A North Korean military envoy delivered a handwritten letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping from his leader, Kim Jong Un, after the regime said it was willing to return to dialogue over its disputed nuclear program.
Choe Ryong Hae met Xi in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People today, China News Service reported. In an earlier meeting with the vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, Choe said North Korea was willing to “find ways to resolve the current conflicts via dialogues,” the official Xinhua News Agency said.
China, the North’s chief political and economic patron, has come under pressure to rein in Kim’s regime, which threatened in March to launch preemptive nuclear strikes against South Korea and the U.S. Choe’s visit may signal that North Korea is looking to ease tensions as it backs off its bellicose rhetoric from recent months. Six-party talks over the North’s nuclear program collapsed in 2008.
“This is North Korea’s way to say ‘Ouch, you’ve got us,’” said Paul Haenle, a former White House National Security Council official who now directs Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. “‘You’ve turned up the pain and we feel it. Now we are coming to you to let you know that you have leverage.’”
Choe is the highest ranking North Korean official to visit China since Kim succeeded his late father Kim Jong Il as leader in 2011. During a meeting with Choe yesterday, Liu Yunshan, deputy general secretary of China’s Communist Party, told Choe that China hopes all countries concerned will resume six-nation talks, Xinhua said.
Fan Changlong, the military commission vice chairman, said today that tensions over the North’s nuclear issue had “intensified strategic conflicts among involved parties,” according to Xinhua. Choe arrived in China May 22.
The U.S. and South Korea said it was too early to tell if Choe’s visit marked a step forward in efforts to restart the six-party talks. The North defied United Nations sanctions with a rocket launch in December and a nuclear test in February.
“We’re committed to keeping the five parties of the six-party process very much united and focused on denuclearization and our core goal in that regard,” U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said yesterday.
North Korea depends on China for fuel oil and consumer goods, and trade between the two has dropped since the rocket launch and nuclear test. The regime fired six short-range missiles between May 18 and 20, and freed a Chinese fishing vessel and its crew on May 21 after China filed a formal complaint over the detention.
“I think the Chinese took advantage of the opportunity to be able to express their displeasure with the regime, but also give them some kind of bone to hopefully prevent them from going beyond the provocation cycle,” said David S. Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
Choe, 63, holds the second-highest rank in the North Korean military after Kim Jong Un. He rose to prominence in October 2010, when Kim Jong Il tapped him to serve as a guardian for his son and successor.
The Chinese statement reiterated the government’s position on four items that Kim’s government has rejected publicly, including eliminating all nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula and the six-nation talks, wrote U.S. intelligence analyst John McCreary, an expert on Northeast Asia, in his May 22 NightWatch newsletter, published by Kforce Government Solutions Inc. of Fairfax, Virginia.
“The concluding paragraph of the Chinese statement is a strong indicator that the conversation was probably ‘heated,’ not just ‘warm,’” McCreary wrote. “The next round of appointments Choe makes or does not make will provide important insights as to the state of China’s relations with North Korea.”