China Visits North Korea!

This week President of China, Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, North Korea. Chairman Kim Jong Un and President Xi Jinping rode through the town in their open-top Mercedes greeting tens of thousands of Pyongyang residents who lined the streets welcoming the Chinese leader. The city of Pyongyang was festive. Chinese flags along with North Korea flags were erected to commemorate Xi Jinping’s first official State visit and China’s first Presidential visit in fourteen years to North Korea.

President Xi Jinping and Chairman Kim Jong Un’s Visit

President Xi Jinping and Chairman Kim Jong Un’s Visit

Throughout our ten plus years in North Korea, our family has witnessed a close relationship between these two countries. Just about every time we crossed the China-North Korea border we were swarmed by Chinese businessmen. Chinese have been doing business in North Korea for decades. They take every opportunity to tap into the North Korean economy whether that be in North Korea’s Free Economic Zones or the capital city of Pyongyang. We experienced this first-hand. Our own neighbors in Pyongyang were Chinese, including the neighbors from both of the neighborhoods we lived in. And every year we saw Chinese tourists visit North Korea by the bus load. As a result, it was not surprising for our family to see President Xi Jinping return Chairman Kim Jong Un’s visit to Beijing with a State visit to Pyongyang.

Although China and North Korea have had a close relationship for decades, our family noticed a significant shift in their relationship in 2013. In years past, North Korea annually hosted the Arirang Mass Games. This cultural extravaganza was an annual spectacle that gave tourists from around the world the opportunity to visit mysterious Pyongyang. Our family tried to attend the Mass Games every year while we were there. It was great entertainment, and it gave us insight into the political strategic objectives for each year.

In previous years the program had consisted of historic components followed by dramatized statements of the central government’s political goals for the year. Artistically, themes had also revolved around the national focus of the year. However, the organizers added a new component in 2013. North Korea used the Mass Games that year to specifically promote their international relations with China. A special friendship with China was presented through the dance routines. Chinese dancers in traditional Chinese red costumes danced hand-in-hand with North Korea performers around a lotus flower that represented the fruitful friendship between the two countries. (Excerpt from Discovering Joy: Ten Years in North Korea)

This was an unprecedented statement. The North Korean government was saying to the Chinese, “Welcome! Come invest in our country. You are our neighbors but also our friends!” North Korea indicated their desire to engage with the international community in specific ways. Like many countries, they sought relations with countries they deem will respect and honor them without demanding too much change.

As Westerners, we often do not understand North Korea. How could we? It is one of the most reclusive nations on earth. They have been both shut out and closed off from the Western world for approximately seventy years. It is only natural that we do not understand them, but as a result, we cannot assume or expect that North Korea will dramatically change any time soon.

However, if we could glean a better understanding of North Korea and their point of view, that understanding could potentially provide context for meaningful peace talks on the bases of mutual understanding. But to get there, we would have to be willing to come to the negotiating table on equal footing.

The first step towards all of this is simple engagement. Engagement through humanitarian outreach, development work, education, and even business is crucial to understanding modern-day North Korea. Without engagement there cannot be negotiation or peace. If we simply engage, we just might be surprised by the limitless insights there is to discovery about this “Hermit Nation” we know as North Korea.

Joy Yoon