Policy makers in Beijing view the tandem events of the April 27 Inter-Korean Summit and the June 12 Kim-Trump Singapore Summit as important turning points in North Korea’s diplomatic cycle of engagement and disengagement following the extraction of economic concessions from counterparts.
For Beijing, the denuclearization drama playing out on the Korean Peninsula has strong parallels with China’s own reform and opening-up process led by Deng Xiaoping beginning in 1978. The first evidence of Pyongyang’s pivot towards reform and opening-up were comments made by Kim Jung-un at the ruling Worker’s Party meeting in Pyongyang on April 21, 2018. There he stressed the need to “concentrate all efforts on building a powerful socialist economy” through “the mobilisation of all human and material resources.”
Afterwards, according to scholars in Beijing, Kim gathered all North Korean Generals and gave a lengthy address with no mention about nuclear weapons and/ or capabilities. The focus of the meeting was on economic construction and development, a clear shift from the first pillar of the byungjin ideology of parallel development (to achieve nuclear weapon capabilities) to the second pillar of economic development.
Chinese interpretations of this meeting saw it as re-educating North Korean Generals at the highest levels. It was the highest signal that Kim was shifting the North Korean national strategy from securing a strategic nuclear deterrent towards economic development. The meeting resonates with in 1978 where he gathered Chinese PLA Generals to “re-educate” them on his new doctrine and strategy of reform and opening-up, following the chaotic rule of Mao Zedong from 1949 to Deng’s ascent as China’s paramount leader in 1978.
Developments there have led North Korean watchers in Beijing to conclude that Kim has drawn lessons from Deng’s reform and opening-up initiative and is committed to achieving modernization with North Korean characteristics. This 180-degree turn from isolation and nuclear brinksmanship towards an omnidirectional engagement strategy has maximized the fractures in the united front attempting to isolate Pyongyang. Observers believe that this can be traced back to the unanimous adopting of by the UN Security Council Sanctions on North Korea.
Observers in Beijing interpret Pyongyang’s response to the UN resolution to tighten sanctions as more evidence that Pyongyang is committed to economic development and engagement. In contrast to acerbic responses by Pyongyang to previous UN resolutions, Pyongyang was restrained and demonstrated its change in mindset and commitment to economic development by opening a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in the heart of Pyongyang on December 23, 2017.
SEZs were important hubs of economic dynamism under Deng and paved the way for China’s social economic development over the past 30 years, helping to move 800 million people out of poverty. Kim seems to be attempting to localize the China SEZ model to meet the constraints of North Korea’s authoritarian and tightly-controlled society.
Notwithstanding the relative confidence Beijing has in Pyongyang’s commitment to economic reform and opening-up, there is much less confidence in the prospects for denuclearization in the short-, medium-, and long-term. First, there is the problem of nuclear weapons being enshrined in the North Korean Constitution. This means that nuclear weapons are a political issue to be resolved within North Korea before it can begin the process of denuclearization. In this sense, Kim needs to re-educate and recalibrate North Korea’s nuclear capable political identity to one that is denuclearized.
Here again, we have similarities with the reform and opening-up period under Deng. He had to shift the mindset of the Chinese Communist Party and its supporters from a political identity that stressed a global socialist revolution to one that revolved around Deng's four modernizations.
North Korea may use protracted negotiations to denuclearize as in the past to extract economic and other forms of aid from stakeholders to develop its economy and retain a very limited nuclear strategic deterrent.
Second, North Korea and the US need to overcome severe mutual distrust. The continuity in the North Korean leadership, its experience in negotiating with the US, and slips of the tongue such as the applying the "Libyan Model" to the North’s denuclearization process restrains the North from proceeding with a unilateral denuclearization process. Their strong preference is for a step-by-step process characterized by a quid pro quo of mutual and synchronized concessions. We saw this mistrust play out again with US Secretary of State Mike to North Korea on July 6-7, with North Korea accusing the US as being unilateral in their demands.
Third, policy makers are clearheaded about the reality of the daunting technological hurdles to a quick denuclearization. The dismantling of an unspecified inventory of various nuclear capabilities requires transparency and expertise. This dismantling process will necessarily include the facilities that by some accounts are still producing fissile materials (enriched uranium and plutonium).
Lastly, realism is pervasive amongst Pyongyang watchers in China about the fate of the scientific community and associated military officers who have been employed in the production of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. A key question to be addressed is how to re-train and re-employ thousands of individuals who have secured their iron rice bowls and social positions in building a strategic nuclear deterrent as North Korea pursues denuclearization.
In the short term, optimism about the resumption of diplomacy and the de-escalation in tensions between Washington and Pyongyang is tangible. Nevertheless, most observers are much more sombre and saturnine in their assessment about denuclearization over the long-term. Simply, as the details of the complexity of the denuclearization process become clearer and as both stakeholders move towards a comprehensive verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of all nuclear and delivery systems, the negotiations will become tenser and it will be more difficult to come to a mutually acceptable position.
With the reality that any potential denuclearization process will be a long and arduous one, we are left to pose the question as to what Pyongyang’s intentions are. Beijing believes that achieving substantial economic development and regime security remain the core objectives of Pyongyang’s engagement strategy. Furthermore, experts believe the shift in thinking is related to the punitive unilateral and UN sanctions which have had severe effects on the North Korean economy.
To achieve Pyongyang’s economic and regime security objectives, the Kim regime has identified three priorities: 1) restore and improve relations with major countries including China, Russia, the US, and South Korea; 2) encourage China and South Korea to restore financial and economic aid; and 3) reduce and remove all sanctions on the North Korean economy. These are a tall order and can only be comprehensively achieved through denuclearization. At the same time, North Korea may use protracted negotiations to denuclearize as in the past to extract economic and other forms of aid from stakeholders to develop its economy and retain a very limited nuclear strategic deterrent.
The Chinese leadership under Deng made similar choices in the late 70s. They eschewed ideological aspirations for a global socialist revolution for pragmatic economic policy as embodied in Deng's own words: “We mustn’t fear to adopt the advanced management methods applied in capitalist countries (...) The very essence of socialism is the liberation and development of the productive systems (...) Socialism and market economy are not incompatible (...) We should be concerned about right-wing deviations, but most of all, we must be concerned about left-wing deviations.”
Through reaching out and restoring relations with the US, Japan and the West, China under Deng’s pragmatic leadership received invaluable overseas development assistance and foreign direct investment that contributed to China’s economic development and movement from the periphery of the global economy to one of the current engines of global growth.
At the same time, North Korea may be also borrowing from Deng's 24-character strategy of observing and analyzing calmly (冷静观察), strengthening their own position (稳住阵脚)， undertaking change with confidence (沉着应付), concealing their true potential (韬光养晦), contributing their part (有所作为), and never becoming the leader (决不当头).
Throughout China’s first period of reform and opening-up, it transformed its economy and incrementally-strengthened its economic, diplomatic, and military capabilities. The fruits of this period of consolidation and self-strengthening are seen in China’s economic size and global reach, its growing capacities to assert its claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea and its ability to create new international institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.
While North Korea is most certainly not so ambitious, its negotiating track record strongly suggests that the prolonged denuclearization process and efforts to simultaneously develop its economy resonate with China’s history of reform and opening-up. This is especially true of the characteristic of developing a dynamic, regionally integrated economy while retaining a powerful military deterrent to maintain regime security and to press its longstanding historical, political and military claims in the region.