Written by Adam Cathcart.
You know things are not going particularly well for China’s diplomatic efforts in Pyongyang when a visit by a small second-rank student song-and-dance ensemble from Dalian starts to look like of some kind of breakthrough in relations. But with the DPRK making ever-louder noises about some new-style nuclear deterrent, that is perhaps what Chinese diplomats have been reduced to.
This past January, China’s Ambassador in Pyongyang, Liu Hongcai finally reemerged out of whatever bunker or forced vacation he had been hovering about in after the abrupt execution of Jang Song-taek. Accompanied by a dragon-lion dance corps and a small group of tall and swaying erhu and pipa players – Dalian’s answer to the Moranbong Band – Ambassador Liu was finally back “in public” (i.e. in front of a camera in a highly-controlled non-Embassy environment) shaking hands and grinning in his ill-fitting suit.
The celebration of Chinese New Year in Pyongyang at least allowed for the Chinese community in the city to again assemble and make a few dumplings for the ennui-rich foreign community, and to raise the spirits of the overseas Chinese who reside permanently in the DPRK. More importantly, the events were also a chance for the Chinese Embassy to stick its metaphorical head above the parapet. The sheer level and target of spite in the official death sentence on Jang Song-taek (selling minerals for cheap to China; basic complaints over long-settled deals at Rason) meant that speculation over the general mood toward Beijing among the supreme leadership was hardly some exercise in divination. The Kim regime was in some kind of rage, and Jang’s association with Chinese business interests was tied in explicitly to the bloody narrative.
February was another bad month for bilateral ties – overt controversy over rocket launches by the DPRK, and a statement by Foreign Minister Wang Yi about “red lines” for Korea could in no way be considered positive developments. Moreover, the release of a massive Commission of Inquiry Report on Human Rights in the DPRK implicated the two communist powers in ways that made the Chinese state exquisitely uncomfortable and which virtually necessitated using up more than a few chips of political capital at the United Nations to block the prospect of investigations from extending into China.
If you missed Wu Dawei’s five-day visit to Pyongyang from March 17-21 you’re not alone. Neither the North Korean nor the Chinese media gave it more than a few seconds of coverage, and journalists elsewhere tended to follow suit. A North Korean hired by the Associated Press managed to snap a photograph of Wu hustling down what appeared to be an alleyway, clad in black and wearing sunglasses reminiscent of a certain cult film series featuring Keanu Reeves.
But what do we know about what Wu Dawei saw and did in Pyongyang? The MFA spokesperson in Beijing was particularly coy, speaking on 19 March like his trip was already over, and that Wu’s goal in Pyongyang was to speed up the reconvening of the Six-Party Talks (which, neatly, have now been dead for almost five years). If his August 2013 trip to Pyongyang was any barometer, we might have expected Wu to meet again with Kim Kye-gwan, his counterpart for North Korean negotiations over nuclear diplomacy.
Wu then turned up, still in Pyongyang, on 20 March, spending his only publicly-disclosed face time with anyone of significance. His meeting was with Kim Yong-dae, a vice-chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly and the chairman of the Korean Social Democratic Party. The KSDP is one of the handful of small and vestigial parties under the thumb of the Workers’ Party that allow North Korea to claim that it is not entirely a one-party state. Imagine, if you will, a North Korean envoy having his highest-level meeting in Beijing not with a member of the CCP, but instead the CCP-affiliated Guomindang: The message would, I think, be unmistakable. When your interlocutor in Pyongyang is the same guy they send to deal with the crucifix-bearing contagion of American evangelical Christians, you’re not doing very well.
Perhaps, one might argue, Wu was up to big things behind the scenes. That is certainly possible. However, the North Korean media outdid their Xinhua counterparts in terms of transparency (this happens more often than might be expected) and reported on 19 March that Wu Dawei and his small delegation blew half a day visiting the Mirim Riding Club, Kim Jong-un’s distant suburban equestrian paradise, and a new shooting facility. Perhaps this was just pro forma activity expected of any foreign delegation, who are expected to coo over how much money Kim Jong-un is funneling into non-nuclear parks and recreation in Pyongyang. But Wu’s visit to Kim Jong-un’s quixotic people’s pleasure palace was also potentially embarrassing information which the CCP did not want working its way into Weibo.
North Korea sent much heavier and unmistakable signals of disdain toward China on the last two days of Wu’s visit via a number of rocket launches. These were the type of test which Chinese media outlets had expressly condemned just one week prior.
On either side of the Wu visit, various arms of the North Korean government have pointedly made noise about heightening the country’s nuclear deterrent — the National Defense Commission having done so on 15 March, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 30 March. In the best case scenario, Wu Dawei’s visit may have succeeded in briefing North Korean counterparts about American intentions, and he may even have re-opened the door for a few profitable Chinese mining interests in North Korea. But in no way can Chinese diplomacy be interpreted as slowing North Korea’s drive for further nuclear capabilities. Under these circumstances, maybe exquisitely limited cultural exchange with the DPRK is all that the Chinese Communist Party can really expect.