SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - China is using its attendance at a massive North Korean military parade to nudge open the door to talks with the isolated regime, sending its highest-level delegation to Pyongyang since Kim Jong Un came to power.
Liu Yunshan, a member of the Communist Party's top decision-making Politburo Standing Committee, arrived Friday (Oct 9) in Pyongyang to attend the 70th anniversary Saturday of the founding of North Korea's Workers' Party. While China is an ally, it has voiced concern about Kim's efforts to boost his nuclear arsenal and indicated frustration at some of his actions. Last month, his regime threatened to conduct another nuclear test and launch a long- range rocket.
Following Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park Geun Hye's recent US visits - with Park also making a trip to Washington next week - the three countries are showing a more united front on tackling Kim, adding to pressure to resume discussions. Park, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and a senior figure in the Chinese leadership are expected to meet in Seoul later this month.
"By sending a top official to mark its ally's big anniversary, Beijing is taking the initiative to improve relations and giving Pyongyang a ladder so that it can climb down from a dangerous height," said Shi Yuanhua, director of the Center for Korean Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. "The best scenario out of the trip will be the two sides reaching a consensus that can ensure Pyongyang won't pursue the game of nuclear brinkmanship within the foreseeable future."
Liu is ranked No. 5 in the party and if his visit is deemed a success it may pave the way for a higher-level exchange. There hasn't been a summit since Kim became paramount leader in late 2011 after the death of his father. It could also indicate progress toward restarting international nuclear talks that North Korea walked out of in 2009 after the United Nations condemned it for a long-range rocket launch.
A report on the website of Phoenix TV this week said Liu's trip was a significant gesture by China and would provide an important opportunity for better communication.
Kim has touted a satellite launch in 2012 and North Korea's third atomic test in 2013 as two of his most impressive achievements, flouting UN Security Council resolutions that ban it from developing ballistic and nuclear technology. He plans one of his country's biggest military parades this weekend to showcase how its technology has advanced under his rule; and how he has strengthened his grip on power, partly through purges of other senior officials.
"It's very likely many weapons will be unveiled" and the parade is expected to be "large in scale," Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon Hee said Wednesday (Oct 7) at a briefing in Seoul. In a previous parade in 2012, North Korea unveiled intercontinental ballistic missiles that some arms analysts dismissed as fake.
North Korea has spent months assembling 800 tents, 700 trucks, 200 armored vehicles and drones at an airbase in Pyongyang ahead of the parade, according to 38 North, a Johns Hopkins University website, citing satellite images obtained on Oct 6. Ballistic missile launchers and long-range self- propelled guns may be under a large temporary shelter on the outskirts of the training site, it said.
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For China, Liu's visit reflects the delicate balance between its support for an ally and its frustration with Kim. It also highlights the limitations the international community has in dealing with him, whether it is by inducements to talk or pressure to curb his behavior. Under Kim, the regime has continued to advance its arms development and its elite enjoys access to luxury goods.
And despite sanctions enforced by UN members including China, North Korea has been able to build a uranium enrichment facility that could provide a second track to building bombs, a submarine it claims can launch a ballistic missile, and a ski resort.
"The Chinese aren't preventing border smuggling, they are not really cracking down on trade into North Korea, they are not preventing the luxury goods from coming in," said Robert Kelly, an international relations professor at Pusan National University. "The Chinese leadership is trying to send these signals, 'we're really upset with you,' but there's not actually been any real punitive action."
Xi sending the fifth-ranking party official contrasts with Kim dispatching one of his deputies, Choe Ryong Hae, to a military parade in Beijing last month. Still, Liu is senior enough to show Kim due respect, said Lee Ji Yong, who tracks Northeast Asian relations at the government-affiliated Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul.
"This is an important opportunity for North Korea," said Shi Yongming, an associate research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing. "China is playing the good cop while the US is the bad cop, but both of them want to bring the North back to the negotiation table, although their means and ultimate goals might differ. Pyongyang cannot afford to turn its back to both."