Media blackout: fugitives and shields at the Kim-Xi Summit

Media blackout: fugitives and shields at the Kim-Xi Summit

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Kim’s very presence in China was kept a secret until he had returned to Pyongyang Photo. KCNA

Kim’s very presence in China was kept a secret until he had returned to Pyongyang Photo. KCNA

Kim traveled to China in his late father’s olive-green armored train and under heavy security Photo. KCNA

Kim traveled to China in his late father’s olive-green armored train and under heavy security Photo. KCNA

Beijing took great pains to protect the North Korean leader and ensure talks went smoothly
Adam Cathcart
When information is scarce and risks are high, even responsible stakeholders can start to act like fugitives.
Chinese officials burned plenty of energy these past few days dodging foreign reporters who were trying to get answers to the most basic questions – some of which were later answered, in part, with the announcement that negotiations were indeed taking place over core issues in the bilateral relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang.
So how can we get past the gaps in information, the misinformation, and the inevitable Trump-focused treatments of the summit between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un? One way of doing so is to focus on the possible agenda for talks and to look at issues which go beyond the more obvious motivations for this meeting.
During the period of time that his visit was taking place, Kim’s very presence in China was kept a secret, revealing the length to which the Chinese Communist Party would go to protect both him and the bilateral relationship.
FOREIGN MINISTRY OBFUSCATION
Tuesday saw Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying manage to get through an entire press conference without facing a single question requesting simple confirmation of what appeared to all to be an ongoing visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, or perhaps his sister.
After plowing through a number of long answers about U.S.-China frictions over trade and espionage, Hua finally arrived at the North Korean topic. But the reporter upon whom she called pointedly avoided causing any waves, and did not mention Kim Jong Un all.
Instead, the foreign ministry was asked to assess “the value placed by China on Sino-North Korean relations in the current fluid situation.”
No one quoted Hua’s answer about “further developing traditional neighborly relations” because in the context it was meaningless: the verbal equivalent of dead-batting the ball. Kim Jong Un was clearly being shielded by the heavy and layered velour of Chinese censorship and public security. But someone still had to provide a quote from a relevant agency, and after the press conference concluded there was Hua, surrounded by reporters who demanded that she go further.
“I’m not familiar with the situation you mentioned,” she said, “but if information emerges we can distribute it.”
WHITE HOUSE SMOKE
China’s officially-mandated ignorance about something which was clearly happening might almost have sparked shouts of “fake news” from across the Pacific. But in one significant cockpit of misinformation, 1600 Pennslyvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., press officials were was more than happy to spin the Kim Jong Un visit to suit their own unique narrative wherein Donald J. Trump is daily posed as the prime mover of history.
Trump, as Steven Bannon reminded us in a recent conversation with the Financial Times, is the only President since the end of the Cold War to have employed the full range of sanctions levers against North Korea.
And Trump has gone in for sanctions, doing so in combination with his play-acting the role of an unhinged colossus obsessed with going after Kim Jong Un personally, leading an administration with an unpredictable zeal, encouraging leaks about preemptive strikes, taking on initial contingency talks with the Chinese, putting forward off-kilter tweets, verbal threats, and a sudden enthusiasm for talks with the North, all of which was followed by another round of innovatively gutting his own foreign policy and national security staff.
Kim Jong Un was clearly being shielded by the heavy and layered velour of Chinese censorship and public security
Dealing with the threat posed by the United States has been at the core of the Chinese-North Korean alliance and discussions, particularly since the onset of the second phase of the Korean War. (This was the phase where the Americans “rolled back” the socialist revolution nearly to the Chinese frontier, a galvanizing near-death experience at the national level if ever there was one.)
But it seems unlikely that they spent too much time over drinks and formal discussions worrying about John Bolton, or complaining that Victor Cha would have made a great appointment for the Seoul ambassadorship.
To repurpose another one of BR Myers’ gripes, if Kim and the Chinese leadership were doing more than responding directly to all of that American stimuli, then what were they doing, after all? Taking a page out of the fugitive playbook, I plan to address this question by avoiding the two elephants in the room: the nuclear/missile issues and sanctions.
The meeting was the first between a Chinese President and a North Korean leader since 2011
TRADITION – AND SHIELDING NORTH KOREA
Unlike a prospective North Korea-U.S. summit, Chinese-North Korean bilateral summits have a long history and plenty of protocol. The use of the train, the welcoming of the DPRK leader at the train platform, is all part of this, going back to Kim Il Sung’s trips to Beijing in 1950, as are some of the pro forma events with both leaders and probably the musical performance which they enjoyed.
Even the ban on reporting during the visit in 2018 is not necessarily new; I recall finding one drawing from the Liu Shaoqi visit to Pyongyang in the Chinese Foreign Ministry archives for 1962 which showed the very low status of journalists as a group of scribes needing only a minimum of access and who were tacked on as an afterthought in the grander scheme of Party-Party relations.
Even the reported trip by Kim Jong Un to the Zhongguancun high-tech district of Beijing has a predecessor, namely his father’s tours of Shanghai and Shenzhen. History is a type of shield then, if an imperfect one.
It seems unlikely that they spent too much time over drinks and formal discussions worrying about John Bolton
Beijing has been defending Pyongyang – in small ways – of late at the UN human rights council, although not as arduously as they once did. And Chinese officials at the Munich Security Conference in early February kept Pyongyang onside, blaming most of the tensions on the peninsula on the United States and urging the Americans to negotiate rather than fight.
China obviously aims to play a central role in its region, and the CPC has already accrued a great deal of traction on this, having hosted the Six-Party Talks for so many years.
Although it is almost never the top consideration for Beijing, public opinion is not to be forgotten in such matters, and if China is seen as having a strong hand in making the region safer (short of colluding in a collapse of North Korea), those are good optics for Xi and the Communist Party.
China’s promotion of the “dual suspension” strategy with North Korea may never be fully taken up, but it can be used as messaging during any thaw that Beijing’s independent diplomatic impetus has finally started working, as was argued in a 10 March Renmin Ribao / People’s Daily editorial by Zhong Sheng, a conglomerate voice of the CPC on foreign affairs issues.
In terms of money and balance sheets, there is an awful lot for the two sides to discuss. It isn’t clear how long Kim Jong Un spent in Dandong, but KCNA reported he met the Party Secretaries of Liaoning province and Dandong city, both important interlocutors if Special Economic Zone activity is ever to take off in the region where Jang Song Taek and the CPC raised high expectations (PRC media prematurely called it “the Hong Kong of the North”) in the late Kim Jong Il years.
Chinese-North Korean bilateral summits have a long history and plenty of protocol
Balance sheets might also bear discussing with respect to electricity supply from North Korea, or the minerals trade which has gotten so cramped this year due to United Nations sanctions. As if to anticipate these talks, DPRK Premier Pak Pong Ju was in Musan in early March, a city directly on the Chinese border with huge mineral deposits and a history of PRC firms extracting them.
It does not appear that any KPA generals came on the trip, although as the heads of their respective national defense committees, both Kim and Xi would have been able to discuss questions of deployments, drills in the border regions, or attitude toward American military generally. (In fact it would appear more likely that the two men would have spent more time talking about General Dunford, who Xi Jinping met last August, than some of the more remote characters in Washington.)
While novel as Kim Jong Un’s first real foreign outing as a head of state, ultimately this trip may be judged in Beijing for how much access Xi Jinping and his Chinese Communist Party colleagues have to their North Korean counterparts. After all, in all likelihood, both sides will soon be facing problems far more serious than keeping a lid on a few bothersome journalists.
Edited by Oliver Hotham—NK News

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