[News analysis] N. Korea, China ramp up their “letter diplomacy” ahead of US presidential election

Posted on : 2020-10-30 18:00 KST Modified on : 2020-10-30 18:00 KST
Rodong Sinmun highlights letter from Xi Jinping to Kim Jong-un on front page
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands ahead of their summit in Pyongyang on June 20, 2019. (Yonhap News)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands ahead of their summit in Pyongyang on June 20, 2019. (Yonhap News)

Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in which he noted that “major changes are taking place rapidly for the first time in a century” around the world and stressed his willingness to “promote regional peace, stability and development,” North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported in a front-page story on Oct. 29.

Xi declared his willingness to carry on and develop “the traditional Sino-Korean friendship” with China’s North Korean comrades and to “better the welfare of our two peoples, and promote regional peace, stability and development."

The letter amounted to a “reply to a reply” from Kim after Xi’s congratulatory telegram on the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). Kim and Xi have exchanged a total of six letters (based on the Rodong Sinmun’s reporting) between September and October, with three exchanged each month. The “letter diplomacy” between the leaders is occurring with unusual frequency even when the two sides’ party and regime establishment commemoration dates in September and October are taken into account. The closeness between the North Korean and Chinese leaders is becoming more apparent with the US presidential election less than a week away on Nov. 3 and an intensifying power battle underway between the US and China.

One noteworthy aspect of the recent correspondence between Kim and Xi is the amount of focus given to the “international political situation.” Xi’s reference to “major changes [. . .] for the first time in a century” goes a step farther from his congratulatory telegram for the WPK 75th anniversary, in which he remarked that “international and regional situations are undergoing complex and profound changes.”

In a recent letter, Kim stressed the “invincible DPRK-China friendship” and said, “The hostile forces' ever-escalating smears and pressure racket cannot bring to collapse the Chinese people's trust in the general secretary and the CPC.”

The “letter diplomacy” between the North Korean and Chinese leaders is a product of mutual necessity. A stronger relationship with Pyongyang is strategically important for Xi as the US’ efforts to contain China are combined with escalating border conflicts with India, Vietnam, and Taiwan. Kim, for his part, urgently needs stability in his relationship with his Chinese “backyard” in order to respond actively to political changes and alleviate his economic woes amid the triple whammy of sanctions, COVID-19, and natural disasters.

A former senior South Korean government official predicted a “possibility that Kim Jong-un may visit China shortly after the 8th WPK Congress in early January of next year.” The expectation is that Kim will sorely need to elicit Xi’s strategic cooperation and support after the US presidential election and 8th WPK Congress.

KCNA lashes out at Suh Hoon’s comments on inter-Korean peace

The Korea Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea’s state-run news outlet for overseas messaging purposes, published a “person pen name article” on Oct. 29 in which North Korean authorities belatedly denounced remarks made by Blue House National Security Office Director Suh Hoon during a US visit two weeks earlier on Oct. 13-16. The piece came one day after an administrative policy speech before the National Assembly by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and the same day that Xi’s most recent letter was made public.

Taking issue with Suh’s remarks that inter-Korean relations “cannot be said to represent an issue for South and North Korea alone” but are “a matter to be pursued amid discussions with the US and neighboring countries,” the piece blasted him for “degrad[ing] the sacred inter-Korean relations to something subordinate of international relations.” It also called the remarks a “public display of denial and betrayal” by South Korean authorities of declarations made by the South and North Korean leaders on June 15, 2000, Oct. 4, 2007, and Apr. 27, 2018.

While it was not a statement by an official party or government organization or senior official, it warrants notice as an article published in one of North Korea’s “big three” media. Another former senior South Korean official said, “I understand it to be intended more as a ‘pick-off throw’ [against South Korean and US coordination on North Korea] than as indicative of changes in their approach to the South.” According to this interpretation, North Korea’s strategic approach toward the South was encapsulated in an Oct. 10 speech by Kim Jong-un, in which he expressed “hope that this health crisis would come to an end as early as possible and the day would come when the North and South take each other's hand again.”

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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