July 21, 2015 08:19
China has softened its line on North Korea this year through the regional governments of the border provinces of Liaoning and Jilin, but the North is still casting around for other potential friends.
Bilateral relations chilled after the North's third nuclear test in February of 2013 and the execution that December of eminence grise Jang Song-taek, who had close ties with Beijing. At one point China stopped all oil shipments to its long-term ally, leaving the North high and dry.
Now China is trying to repair ties with North Korea without undermining Chinese President Xi Jinping's firm opposition to the North's nuclear weapons program.
Jilin and Liaoning provinces have been pursuing joint projects with North Korea along their borders recently. Jilin in particular has been hard at work trying to link the city of Hunchun and the North's Rajin-Sonbong special economic zones. The Chinese town sits between Rajin-Sonbong and Russia's Hassan, and China's longtime plan has been to get control of a port on the East Sea.
Jilin Province has launched a regular container ship service connecting Hunchun, Rajin-Sonbong and Shanghai. It is also developing a joint tourism package with North Korea taking visitors to Mt. Baekdu.
Liaoning Province will open a trading zone in Dandong in October where North Koreans can buy up to 8,000 yuan worth of products a day duty-free. One source in Beijing said when President Xi visited the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture -- home to a large population of ethnic Koreans -- for the first time since he took office, it was to send a message that he supports the provincial government's business projects with North Korea.
Kim Han-kwon at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy said, "China has made it clear that it wants to improve relations through economic cooperation with North Korea."
But North Korea is sulking, possibly holding out for better deals and hoping to diversify its pool of friends, and has so far spurned China's overtures.
Chinese Ambassador to North Korea Li Jinjun has apparently yet to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and has not even met the Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong. There were apparently some events at the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang attended by no North Korean official.
There has also been no exchange of high-ranking visits. The last senior Chinese official to visit North Korea was Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin in February 2014. Foreign Minister Ri hung around in Beijing for three days on his way to Africa last month but he did not officially meet any Chinese apparatchiks.
China invited Kim to attend World War II victory celebrations on Sept. 3, but he has yet to reply. Instead North Korea has sent officials on a flurry of overseas visits to potential friends like Vietnam and Laos.
It is also raising land usage fees in the Rajin-Sonbong special economic zones. And trade between the old allies continues to shrink. North Korean exports to China from January to May this year dropped 10.3 percent compared to the same period of 2014, while its imports from China fell 14.3 percent.
North Korea still relies on China for more than 80 percent of its trade. One source in Jilin Province said, "A slowing economy in China has lowered demand for North Korea's key exports like anthracite and iron ore, while prices of raw materials have gone down, seriously worsening the North's shortage of hard currency."
China is also aware that the North's nuclear weapons program lies at the heart of any efforts to mend ties with Pyongyang. Just after a deal to end Iran's nuclear program, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said it will serve as a clear "example" in dealing with the North's nuclear standoff.
The chief South Korean and Chinese negotiators of the six-party nuclear talks meet in Beijing on Thursday. But pundits say progress is unlikely since the North believes the nuclear program is the best insurance it has against being overrun.
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