After weeks upon weeks of (more or less) unending threats of nuclear war and the touting of (more or less) "special prisons" for American prisoners, North Korea changed its tune on Friday as its apparently legit envoy met with its most important ally in the world, promising China (more or less) "positive actions" toward maintaining "peace and stability." And as with everything North Korea says, we'll believe it when we see it, but China's propaganda machine is trying to make it very clear: Beijing wants Pyongyang back at the nuclear negotiating table.
By way of China's Xinhua state news agency, Reuters has the few details of what went down between Chinese president Xi Jinping and Choe Ryong-hae, the special envoy for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un who's been in China all week. Apparently the "diplomat" told Xi:
North Korea is willing to make joint efforts with all parties to appropriately resolve related issues through multilateral dialogue and consultations like the six-party talks, and maintain peace and stability on the peninsula
To this end, North Korea is willing to take positive actions.
The Associated Press, meanwhile, breaks down reports from two other state news agencies on Choe's visit with China's communist party boss:
Choe praised China's work on behalf of peace and stability and its "great efforts to return (Korean) peninsular issues to the channel of dialogue and negotiation," China Central Television reported. It quoted Choe as saying North Korea "is willing to accept the suggestion of the Chinese side and launch dialogue with all relevant parties."
The North's official Korean Central News Agency did not mention the concession and instead quoted Choe as saying Pyongyang is committed to maintaining generations of friendly ties with Beijing.
That's a bit of a jump — at worst a repeated phrase (our emphasis) in Chinese propaganda, at best the international equivalent of a schoolyard bully telling the principal that he'll start acting better if everyone else does, too. And according to China's Xinhua news agency, Choe (far right) also delivered to Xi a "personal letter" from the Supreme Leader himself, Kim Jong-un.
So what about those "positive actions" that North Korea may or may not be willing to take? Well, the U.S., South Korea, and even China probably hope that means concrete steps toward denuclearization. Of course, the AP also reports that a top Chinese army official who met with Choe said the North Korean envoy didn't make that promise at all — and that, despite an apparent willingness to hold talks, the rogue nation had made "no guarantee of peace."
Of course, North Korea is known for its bark. And it's also known for saying things that aren't really that close to reality. Back in March, one of its diplomats told the U.N. that the country was a great place for human rights and that its citizens are "happy with pride and honor that they have one of the best systems for promotion and protection of human rights in the world." We know that isn't necessarily the case because of the country's history of gulags, communication restrictions, and a litany of reports of starvation-induced cannibalism. The international community, as always, has to take any promises about "peace and stability" or "positive actions" with deep skepticism. (If you look at the state-run Korean Central News Agency's latest stories, there's no shortage of vehement articles attacking the U.S. and South Korea.)
Still, North Korea has shown occasional signs of retreat this year. The very act of a North Korean diplomat meeting with the president of China is a big step for communications, as one expert had told the The New York Times that the chances of such a talk during Choe's trip were "not very great." So either North Korea's getting desperate for more help from the nation it relies upon the most, or China wanted to make explicit — and from the top — just how it feels about denuclearization in the Korean peninsula. So it might be time to read the tea leaves from China rather than the fear-mongering (and luke-warm "peace" offerings) from North Korea; since Beijing is Pyongyang's most powerful ally, the Kim regime more or less has to listen to Xi to some extent. As North Korean expert Adam Cathcart notes, it seems like China is making its desire for North Korean talks very clear:
Xi Jinping has a habit of saying "everybody needs to" when he's talking directly to DPRK. "有关各方都应坚持半岛无核化目标" world.huanqiu.com/regions/2013-0…— Adam Cathcart (@adamcathcart) May 24, 2013
And The New York Times's Jane Perlez notes that Xi spoke "bluntly." She quotes Korea watcher Cai Jian: "China believes that the parties sitting down for talks is progress in itself," Cai says. "But the United States, South Korea and others may set down prerequisites. For example, asking the North to clearly say they are abandoning nuclear weapons, or to stop provocations like missile launches."
The message from North Korea's breakthrough envoy — and the stern message from China — come as the Pyongyang propaganda efforts have been a little less severe when it comes to setting North Korea's enemies ablaze in the flames of nuclear war. Indeed, as North Korea's Rodong Simmun newspaper writes (inset above at right), it appears Pyongyang can picture the U.S. "coexisting" with a nuclear DPRK. Or North Korea could have just been bluffing the entire time — not that Kim Jong-un would ever tell you.