China and North Korea pledge stronger cooperation in rare talks as Beijing shores up ties with neighbours

China and North Korea pledged to deepen cooperation as senior officials met for rare talks last week amid broader efforts by Beijing to shore up relations with its neighbours to counter external risks.

According to China’s foreign ministry, foreign vice-minister Sun Weidong met his North Korean counterpart Pak Myong-ho in Beijing on Friday, with the parties agreeing to strengthen “strategic communication and coordination”.

“The two sides agreed to take the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and [North Korea] next year as an opportunity to deepen the friendly and cooperative relations between the two countries,” the ministry said in a brief statement.

North Korean state news agency KCNA said the two sides discussed boosting “strategic cooperation between the two countries in the future”.

Pak’s trip to Beijing was one of only a few by high-level North Korean officials to China since Pyongyang shut its borders in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic. It also marked a post-pandemic resumption of engagement between North Korea and its neighbours.

Citing KCNA, Seoul-based news agency Yonhap reported that the last visit to China by a high-ranking North Korean official was in August 2019 by Kim Su-gil, then director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army. Kim held talks with his Chinese counterpart Miao Hua during his trip.

The talks come as China makes relations with neighbouring countries a priority to help counter external threats.

The official Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily reported on Sunday that during a stop in southern China on the way back from Vietnam last week, President Xi Jinping highlighted the need for cooperation with neighbours and to “better coordinate the domestic and international situations”.

Noting the “increasingly complex, severe and uncertain” external environment, the report said Xi’s trips to Hanoi and the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region were important to creating positive conditions for China’s development.

“Today’s China is not only China’s China but also Asia’s China and the world’s China. The greater the perspective, vision and ambition, the greater the space and potential for development,” it said.

Chong Ja Ian, professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, said the seniority of the officials at the Beijing meeting and the discussion of strategic coordination suggested that China and North Korea were looking to demonstrate cooperation.

“Given that the meeting comes after an uptick in North Korean nuclear weapons and missile developments, Kim Jong-un’s visit to Russia, and joint Russian and Chinese bomber patrols, [the meeting] indicates that China can continue to put pressure on the US and US allies in Asia,” Chong said.

The North Korean leader travelled to Russia for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in September, a visit that sparked Western concerns about a potential arms deal.

Last month, Russian and Chinese warplanes conducted joint aerial patrols over the Sea of Japan – also known as the East Sea. The patrols, which Beijing said were “routine”, were viewed as indicative of China’s close defence ties with Russia.

The Friday meeting between Chinese and North Korean officials also came amid heightened concerns over Pyongyang’s nuclear activity.

Yonhap reported on Saturday that the US and South Korea had plans to draw up joint guidelines on nuclear defence by the middle of next year and establish an integrated system to deter North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

A day earlier Kim Tae-hyo, South Korea’s deputy national security adviser, warned that North Korea might test an intercontinental ballistic missile this month.

Chong said these developments suggested that both China and North Korea “may wish to take a more robust stance” towards the US and its allies.

“Beijing’s actions could also be read as a response to enhancements in security cooperation among the US, South Korea, and Japan, as well as South Korea and Japan’s own efforts to enhance their respective militaries,” he added.

Chong suggested that the meeting in Beijing would likely draw attention from Washington and Seoul, particularly as the talks involved senior officials.

He said he expected the US and its regional allies to watch to see whether the meeting would be followed by increased military activity by Pyongyang or coordinated activity among North Korea, China, and Russia.

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South China Morning Post