Li Zhanshu’s Upcoming Visit to North Korea May Reflect Chinese Diplomatic Caution

September 5, 2018 Updated: September 5, 2018

In the evening of Sept. 4, Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-run media announced that by invitation by the North Korean regime, CCP Politburo Standing Committee member and National People’s Congress chairman Li Zhanshu would visit North Korea on Sept. 8 on behalf of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

The news seems to confirm speculation by South Korean media that Xi’s plan to visit North Korea in person had been changed.

The news, reported by the Party-controlled Xinhua, didn’t mention how long Li Zhanshu would stay in North Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited China three times this year. According to anonymous sources, during his first trip to China at the end of March, Kim invited Xi to visit North Korea, and Xi accepted his invitation. Later, it was rumored that Xi would travel to Pyongyang in September.

On Sept. 3, a day before Xinhua made its report, analysis run by several South Korean media suggested that Xi might not visit North Korea after all, citing a lack of time in Xi’s schedule, as well as a fear of further antagonizing the United States in the background of ongoing Sino-U.S. trade disputes.

According to the Yonhap News Agency and the Chosun Online, the Chinese regime had remained very quiet about plans for its leaders to visit North Korea, despite the fact that there was less than a week remaining before North Korea’s 70th-anniversary National Day celebrations. In the past, Chinese state media would typically publish such news a week in advance of the trip.

The analysis also cited the difficulty of fitting a North Korea visit into Xi’s schedule, which had mostly recently been updated on Aug. 31. The CCP’s Foreign Office released a notice saying that leaders of the African countries of Ghana, Egypt, South Africa, Congo, and others had accepted Xi’s invitation for them to pay state visits to Beijing between Aug. 31 and Sept. 9.  

On Sept. 3 and 4, the China-Africa Cooperation Forum was held in Beijing, after which the African leaders are to have separate meetings with Xi. The CCP has put much effort into organizing the forum, under which circumstances Xi would have little time to make any foreign visits.

Recently, U.S. President Trump suddenly cancelled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to North Korea. Trump blamed the CCP for holding back North Korea’s denuclearization progress and encouraging Pyongyang to renege on its commitments.

This has put more diplomatic pressure on Xi, as Sino-U.S. relations have deteriorated since the outbreak of the trade war. According to South Korea’s Dong-a-Ilbo, if Xi were to make a high-profile show of friendship with North Korea, which is widely viewed as a pariah state, it would further push the United States to see China as an adversary with a hand behind North Korea’s failure to denuclearize.

The analysis said that if Xi were to attend a military parade in Pyongyang, he would likely stand near Kim Jong Un or other North Korean leaders in an apparent gesture of endorsement. This could be compounded if the North Korean regime decided to showcase a new weapon at the parade, as it would indicate Beijing’s complicity in North Korea’s defiance of the United States.

Further, Xi’s visit to North Korea would, as a matter of courtesy, obligate the CCP to provide Pyongyang with gestures of goodwill such as economic cooperation agreements or other forms of aid. But under the circumstances, with China being a participant in international efforts to denuclearize the Korean peninsula that involve the United States and South Korea, it would be awkward for China to agree to such largess for North Korea, lest it face diplomatic repercussions.  

Reporting by Ling Yun