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China's vice premier set to visit N. Korea

Visit reflects NK's focus on economic ties with China amid potential military cooperation with Russia

By Ji Da-gyum

Published : Sept. 7, 2023 - 15:44

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China's Vice Premier Liu Guozhong attends a press conference held at the Great Hall of the People on March 13 in Beijing, China. (Getty Images) China's Vice Premier Liu Guozhong attends a press conference held at the Great Hall of the People on March 13 in Beijing, China. (Getty Images)

A high-level Chinese delegation, led by Vice Premier Liu Guozhong, is set to visit North Korea to participate in events commemorating the 75th anniversary of the country's foundation, North Korean state media said Thursday.

But all eyes are fixed on the reasoning behind China's decision to send a seemingly lower-ranking delegation compared to the previous occasion to commemorate North Korea's Sept. 9 anniversary.

In September 2018, General Secretary Xi Jinping dispatched Li Zhanshu, then a third-ranking official of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee, the country's top decision-making body, to participate in the events commemorating the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation.

South Korea's Unification Ministry assessed that Beijing's decision to send Liu, who is not a Politburo member, is a meticulously calculated move aimed at avoiding further complications in the already complex security dynamics of the region. This is especially pertinent in light of the potential meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"China is presumed to find it challenging to wholeheartedly embrace the growing closeness between North Korea and Russia," said a senior official at the Unification Ministry who wished to remain anonymous.

"(The hesitation) likely stems from concerns that a stronger alignment between North Korea and Russia could lead to heightened pressure on China, particularly arising from the tightening cooperation among the United States, Japan and South Korea."

The official further explained, "China may have deliberately chosen to send a delegation with slightly lower-ranking officials compared to five years ago" as a means of handling the situation cautiously.

Tensions have escalated in Northeast Asia following the preemptive disclosure by US officials on Monday of the potential Kim-Putin meeting on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum, scheduled from Sept. 10 to 13 in the Russian port city of Vladivostok. Both the US and South Korea have publicly said that the main agenda would revolve around North Korea's proposal to supply weaponry for the war in Ukraine, with Russia reciprocating by offering advanced technology, including satellites and nuclear-powered submarines.

The official also raised the possibility that Liu might have been dispatched as a "close aide to Xi Jinping."

In 2018, Xi promoted Liu to the position of governor of Shaanxi province, and in 2020, Liu assumed the role of party chief in Shaanxi, which is Xi's hometown. Liu's ascent to the position of vice premier occurred at a quicker pace than is typically observed.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un waves at the Dong Dang railway station in Dong Dang, Vietnam, on March 2, 2019. (AP) North Korean leader Kim Jong-un waves at the Dong Dang railway station in Dong Dang, Vietnam, on March 2, 2019. (AP)

Two-pronged strategy

Another significant reason for Liu's visit, as one of China's four vice-premiers responsible for economic and financial matters, is said to be North Korea wanting to engage in discussions regarding economic cooperation with China. Economic ties between the two nations have been largely suspended since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020, and this visit comes in light of North Korea's gradual reopening of its borders.

"Given his previous role as the governor of Jilin province, which is considered the center of trade between China and North Korea, Liu is likely to possess a deep understanding of North Korean issues," the official said.

Liu, a Heilongjiang province native, whose political career spans more than two decades, has held prominent positions in northeastern China, bordering or in proximity to North Korea. Liu previously served as an acting governor of Jilin province and as deputy secretary of Heilongjiang province.

At present, Liu holds the position of the fourth-ranked vice premier in China. He oversees a combination of portfolios including agriculture, health, rural affairs and water supply.

More importantly, the ministry and experts have interpreted this visit as an indication of North Korea's calculated foreign policy approach, emphasizing strengthened security and military cooperation with Russia while developing economic cooperation with China.

"Furthermore, considering his current position as vice premier overseeing economic matters, it has been presumed that the focus in North Korea-China relations leans more toward economic cooperation, contrasting with its inclination to enhance military cooperation with Russia," the official said.

The unnamed official said that the dispatch of the delegation led by Liu would fulfill the needs of both sides. North Korea sees economic cooperation with China as essential amid the ongoing economic woes, while China wishes to avoid additional burden at a critical juncture when the potential Kim-Putin meeting has already irked the US and its treaty allies in Northeast Asia.

The official said Beijing and Pyongyang "appear to be in consensus on the issue, which explains the occurrence" of the visit by Liu.

"The visit of Liu Guozhong, the vice premier responsible for overseeing the economy, to North Korea would be significantly advantageous for North Korea in terms of discussing the expansion of economic cooperation with China and seeking economic support," Cheong Seong-chang, the director of the Department of Reunification Strategic Studies at the Sejong Institute, told The Korea Herald.

"Therefore, it appears that North Korea and China have prioritized practical interests over formalities."

Yang Moo-jin, a professor and president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said "North Korea aims to tackle both economic and security issues through high-level meetings with China and Russia" on the occasion of the Day of Victory on July 27 and its Sept. 9 foundation anniversary.

In 2018, Russia dispatched a delegation led by Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, to North Korea in commemoration of the 70th anniversary. North Korea has not yet announced a similar visit for the upcoming anniversary.