Chinese media quoted one of North Korea’s top military officials on Thursday as saying that the country was “willing to accept the suggestion of the Chinese side and launch dialogue with all relevant parties,” possibly an indication that the regime in Pyongyang is prepared to restart talks about its nuclear program after months of tension that saw the North conduct another weapons test and suspend a military hotline with the South.
Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, who is one of the highest-ranking members of the North Korean ruling party’s Politburo after leader Kim Jong-un, made the statement after a meeting with a senior Chinese Communist Party official in Beijing, the first of its kind in six months’ time.
North Korea pulled out of negotiations about its nuclear program in 2009 when it also expelled foreign inspectors after the United Nations and the United States had criticized a failed missile launch.
Relations between China and North Korea, nominally allies, were soured by the latter’s bellicose behavior in recent months. While China normally shields the smaller communist country from international sanctions, it said it was “strongly dissatisfied” by a nuclear test in February. Earlier this month, it suspended trade with the North’s main foreign exchange bank and closed its account in China.
United Nations sanctions have repeatedly condemned North Korea for developing a nuclear weapons capability since it withdrew from the Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003. It has tested at least three such weapons since 2006 and numerous ballistic missiles, the most sophisticated of which can probably reach Alaska but not the mainland United States.
The Chinese often resisted sanctions because the North Korean regime provides a buffer between them and South Korea where nearly 30,000 American troops are permanently stationed. Its recent provocations, however, rather than keeping the Americans at bay, prompted the United States to expand their missile defenses in Alaska and Guam and deploy more military strike assets to the region, including two B-2 stealth bombers which overflew the peninsula in March in a show of force. Those actions might have heightened Chinese fears of encirclement which hardliners in Beijing suspect is the aim of the United States’ strategic “pivot” to East Asia.
Choe, despite having no formal role in North Korean economic policy, was also shown around the Beijing Economic and Technological Development Area where electronic, pharmaceutical and information technology companies are active. The intended message may have been that North Korea ought to follow the Chinese development model.
China has gradually relaxed state controls since the 1980s and prospered since. North Korea announced some agricultural reforms late last year but has altogether refrained from liberalizing its economy.