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Koreas 'suspicious' of China

Rodion Ebbighausen
March 27, 2018

China's role in North Korea's diplomatic affairs is in the spotlight following reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited Beijing. DW spoke with former British diplomat James Hoare about China-North Korea ties.

China Nordkorea Grenze
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/How Hwee Young

After a train reportedly originating from North Korea arrived in Beijing on Monday afternoon and an emissary motorcade was recorded driving through the streets of China's capital, speculation began to mount that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was on board.

The Associated Press reported that there was unusually heavy security at a guesthouse in Beijing where prominent North Koreans have stayed in the past. The train reportedly left Beijing on Tuesday afternoon, less than a day after it arrived. 

China is North Korea's most important ally and it would be an opportune time for the two countries to touch base. There is a bilateral summit between North and South Korea planned for April and the potential for a meeting with US President Trump in May.

While the reason behind the North Korean train in Beijing remains shrouded in mystery, China will be decisive in determining the future of North Korea's relations with the international community.

UK James Edward Hoare
James Edward Hoare is Associate Fellow of the London-based Chatham House Asia-Pacific ProgrammeImage: Privat

DW: China-North Korea relations have traditionally been very close. But over the last couple of years, China has supported UN sanctions against North Korea. How would you characterize the current state of relations?

James Hoare: The problem with China and North Korea is that they share a long border and a lot of historic links, but the Koreans — North and South — are suspicious of that great neighbor, its huge size and its traditional wish to have subservient states on its borders.

Although relations with North Korea have been friendly, and of course China saved North Korea during the Korean War, that doesn't necessarily mean that they're always close. And there have been periods of tension and periods of disagreement between them.

The Koreans are determined not to be Chinese. They look on their great neighbor with a lot of suspicion and a lot of concern. Sanctions and the general willingness of the Chinese in recent years to go along with international condemnation of North Korea has not made the relationship any better.

However, China is still very important to North Korea both as a source of economic support, particularly oil, but also as an outlet for North Korean trade. A lot of trade still goes on despite sanctions. And that matters to North Korea. But at the same time, the North Koreans don't want to be told what to do by China.

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Many experts hold the view that as North Korea's only ally, China does not have a lot of influence in Pyongyang. But since talks with the South and the US might take place, Kim seems to have visited China. What do you think about that?

We don't know that it is Kim, it could be, but equally it could be somebody else. I think that it's partly to get a Chinese readout of motives.

The Chinese have more of a relationship with the United States than North Korea does. North Korea is not entirely cut off from the United States. It has a mission at the UN, and the US and North Korea want to talk. They can do and they have done in the past.

China is in much more direct contact with the United States and it could be that North Korea is seeking some insights from China about what US motives are — what the real US bottom line might be in negotiations — along with wanting to reassure itself that China is not going to be a difficulty for them.

Under normal circumstances, you would not be surprised that the North Koreans would send an envoy to China or that a very senior North Korean would go to China. Leaders have gone in the past in order to sound out the Chinese or whatever particular issues there are at the moment. But suspicion and concerns about China still remain.

What does China want from the outcome of talks planned between North and South Korea and, potentially, the US?

I think the Chinese probably got worried last year, as many people did, that the exchange of rhetoric, the threatening attitude and provocations on both sides, were things that were designed to unsettle the other side.

It did look as though, considering the new and unpredictable US president, that there might be some form of conflict in East Asia. And China is not going to be able to stand idly by if there is some sort of conflict even if it's short of all out war.

But China's interest could still be affected with any sort of tension that has an economic knockback effect. China's economic needs and trade are vulnerable to such actions. So the Chinese will be pleased that things seem to have moved away from the really high tension of last year.

Although they promised to have talks, the expectation of having talks is not necessarily going to lead to talks, there are a lot of steps to go through first.

The Chinese will be glad that people are talking now about talking and not about fighting. That's been the Chinese line all along to both sides: "Pull back! Stop it! It's too dangerous."

I think the Chinese will be quite pleased that this is happening. And whether or not they are formally consulted, the Chinese will potentially be involved by both sides as a useful third party.

Read more: North Korea agrees to talks with South ahead of leaders' summit

What is South Korea's perspective on all this?

I think that for South Korea the concern is that whatever tensions there are in and around the Korean Peninsula do not spillover into war, because in a conflict South Korea is extremely vulnerable. They have a vast sprawling capital city with a huge population. It's easy for South Korea to suffer.

I think the South Koreans are probably quite glad that all the tension has, for the moment, diffused just enough and there will be talks and so on.

But the talks are going to be difficult, no matter what goodwill there is — and I'm not sure that there's much goodwill. The South Koreans will also look carefully at what the North Koreans are doing with China.

South Koreans hope that China will continue to be a moderating influence, but they will also be concerned about being caught between China and North Korea.

I would think that the South-North talks will go ahead. I have much more faith in that happening. The United States talks are a little more problematic because the signals from Washington continue to be very hardline and not along the lines of calming things down.

James Edward Hoare is Associate Fellow of Chatham House's Asia-Pacific program. Before retiring from the diplomatic service of the United Kingdom, he was establishing the British Embassy in North Korea.

The interview was conducted by Rodion Ebbighausen.