Chinese Companies Race to North Korea Ahead of Sanctions Relief

Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un scowling

South Korea’s Yonhap News reported on Friday that North Korea’s major international trade fair was bigger than ever this year and Chinese companies made up 70 percent of the attendees, anticipating that China will move more quickly than any other country to remove economic sanctions if Pyongyang cooperates with denuclearization.

According to Yonhap, the stampede of Chinese businessmen into North Korea came not after President Trump’s Singapore summit with dictator Kim Jong-un, but rather after Kim met with Chinese President Xi Jinping for the second time. This was evidently taken as a sign that differences between the two regimes – and possibly personal differences between the two authoritarian leaders – had been smoothed over:

“Soon after Kim and Xi met in Dalian, Chinese companies flocked to Pyongyang’s trade fair in an apparent indication of Beijing’s moves to ease sanctions on the North. There is talk that discussions on economic cooperation are already under way between Chinese and North Korean companies,” said a source.

The source noted the large-scale Chinese participation in the Pyongyang trade fair was also linked to a ranking North Korean delegation’s 11-day tour of China’s major economic hubs in May. The North Korean delegates visited sites of China’s economic development and reportedly discussed cooperation with officials in Shanghai and Shaanxi Province, Xi’s birthplace.

On top of these moves, North Korea’s flag carrier Air Koryo is reportedly moving to open a new aviation route linking Pyongyang to Xian, the capital of Shaanxi Province, in July this year to attract more Chinese tourists to the North.

One of the major stumbling blocks between Kim and Xi was thought to be the younger North Korean leader’s reluctance to accept Xi as a mentor and adopt “Xi Jinping Thought” as a model for North Korean cultural and economic reforms.

More specifically, the Chinese want North Korea to first embrace the reforms of former president Deng Xiaoping, who is credited with jump-starting the Chinese economy when it languished in a condition similar to North Korea today. Following Deng’s path is supposed to bring Pyongyang to the point where it can appreciate Xi Jinping’s lofty contributions to Communist dogma.

Chinese media is working overtime to signal that relations with North Korea are better than ever, Kim and Xi have become fast friends, all past transgressions have been forgiven, and bright light is shining from the end of the sanctions tunnel. During his third visit to China this week, Kim declared that China and North Korea are brothers in the same family. He brought his top economic adviser along to signal that North Korea plans to be open for business soon. Xi literally rolled out the red carpet for his North Korean guest, toasted him with glasses of wine, and escorted him with a mob of happy children waving Chinese flags.

As with most other matters pertaining to North Korea, deliberations between Kim and Xi have been highly secretive, but either the two leaders really hit it off during Kim’s brief and weird March visit to Beijing by train, or Xi was able to adjust the North Korean dictator’s attitude.

Whichever way it went down, Singapore’s Channel News Asia reports Chinese media are now eager to present Kim as Harry Potter, eagerly learning communist magic at the feet of Xi’s Dumbledore:

It didn’t take long for Kim to change his tune: he made his first visit as leader to his country’s sole major ally in March, quickly followed by two more trips, during which he toured Chinese tech and science hubs.

Kim, who is in his mid-30s, seemed eager to learn: Chinese state media has been filled with images of the attentive leader taking copious notes during his meetings with Xi.

“We are happy to see that the DPRK (North Korea) made a major decision to shift the focus to economic construction,” Xi told Kim in their most recent meeting Tuesday, according to state news agency Xinhua.

“China is ready to share its experience” with Pyongyang, Xi said the next day.

This is certainly a change from Kim’s furious denunciations of the “filthy wind of bourgeois liberty and ‘reform’ and ‘openness’” that Xi allowed to blow through China, although Channel News Asia notes that Kim was liberalizing North Korea’s moribund economy a little, and tacitly allowing even more black-market liberalization than he would admit to, even as he was complaining about the foul stench of capitalism wafting over from Beijing.

The lesson Kim is supposedly most eager to learn from Xi is how to maintain rigid one-party authoritarian control while simultaneously allowing commerce with the outside world. The resentment he likely continues to harbor against China is the way Beijing very obviously uses North Korea to gain leverage in trade negotiations with the United States.

The best place for Kim to be is squarely in the middle of a bidding war between China and the U.S. for influence, playing the superpowers against each other. The Chinese system is surely much more to Kim’s taste than American capitalist democracy, but he’s not planning to pay full cover price for his copy of Xi Jinping Thought.