is undeniable that U.S. President Donald Trump has contributed by restraining his verbal attacks towards the North and postponing the scheduled joint military exercises with the South during the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea. Furthermore, Trump has demonstrated his support for a dialogue between the two Koreas, which has undoubtedly helped the inter-Korean summit to take place. Riding on the wave of American support, Kim took the opportunity to resume high-level engagement with Beijing. For a young leader like Kim without any summit experience, he successfully passed the test of holding a meeting with its traditional Chinese ally. The Chinese-North Korean summit created the conditions for Pyongyang to feel ‘comfortable’ as Kim’s father felt so in Beijing in May 2000, one month before the scheduled first summit with the South.

In sum, China is not a mediator but rather a guarantor of a sense of comfort as a precondition for a successful summit diplomacy pursued by Pyongyang. Without China’s comforting role, North Korea would remain isolated, adopting policies centered on threats and provocations.     

Jaewoo Choo is a Professor of Chinese Foreign Policy in the Chinese Studies Department at Kyung Hee University, Korea.
 This article was first published by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies on April 26, 2018. This article was republished with permission.