North Korean special envoy Choe Ryong-hae has reportedly told Chinese President Xi Jing Ping during a recent visit that North Korea is willing to resume six-party negotiations to end its nuclear program. According to the official Xinhua news service, Choe Ryong-hae said to President Xi Jing Ping, "North Korea is willing to make joint efforts with all parties to appropriately resolve related issues through multilateral dialogue and consultations like the six-party talks, and maintain peace and stability on the peninsula." If true, this would represent a major conecession by Pyongyang, but will it lead to significant change?
Beyond the pleasantries, such promises are empty. There is little reason to be optimistic about what appears to be North Korea's renewed commitment to nuclear talks. Seasoned North Korean experts know that North Korea will not give up its nuclear program because it provides the country with diplomatic leverage and legitimacy. Six-party talks stalled in 2008 when the North walked out of discussions, and just last year, Pyongyang enshrined nuclear weapons development into law at a parliament meeting. Thus, it is hard to believe that a North Korean envoy would visit China with the intention of reversing Pyongyang’s policy of possessing nuclear weapons. This runs counter to the rhetoric of North Korean media which reports that denuclearization talks can occur only after North Korea has developed a credible deterrent against the U.S. Furthermore, U.S. preconditions for talks include meaningful steps at denuclearization.
While China Central Television in China presented the visit as early signs of a possible breakthrough in North Korean engagement, the North's official Korean Central News Agency made no mention of the concession and instead quoted Choe as saying Pyongyang was committed to maintaining friendly ties with Beijing. There was no explicit offer from Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program, only a vague mention of accepting a Chinese proposal at restarting six-party talks. Such discrepancies in media reports, however minor, suggests that far from a genuine policy change, the recent ‘positive signs’ reflect nothing more than Beijing’s eagerness to score points with the international community by playing up minor concessions in order to prove its ability to reign in North Korea.
China is an indispensible ally to North Korea and Pyongyang has to walk a tight rope between overt nuclear pursuit and maintaining good bilateral ties with Beijing. In the past six months, Pyongyong’s rocket launches and nuclear tests have angered Beijing, which felt its interests in regional stability were not being taken care of. In retaliation, Beijing has showed its displeasure by joining with the U.S. to back UN sanctions and cutting off dealings with North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank. Thus, it makes sense that Pyongyang’s latest move is calculated to placate the Chinese and reaffirm ties with Beijing in light of recent saber-rattling that has pushed China and the U.S. closer. Choe even presented a hand-written letter from Kim to Xi at Beijing's Great Hall of the People.
Looking forward, persuading China to rein in North Korea would be increasingly difficult given that North Korea punctuates international defiance and strident nationalism with occasional deference to China to soothe bilateral tensions. China does not want the international community to free-ride on its efforts at reining in North Korea, and has at times requested concomitant U.S. pressure on Japan in return for dealing with North Korea. As China’s influence in the region grows, we would likely see more bargaining over relative gains and more disagreements with the U.S. over North Korea.