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North Korea

Why a booming Chinese port was the ideal venue for Kim Jong-un’s latest visit

The choice of Dalian for the North Korean leader’s surprise visit was a nod to the two countries’ shared history but may also offer clues to his plans for the future 

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 May, 2018, 10:30pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 May, 2018, 1:55pm

The choice of venue for Kim Jong-un’s surprise visit to China this week was steeped in symbolism as state media reports promoted the shared history between the two communist neighbours.

Observers suggested that Dalian, a port city in the northeastern province of Liaoning that has hosted other members of the Kim dynasty, could also play a key role in the future economic development of both sides. 

The North Korean leader, who wrapped up his two-day visit on Tuesday, praised his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping for showing the “utmost sincerity” in agreeing to meet him in the city, according to North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency.

“Dalian is where President Kim Il-sung and leader Kim Jong-il left their historic footprints that would remain forever in the annals of the DPRK-China friendship,” he said, referring to his grandfather and father.

Kim said bilateral ties had entered “a fresh heyday” following his “warm and emotional” meetings with Xi, his second this year, according to the detailed report published hours after his Dalian trip.

Some members of the North Korean delegation visited the Donggang business district and Hualu Group, a state-owned electronics manufacturer, the report added.

Boo Seung-chan, a research fellow at the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul, said that Kim and Xi chose the historical port city “to maximise the symbolic effect of the meeting”.

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“Socialist countries’ diplomacy has a tendency to emphasis symbolism and they tend to find that symbolism from history,” he said.

According to state media reports, the young North Korean leader stayed at the Bangchuidao Guesthouse, where his grandfather had stayed over 30 years ago.

Kim Il-sung, who visited China more than 30 times during his 45-year reign, held talks with China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping at the same hotel when he made a trip to Dalian in September 1983.

Although relations between the Communist neighbours notably cooled after the death of the elder Kim in 1994, Beijing and Pyongyang still managed to maintain constant exchanges.

In his fifth unofficial visit to China eight years ago, Kim Jong-il, the current leader’s father, also stopped over in Dalian, which had by that time emerged as a booming port and high-tech hub, before meeting top Chinese leaders in Beijing.

Accompanied by the current Premier Li Keqiang, who was a vice-premier at the time, he visited several major factories and construction sites in the city and spoke highly of China’s overall development – which some read as a sign of his intention to open up his country’s economy.

However, bilateral relations soon soured when Kim denounced economic reform and opening as “an insidious imperialist trap” weeks after he returned to Pyongyang.

Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military expert, said the fact Dalian was the location for the second Xi-Kim summit suggested that the younger Kim might be serious about his recent pledges to pursue economic reform.

“While Kim may find it safer and more convenient to travel to Dalian due to its proximity to North Korea, Dalian’s booming development means it has the potential to help future economic cooperation between the two countries,” he said.

There are few such opportunities that can be pursued in the short term, given the UN sanctions in force against North Korea, but the meeting also gave both sides the chance to send a clear message to Washington and Seoul ahead of Kim’s planned summit with Donald Trump.

From Beijing’s point of view, the deeper relationship between Kim and Xi is a signal that the future of East Asia should be determined by Asians, not outsiders, according to Gal Luft, co-director of the Washington-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.

“There cannot be a structural change in the regional security architecture without the blessing and participation of China and any attempt to sideline China would be counterproductive. This is not about who scores the win or who receives the Nobel Peace Prize. It is about who has the last say in China’s sphere of influence,” he said. 

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Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, said that by inviting Kim to visit China six weeks after his previous visit, Xi had apparently tried to “ensure Trump picks up the message that China is a key factor for a solution over North Korea and thus should be treated with respect”.

He said that Xi also hoped to ease tensions with the US over trade and other issues by playing the North Korea card. 

“Xi knows that Trump admires him and would be more willing to accommodate him. 

“Meeting Kim first will give Xi a good basis to talk to Trump from a position of strength, as he appears to have something to offer Trump,” he said.

Zhao Tong, nuclear policy fellow at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy, said that Kim’s meeting with Xi may have signalled that North Korea was not willing to give up its nuclear weapons in the short term, and wanted to ensure it had China’s full support ahead of the summit with Trump.

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“One possibility is that the stronger signals from the US are making Kim more nervous that Trump will insist on denuclearisation, with a real possibility the talks could fall apart,” he said. 

“With China’s backing, even if the US-North Korea summit fails, the US may not readily consider using military options.”

Additional reporting by Minnie Chan and Sarah Zheng