Chinese Perspective on Kim Jong-un’s “New Path” in 2020
[Sejong Commentary] No.2020-02
Director, Center for Chinese Studies, The Sejong Institute
China is paying keen attention to what kind of "new path" Kim Jong-un will take in 2020. In addition, this article analyzes the report of the plenary meeting of the Central Committee, Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK), which replaced Chairman Kim’s New Year’s address, in the Chinese perspective.
First, China believes that South Korea and the US "overreacted" to North Korea's reference to the "Christmas gift," which heightened the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. The very idea of this so-called gift drew wide attention to the point that Trump also mentioned it publicly. However, the term "Christmas gift" was not Kim's wording, but that of Vice Foreign Minister Lee Tae-sung. In his statement on December 3, Lee said, "What remains is America's choice and what it chooses for the upcoming Christmas gift depends entirely on the U.S. decision."
The US media began to report it as Kim's "Christmas gift." Advanced US reconnaissance planes and surveillance aircraft were deployed on the Korean Peninsula one after another, escalating tensions. Lee, as a specialist on the US, may have succeeded in drawing attention by mentioning the special American holiday. But the deadline set by Kim was the "year's end," not Christmas, as he stated at the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) on April 12, 2019.
In other words, the foreign ministry official uttered "Christmas" and insinuated it to be a deadline, which was different from the wording from the supreme leader. Given the nature of the North Korea's political system, in which people recite the words of the nation's top leader almost verbatim, the mistake of Lee warrants reprimanding, a Chinese observer said. It partially explains why China was relatively "calm" about the situation on the Korean Peninsula, unlike South Korea and the US.
The different threat perception by China regarding the "Christmas gift" also influenced the Chinese interpretation of Kim's seven-hour remarks at the plenary meeting of Workers' Party of Korea. It was de facto served a longer version of Kim's New Year's address that he didn't deliver this time. For example, the word "shocking real action" was mentioned by Kim. Is Kim in the mood for causing provocations in the upcoming year? Not necessarily, according to the Chinese. The Chinese side seems to understand the word from an "ideological" perspective rather than as an actual action. In other words, it does not mean that the North will automatically launch shocking provocations, rather, the North will make real efforts to improve its defense capabilities, including the development of strategic weapons, and prove it in actuality.
There is a debate among South Korean experts on whether Kim is returning to the "byeongjin" strategy. The Chinese side believes that it looks similar to byeongjin at a glance, but not quite the same. They view that strengthening the North's defense capability has been added to the current North Korean policy that prioritizes "economic construction" which remains unchanged. The word "frontal breakthrough" surfaced as many as 23 times. That does not mean physical force, either. On January 6, North Korea's state-run media clarified it as the "economic front," making efforts to avoid misinterpretation.
Nevertheless, the possibility of North Korean provocations is still a concern for China. For now, China sees a low possibility of North Korea's likelihood for conducting nuclear tests. Since Kim Jong-un speculates a deadlock between the US and the North will be "inevitably prolonged," North Korea’s dependency on China will grow. Given the North's deepening reliance on China, the Chinese don't think North Korea will easily violate the principle of "denuclearization," which composes one of China’s three pillars of Korean policies and also has been a "necessary condition" for the opening of China-DPRK summit.
In the bigger scheme of things, China does not see the US-DPRK talks as a complete failure. They noted that Trump takes a 180-degrees opposite stance in how he deals with North Korea and Iran, and that Trump is also (at least so far) using expressions amicable to Kim. Against this backdrop, if Trump proposes dialogue to Kim in a "top-down" fashion, there is still a possibility of reopening a dialogue between the North and the US. On the contrary, there seems hardly any possibility that the North will be responsive to the proposals of working-level talks.
China is considering the possibility of North Korea's ICBM test. It is an option that North Korea can use if relations with the US further deteriorate, and China believes that the North will notify such decision in advance. The goal is to secure a "hidden support" by informing and persuading China of its justification for its actions that the US has first initiated hostile policy and that the North is simply "responding" through ICBM. The possibility of North Korea launching a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) is also high. China insinuates that its reaction to such actions can be seen through China’s past policies.
Overall, China believes Kim's message should be approached without overreaction. The main message is that North Korea should not rely on powerful nations to decide its fate, and that North Korea should not rely on negotiations with the US to change its economic conditions, but be responsible for its national defense and economy in the spirit of "self-reliance" (juche) and "socialist construction." The centrality of "economic development" as the North's main policy remains unchanged. In that vein, Kim said that "self-reliance and self-sufficiency have the same power as nuclear bombs."
Finally, there is a subtle difference in the interpretation of Kim Jong-un’s omission of inter-Korean relations in his speech. South Korea views this as a measure of "first US, then Korea (先美後南)," which focuses on US-DPRK relations first and seeks to improve inter-Korean relations in the long term. Or others consider Kim’s "silence" as a disappointment over South Korea’s role as a mediator. On the other hand, China views it as a sign of "warning" against South Korea. The Chinese say it would have been better if North Korea had criticized the South as it did against the US. One Chinese personnel who interacts with North Korea said that "it is more worrisome of having no comment." He said that now North Korea left room for provoking South Korea without warning, adding that there is more uncertainty in inter-Korean relations. Although most comments are seen from the perspective of China, this year South Korea needs a strategic lens to refer to such opinions in order to obtain sufficient materials for decisions.
※ Translator’s note: This is a summarized unofficial translation of the original paper which was written in Korean. All references should be made to the original paper.
※ This article is written based on the author’s personal opinions and does not reflect the views of the Sejong Institute.