On Strengthening China-North Korea Ties by Fudan Prof. Zheng Jiyong
"If [China] can help support a country with a population of over 100 million such as Russia, it will naturally be able to do the same with a country of over 20 million such as North Korea."
Today’s edition focuses on a recent opinion piece by the director of Fudan University’s Centre for Korean Studies, Zheng Jiyong (郑继永). His main arguments:
With North Korea’s gradual reopening since COVID and its relations with Washington and Seoul in the doldrums, Zheng predicts that PRC-DPRK ties are set to strengthen.
Zheng expects Pyongyang to place greater emphasis on developing its economy and to be less liable to overreact in its day-to-day hostilities with Seoul.
He hopes that Pyongyang will follow Vietnam’s model of gradually taking over some of China’s low-end manufacturing and believes that a stronger North Korean economy coupled with a well-developed defence industry should help ease tensions between the two Koreas.
Zheng describes Beijing’s recent support of Russia’s economy as a good example of how China could also help Pyongyang.
A visit by DPRK leader Kim Jong Un to China before the end of the year is possible and desirable, he says.
Name: Zheng Jiyong (郑继永)
Year of Birth: 1973 (age: 50)
Position: Director of the Centre for Korean Studies, Fudan University; Professor at the Collaborative Innovation Center for Territorial Sovereignty and Maritime Rights.
Formerly: Researcher and translator in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Retired from active military service in 2008.
Research focus: Politics and diplomacy of North and South Korea; International Relations of East Asia.
Education: BA PLA University of Foreign Languages (1995); MA PLA University of Foreign Languages (2004); PhD Fudan University (2007)
Experience abroad: Kyungnam University, South Korea (2009, 2010); Kim Il Sung University, North Korea (2014); Seoul National University, South Korea (2016, 2017); The Stimson Center, United States (2019).
“South Korea's intentional or unintentional distancing from China and North Korea's bid to move closer to China have been two very clear trends over the past few years. With the desired full resumption of land traffic between China and North Korea in sight, a new phase of exchanges between these two countries is about to begin. What major initiatives might be taken at the diplomatic level are [now] the subject of much interest.”
“This year marks the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement. Were North Korea's leadership able to visit China [in the coming months], this would obviously add an extra layer of special commemorative significance [to this anniversary]. The purpose of a high-level visit is generally either to mend relations or to deepen ties. A new visit to China by North Korea’s leadership would definitely be for the latter.”
“When viewed from the perspective of the past few decades, relations between North Korea and China today are probably at a new high point. A quick look back would reveal that from 2018 to 2019, North Korea's leader visited China on multiple occasions. Since then, relations between North Korea on the one side and the US and South Korea on the other have broken down, while China–DPRK ties have become even stronger. Had it not been for the outbreak of COVID-19, he [Kim Jong Un] would probably have continued his visits to China.”
“As for China, it did not remain idle during the years of the epidemic. In addition to exporting goods to the world thanks its formidable manufacturing capacity, a number of border crossings between China and North Korea were upgraded and revamped. This was clearly aimed at increasing the flow [of goods] after the epidemic.”
“[PRC-DPRK] economic cooperation has many facets. The export of mineral resources is one of these, while cooperation in manufacturing is another. Taking over some of the industries that are being transferred out of China in order to improve North Korea’s economic strength will probably become a priority for Pyongyang over the coming years. Vietnam is another socialist country, which over the past ten years or so has successively taken over such industries as textiles and clothing, building materials and consumer electronics which were transferred out of China. In so doing, it has enjoyed rapid economic development. If North Korea were to choose a similar route, it would in all probability be able to achieve similar results.”
“As for the markets for [such] manufactured goods, Western markets may be [too] difficult to enter [but] China itself could absorb some of these [goods], as could Russia. Countries in the Global South, which [already] have strong ties with Russia and China, also show some potential. Were such a value chain to be formed, the DPRK would then find itself in a position similar to the one it used to have in the Soviet-led COMECON [Note: North Korea was never an actual member of COMECON but had observer status]. Even if it means increasing economic exchanges with just one part of the world, its isolation could easily be overcome.”
“In addition to [the dynamics of PRC-DPRK] bilateral relations and Pyongyang’s own preferences, there are external factors [incentivising] deeper cooperation between China and North Korea. The lower Pyongyang’s expectations vis-à-vis the US and South Korea, the greater the incentive and need for it to cooperate with China and Russia. Since the North Koreans have probably already lost all hope regarding [South Korea’s] Yoon Suk Yeol government, Chinese and Russian companies are clearly safer partners for them in the economic sphere.”
“In relation to the US, North Korea’s current assessment is probably that there is no chance of normalising relations during the Biden administration and that it should wait at least until the dust from next year's elections has settled before reassessing [the situation]. Moreover, given that the US is now intensifying its competition with China, Washington will probably continue to manipulate the Korean peninsula issue for some time in order to create obstacles for China. Thus, as a US pressure point, North Korea will naturally continue to be bear the brunt of this.”
“Economic integration between the two Koreas has already become impossible in the short term and North Korea's development will definitely not remain idle while waiting for this to happen [绝对不会等人]. It is therefore only natural for North Korea to focus on itself and deepen its all-round cooperation with friendly countries. North Korea's focus on development is actually good news for South Korea too. Because as long as there is no overly malicious provocation by the US and South Korea, the DPRK will focus all its energy on building up [the country] and will not react too strongly to day-to-day hostilities. With a strong economy and a well-developed defence industry, North Korea will have greater leeway in whatever it does and will be more confident.”
“The benefits of strengthening economic ties with China have already been evidenced by Russia throughout 2022. After a year of being at war, Russia’s domestic economy did not experience a recession [Note: According to the IMF, Russia’s GDP declined by 2.2% last year. Some estimates suggest a much greater decline], rather it enjoyed a surplus of food, meat and cooking oil. In addition to the role played by the rise in energy prices, China’s support in terms of capital, goods and its market contributed to this.”
“If [China] can help support [带得动] a country with a population of over 100 million such as Russia, it will naturally be able to do the same with a country of over 20 million such as North Korea. Thus, it would be reasonable to expect that, like the visits of senior Russian officials to China over the past year or two, the North Korean leadership might also bring officials and business delegations from various fields with them to China. If a visit of this scale were to occur, it would mean that both sides would no longer be playing small [小打小闹] and that the deeper cooperation that would follow could have a far-reaching impact on the long-term power contrast [势力对比] in the entire region.”
“China and North Korea have not yet fully resumed people-to-people exchanges and there has not yet been any indication that a high-level visit [will happen]. In terms of timing, if this visit were to take place this year, it would probably have to wait at least until after the DPRK has finished responding to the largest [live-fire] exercises ever to have been held between South Korea and the US, and after the launch of its first domestically produced military reconnaissance satellite [Note: the launch took place last week after Zheng’s article was published, but was unsuccessful]. With the good [顺畅] communication channels that currently exist between China and North Korea, both sides will certainly be able to arrange this important event and ensure that the visit achieves the desired results.”
“In fact, as a prelude to [such] high-level visits, it is important to begin by strengthening mutual understanding between [our] peoples. This would allow visits by leaders to generate a better response among the people on both sides. North Korea has already begun to step up its efforts to introduce its country to the Chinese and Russian people. South Korean media have noticed that some of the DPRK’s recent broadcasts carried Chinese and Russian subtitles.”
“This is a minor change, but it probably suggests that restoring relations with the US or joining hands with South Korea to [boost] development is not the DPRK’s main focus right now.”