The 8th of January is DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un’s birthday and this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping invited Kim and a delegation of top DPRK officials to Beijing for three days of bilateral meetings that will be one part businesslike and one part festive. The warm relationship between Kim and Xi that has flowered since 2018 offers a sharp contrast to the virtually non-existent relationship between Xi and Kim during the years prior to the inauguration of the Korean peace process.
Prior to last year, Kim and Xi never met and it is thought that they never even had any significant telephone nor written correspondence. In spite of this, China remained an important partner to the DPRK as prior to Kim’s recent economic reforms, China helped to provide an economic lifeline to its southern neighbour – a southern neighbour that in the 1990s and early 2000s was struggling to keep up with the new reality that their main 20th century partner, the USSR had ceased to be.
Today, things are very different. At home, the young Kim has embraced rudimentary elements of the market socialist economy that has brought immense levels of prosperity to China since 1978. In terms of inter-Korean relations, Kim also enjoys a warm relationship with South Korean President Moon Jae-in while Kim is now in the midst of his fourth substantial meeting with Xi Jinping in less than a year. Yet of all the surprising friendships that Kim has made since New Year’s Day of 2018, the most surprising is his apparently warm relationship with Donald Trump. This is the case in spite of threatening rhetoric that transpired between the two leaders throughout the course of 2017 and also in spite of elements of the US government being unwilling to moderate a policy of sanctions against the DPRK, even though Pyongyang, Seoul, Beijing and Moscow are united in efforts to stimulate an opening up of the DPRK economy.
While words concerning fraternal socialist countries with shared cultural experiences will likely fill the air at the various meetings and dinners attended by Xi and Kim, even above and beyond the security situation, talks are likely to revolve more pointedly around the economic issue.
For China and the DPRK, ever closer economic cooperation on an open and modern economic model remains the foundation of a deeply attractive win-win partnership in the making. From the DPRK’s perspective, a desire to preserve cultural integrity and political autonomy while opening up the economy to foreign goods and foreign direct investment, means that the Chinese market socialist model is clearly the most suitable for the DPRK’s own developmental aspirations. Likewise, for a Chinese government that for decades invested into the DPRK in order to avoid the country’s economic collapse and a possible accompanying refugee crisis, now is the time for China to transform its investment “lifeline” into a win-win opportunity that can help and transform its neighbour into a dynamic economy that could potentially be a major industrial trading partner to a PRC that is shifting its economic focus away from mass production and towards innovation, hi-tech patents and new artificial intelligence based production models.
To put it another way, whilst China had grown accustomed to making subsistence investments into the DPRK with no hope of receiving a tangible return, the new environment in Korea presents both Pyongyang and Beijing with an opportunity to turn sustainable long term Chinese investments into substantial dividends for both sides.
Beyond this, as the DPRK is on China’s border, boasts a highly literate population, has a somewhat similar socialist history and is home to a highly disciplined work force, the integration of an economically modernised DPRK into the Belt and Road initiative could not only be highly effective but a comparatively easy task for both willing and able sides in the bilateral partnership to accomplish.
While neither China nor the DPRK wants to openly challenge the UN sanctions that the US refuses to budge on (for the time being), even Donald Trump’s indication that he believes that the DPRK’s economic future is bright not withstanding, it is important to remember that as China always views both crises and opportunities in terms of long term developments. Because of this, Beijing is well aware that sooner or later, the DPRK will open up and that this presents China with a golden opportunity not only to enhance its positivist relations with both Korean states, but that in working with South Korea and others, the DPRK can be transformed from an economic roadblock in north east Asia into a vital part of a Belt and Road initiative that ideally will link all of Korea to neighbouring China, Russia and markets far beyond.
In this sense, China is almost certainly presenting Kim Jong-un with a priceless birthday present – that of a sustainable, open and mutually beneficial economic future on a win-win model that is tailored to fit Korean characteristics.