Chinese President Xi Jinping’s special envoy to Pyongyang, Song Tao, has wrapped up his four-day trip to North Korea. The North Korea visit by the head of the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China is considered significant as it is believed to help improve the strained relations between the two communist allies. But the visit seems to be only a half-success, contrary to prior expectations that it would provide a turning point in the North Korean nuclear issue. Here is Professor Kang Jun-young of the Graduate School of International and Area Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies to explain the significance of the Chinese envoy’s latest visit to Pyongyang.
In 2015, China sent Liu Yunshan, then a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, to North Korea in the hopes of thawing the icy relations with Pyongyang. However, bilateral ties were aggravated later, due to North Korea’s repeated provocations and its advancement in nuclear capabilities. After the end of the 19th party congress in China last month, it seems U.S. President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping discussed ways to cooperate on the North Korea nuclear issue. In light of that, Beijing appears to have started to activate its North Korea diplomacy again. The latest Pyongyang visit by the Chinese special envoy is seen as the beginning of China’s move to coordinate North Korea-related issues and of the renewed bilateral relations.
On November 17, the first day of his Pyongyang visit, Song Tao met with Choe Ryong-hae, vice chairman of the Workers’ Party. The following day, he met with Ri Su-yong, vice chairman of the Workers’ Party’s International Affairs Department. They discussed mutual concerns of their parties and nations. On November 19, the Chinese envoy paid his respects at Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang and visited a tower that symbolizes friendship between North Korea and China.
The official purpose of Song’s visit was to brief North Korea on the result of the 19th party congress in China. I imagine Song talked about it with the North Korean officials, who, in return, congratulated him on the successful hosting of the party meeting. But in a broader context, Song may have delivered the Beijing government’s view on the North Korean nuclear and missile issue, which was discussed at a recent series of summit talks involving South Korea, the U.S., Japan and China. Of course, Choe and Ri are not in a position to give an answer to this matter. So, on the surface, it seems the Chinese envoy and the North Korean officials only touched on issues like party-to-party exchanges and the development of bilateral ties.
Throughout Song’s visit to North Korea, attention had been paid to a possible meeting between the Chinese envoy and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. But it is uncertain whether the meeting took place. North Korean media outlets, such as the Korean Central News Agency and the Rodong Sinmun newspaper, reported what Song did throughout his stay in North Korea but have not mentioned anything about a meeting with the leader as of November 22. When asked about the meeting in a regular briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang avoided answering the question, only saying that no further details are available.
As we know, North Korea is struggling to advance its nuclear development program and secure its status as a nuclear weapons state. Whoever China sent, Pyongyang believes that Beijing has the purpose of persuading it to refrain from its nuclear ambitions. Kim Jong-un has to send a certain message to China if he meets with a special envoy from China. But even if they meet, it is difficult to officially announce any detailed outcome. If Kim did not meet with the envoy, or if North Korea did not announce the result of the meeting that was actually held, it means Pyongyang finds it hard to accept Beijing’s argument. In other words, North Korea won’t listen to China until it earns the status as a nuclear power and advances its nuclear capabilities to the highest level.
Meanwhile, on November 20, U.S. President Donald Trump re-designated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, nine years after the nation was removed from the list in 2008. In fact, Trump delayed the decision, which had been expected to be announced right after his Asian tour. Prior to the announcement, Trump showed his expectation about the Chinese special envoy’s trip to North Korea, tweeting that it was “a big move” and that the U.S. will wait to see what happens. But he announced the re-designation at a time when the Chinese envoy wrapped up his North Korea visit. Additional sanctions from Pyongyang’s re-listing on the list of terror sponsors will not be very effective, since North Korea has already been under a wide range of strong international sanctions and Washington’s unilateral sanctions as well. But once North Korea is put back to the list, Pyongyang will find it difficult to seek diplomatic relations with the U.S. and it will also be branded as a rogue state internationally. The U.S.’ decision to return North Korea to the state sponsors of terrorism list is interpreted as the Trump administration’s intention to tightly control the Kim Jong-un regime by accusing it of supporting terrorism and developing missiles and nuclear weapons.
The U.S. seems to have concluded that the Chinese envoy’s North Korea visit was unproductive, so it showed that it remains unchanged in its previous policy of “maximum pressure” on the North. During a cabinet meeting, Trump said that the designation supports Washington’s maximum pressure campaign against the North Korean regime. Domestically, the U.S. president is faced with many difficulties. He had been under pressure by Congress over the re-designation issue, but he continued to send a message, indicating the need to wait. After all, he expressed his intention to apply maximum pressure on North Korea if the North does not show a change in attitude.
The U.S. and China have lately been at odds over the so-called “freeze-for-freeze” scheme, where South Korea and the U.S. stop their combined military exercises in exchange for North Korea’s suspension of its nuclear and missile provocations. China made this proposal as a possible solution to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. When announcing the result of his Asia trip on November 15, Trump said that he and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed during their summit that they would not accept the freeze-for-freeze agreement. But China’s Foreign Ministry flatly denied it, saying that the “suspension for suspension” plan is the most realistic and reasonable proposal in the current situation. China also said that the “dual suspension” initiative is a method to find a breakthrough for restarting dialogue and negotiations, and to push for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and a peace treaty between North Korea and the U.S. at the same time. It described the proposal as a way of realizing long-term stability on the Korean Peninsula.
China claims that a halt in the South Korea-U.S. military exercises in return for freezing North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations will be the first step toward a solution to the nuclear issue. But the scheme appeals to none of the three countries involved, South Korea, the U.S. and North Korea. Pyongyang argues that it cannot stop its self-defensive nuclear weapons development unless the U.S. completely drops its hostile policy toward the North. South Korea and the U.S., on their part, believe that it is nonsense to stop their annual combined military drills that they have conducted for 40 years in this precarious situation where North Korea continues with its nuclear development and missile provocations. While China insists on the “freeze-for-freeze” plan, North Korea doesn’t accept it, and South Korea and the U.S. say repeatedly that they cannot halt or even reduce their military exercises as long as there is no change in North Korea’s attitude.
Involved countries are engaging in a flurry of diplomatic activities to address the nuclear issue. Following a foreign ministerial meeting between South Korea and China on November 22, top nuclear negotiators from South Korea and Russia will hold talks in Seoul on November 27 and the South Korea-China summit is scheduled for next month.
South Korea needs to stress the need for finding a way to resolve the nuclear issue peacefully, at least on the surface, before taking any follow-up measures. Seoul should continue to say that it is opposed to a military option mentioned by Trump and that China needs to play a more active role in ending the nuclear crisis peacefully and fully cooperate with the U.S. to deal with the issue. China maintains that the nuclear issue is a matter solely between North Korea and the U.S. If Beijing sticks to this view, it will be impossible to solve any problem and South Korea will be in an even more difficult situation. Seoul should underline the need that the U.S., China and South Korea should all work on the nuclear issue and focus on breaking the nuclear deadlock.
It remains to be seen whether a series of diplomatic meetings related to the nuclear issue may provide momentum to ease tension on the Korean Peninsula.
[Interview] Defector Runs Soondae Soup Restaurant
Although it’s well past lunchtime, a soondae soup restaurant located in Gwangmyeong City, south of Seoul, is packed with customers. Soondae is Korean sausage stuffed with various ingredients. The fact that the restaurant is filled with customers at all times of the day must mean that delicious food is served there.
The food is really great. I enjoy some soju to go with it. The hot, spicy broth comes with a lot of meat. The traditional flavor reminds me of my mother’s food. It is perfect for the cold winter season.
This isn’t the first time that I have eaten soondae soup, but this one has a very clean taste. The broth glides gently down my throat and makes my stomach feel much better.
Another reason for the popularity of this eatery is its inexpensive price. A bowl of soondae soup with rice only costs 3,900 won, or around 3.50 US dollars. Ju Su-jin, the owner of the restaurant, offers the food at an affordable price in the hopes of relieving the customers’ financial burdens, though only in a small way.
My restaurant is close to a school, so lots of students come here. As a parent, I feel like the students are my own children. I sell the food at inexpensive prices to encourage many poor students to enjoy it. They will lead this nation in the future, and I hope they will grow well and make contributions to the nation. The young students eat a lot of food, and I give them as much rice as they want.
But it doesn’t mean that the food is made of cheap ingredients. Ms. Ju uses quality ingredients and cooks with all her heart. Through trial and error, she was able to develop her own recipe to bring out a deep flavor in her food that is not too greasy.
I boil beef leg bones for a long time, adding water over and over again, until the broth turns milky and the smell of meat disappears. Unlike other soondae soups that use pork leg bones, I use beef leg bone broth, soondae and glass noodles. That’s why customers like the clean taste. I placed two big cauldrons in front of my restaurant and simmer the broth there to show that this place serves great food, although the price is cheap. Sometimes, I open the lid of the cauldron to show the broth to customers.
Her hometown is Hoeryong, North Hamgyeong Province in North Korea. She defected to South Korea in 2010. At first, the newcomer worked at a local gas station and a restaurant. But she couldn’t afford to pay her living expenses as well as her daughter’s tuition. So she decided to open her own restaurant. She thought there would be no major problem, although she had no experience in selling food. But it was not easy to figure out the tastes and preferences of South Korean people. She wasn’t good at making a particular type of food, either. Soon, she recalled soondae that her mother had cooked when she was a child.
When I was little, I used to stand beside my mom in the kitchen and help her cook soondae. North Korean soondae is a little different from the one in South Korea. In the North, the pig intestine is stuffed with a mixture of rice, vegetables, pig’s blood and lung, lard and various seasonings. But here in South Korea, glass noodles are used in most cases. My North Korean-style soondae tastes really good, and many customers come back again and again. I never really expected that the soondae soup I had learned from my mother would shine here in South Korea. I often think I should have treated my mother better when she was alive. Thanks to the soondae soup that was handed down to me from my parents, I can live well now.
Ju opened the restaurant in November last year. The great taste of her beef soondae soup with North Korean-style soondae spread by word of mouth, and she has even appeared on TV a few times. The number of customers increased so fast that she has opened her second restaurant nearby. Now, she is preparing to open a third one. She received a lot of help from people around her until her business stabilized, and she says she wants to teach her expertise to North Korean newcomers.
A North Korean employee worked here for about eight months. She hopes to run a similar business herself, and she and I are preparing together to operate a third restaurant. I never imagined that I would do things like this in South Korea to realize my dream. If my fellow North Korean expats succeed in their work, I would be immensely happy. I’d like to help them out by all means, as long as they are devoted to their business and work hard.
Now, she talks about her future plans after unification.
After Korea is unified, I wish I can treat my friends and relatives in North Korea with my soondae soup. They will probably think South Korean soondae is not any different from the North Korean one. Through food, I hope I can achieve unification in my own way.
We hope her reasonably-priced soondae soup will soon warm the hearts of people in both South and North Korea.