Days following the conclusion of the PRC's 60th anniversary celebration of its founding, PRC Premier Wen Jiabao brought a high-powered delegation to Pyongyang to mark the 60th anniversary of Sino-DPRK ties and to facilitate a dialogue on North Korea's nuclear issues with Kim Jong Il. This exceptionally large delegation of Chinese senior officials received Pyongyang's version of a first class welcome: hundreds of thousands of citizens lining the streets and a personal airport reception by Kim Jong Il.
Xinhua released an arrival statement in which Wen Jiabao anticipated a "frank and in-depth exchange of views on PRC-DPRK relations and issues of common concern" during the visit. While Wen emphasized the Sino-DPRK traditional friendship, a tradition of mutual assistance and mutually beneficial cooperation in conversations with DPRK counterparts in his arrival statement, he also mentioned the need to "better coordinate with each other to help maintain peace and stability in the region."
During his stay in Pyongyang, Wen was treated to a North Korean production of "Dream of the Red Chamber," traveled to a martyr's cemetery outside Pyongyang containing the remains of Chinese People's Volunteers from the Korean War, met with senior DPRK officials including Premier Kim Yong-il, President Kim Young-Nam, and National Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong Il, and signed a series of agreements on including a "protocol on the adjustment of treaties between the governments of the DPRK and China" and agreements on economic and technological cooperation, educational exchange, software industry cooperation, tourism, wildlife protection, and a protocol on inspection of export and import of goods for purposes of assuring quality control. No doubt these agreements included substantial forms of economic assistance that have customarily accompanied such high-level exchanges between China and North Korea.
The Chinese side was represented by Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, Chinese Communist Party International Department Head Wang Jiarui, National Development and Reform Commission Minister Zhang Ping, Minister of Commerce Chen Deming, Minister of Culture Cai Wu, and Director of the Research office of the State Council Xie Fuzhan, China's Ambassador to the DPRK, Liu Xiaoming, Premier's office director Qui Xiaoxiong, Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Wu Dawei, and Deputy Director of the General Political Department of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Liu Zhenqi.
Following Wen's meetings with Kim Jong Il, Xinhua reported on October 6th that Kim Jong Il stated that "realizing a nuclear-free Korean peninsula was the instruction of the late DPRK leader Kim Il Sung and the DPRK's commitment to realizing the denuclearization of the peninsula remains unchanged." Based on this commitment, Kim pledged in his meeting with Wen that that "the DPRK is willing to attend multilateral talks, including the six-party talks, based on the progress in the DPRK-U.S. talks." KCNA reported that "the hostile relations between the DPRK and the United States should be converted into peaceful ties through the bilateral talks without fail. We expressed our readiness to hold multilateral talks, depending on the outcome of the DPRK-U.S. talks. The six-party talks are also included in the multilateral talks."
Setting Up China's Mediation Efforts With North Korea
The PRC had made careful preparations for Wen Jiabao's trip to Pyongyang, which was designed in part to promote DPRK-U.S. dialogue on the nuclear issue. First, Wu Dawei made an August trip to Pyongyang amid anticipation that the North would be more cooperative following breakthroughs in U.S.-DPRK and inter-Korean relations earlier that month, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun's respective visits to the North. From August, the intensification of Sino-DPRK high-level exchanges seemed to get a push from both sides' relations with the United States, as the North Korean nuclear crisis emerged as one of four top agenda items in the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in late July.
A follow-up visit in September was led by presidential envoy Dai Bingguo, who delivered a letter from Hu to Kim Jong-il affirming "China's consistent goal" of denuclearization and regional peace in cooperation with the North, while Kim pledged to commit to denuclearization "through bilateral or multilateral dialogue" according to the Chinese state media. Including Wu Dawei, Vice Minister of Commerce Zu Fuying, and Qiu Yuanping, vice-director of the Central Foreign Affairs Office, Dai's delegation met with top DPRK legislator Kim Yong-nam and Vice Foreign Ministers Kang Sok-ju and Kim Yong Il in Pyongyang, where both sides exchanged "candid and in-depth" views on "mutual" issues believed to be focused largely on the North Korean nuclear crisis.
In light of indications that Washington might be prepared to talk directly with Pyongyang on denuclearization, Dai's visit was seen to reinforce Beijing's mediator role between the North and the United States. Observers in Seoul expected Dai to convey the U.S. position on the peninsula situation following his July meeting with Secretary Hillary Clinton in Washington. In turn, Kim Jong Il's statement during his meeting with Wen Jiabao was clearly calculated to create the conditions for the establishment of a direct U.S.-DPRK dialogue, even while reversing position and conceding the possibility of the resumption of the six party talks.
U.S.-China "Strategic Reassurance," Sino-DPRK Relations, and the Resumption of Nuclear Talks
Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg gave a speech on September 24th to the Center for New American Security in Washington on U.S.-China relations in which he elaborated on the concept of "strategic reassurance" as a tool by which the United States and China might cooperate in managing the effects of China's rise. This approach requires dialogue, transparency, and mutual actions that reassure. On North Korea, Deputy Secretary of State Steinberg said that "Our cooperation has also been essential in forging a common front in response to North Korea's recent missile and nuclear tests. Working with our partners in the six party talks . . . we have worked together to implement strong measures, which we hope will lead to a resumption of six party talks and North Korea's recommitment to complete denuclearization."
In a press conference in Tokyo last weekend, Steinberg stated that Wen's visit would help enforce the message to North Korea that it must be prepared to return to "complete denuclearization," noting the "very strong consensus that exists among five of the six members" of the six party talks. But in the process of pursuing the resumption of dialogue along with the affirmation of Sino-DPRK ties and concrete provision of economic assistance facilitated by the visit of Wen and his delegation, China has no doubt offered significant economic benefits that may well have outweighed the effects of UN sanctions currently being implemented under UN Resolution 1874.
Although Wen has secured Kim Jong Il's verbal commitment to return to the six party talks while in the process contributing to improved Sino-DPRK relations, he may also have lessened any immediate effect that sanctions might have had in motivating Kim to return to the negotiating table. Attention will shift to the question of whether the conditions are yet ripe for the United States to have a dialogue with North Korea that will enable not only North Korea's "recommitment to complete denuclearization" and return to multilateral dialogue, but that encourages North Korea to take clear steps in that direction as well.