North Korea and China seek to improve ties

North Korea and China seek to improve ties
North Korean soldiers hoist a flag at the start of a mass military parade at Kim Il-Sung square in Pyongyang on October 10, 2015.

North Korea's celebrations of its ruling party's foundation day went peacefully Saturday with no provocations and even no mention of nuclear arms in its leader Kim Jong-un's highly anticipated speech at its largest military parade.

Kim repeated his routine rhetoric against the US, arguing the North is capable of fighting "any type of war" with the US But his speech to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party focused largely on enhancing the livelihood of regular people.

Analysts said that Pyongyang appears to have carefully choreographed the anniversary event to present Kim as a leader caring for his people, and its will to enhance relations with China and others, which were strained due to its provocative acts and nuclear development.

"Through the anniversary event, we can say that the North appears to seek enhanced relations with China and others, including South Korea, to forge an external environment favourable to improving the people's livelihood," said Koh Yoo-hwan, North Korea expert at Dongguk University.

"Regarding nuclear capabilities, the North seems to feel that their capabilities were sufficient to respond to the US threats. This could be a reason why Kim did not focus much on highlighting his country's nuclear strength."

During the nearly three-hour military parade for which some 20,000 soldiers and 100,000 citizens were mobilized, Kim's efforts to strengthen ties with China were underscored.

The North put the visiting Liu Yunshan, who ranks fifth in the hierarchy of China's Communist Party, right next to Kim on the reviewing stand, and the two were seen amicably chatting through their interpreters. Liu was the only foreign delegate in the front row of the stand.

Liu's visit also highlighted Beijing's will to mend fences with the North, which have deteriorated due to Pyongyang's provocative acts including its third nuclear test in early 2013.

A day before the parade, Liu handed Chinese President Xi Jinping's letter to Kim as they met for official talks. In the letter, Xi said that China cherishes its relations with the North and pursues "close communication, deepened co-operation, and long-term, healthy and stable bilateral relations."

Liu also proposed strengthening exchanges among the two countries' high-level officials, which raised the possibility of a summit between the two nations.

During their talks, Kim stressed that the two nations' relations were the "biggest legacy" left by his predecessors ― his grandfather Kim Il-sung and father Kim Jong-il.

"The North Korea-China relations are not simple neighborhood relations, but strategic relations that were forged in blood and rooted in the tradition of friendship," Kim reportedly said during the talks.

"This tradition should not only be recorded in history textbooks, but should be handed down and shone by putting it into practice. Our friendship will be more strongly flaunted from now onward."

During his 25-minute speech at the military parade, Kim apparently showed some restraint in his choice of words, amid China's opposition to the North's possession of nuclear arms, analyst pointed out.

Most notable is that he did not mention his so-called Byungjin policy of simultaneously developing the country's economy and nuclear arms. But he apparently diluted the wording by replacing the part of nuclear arms in the policy with "defence," analysts said.

Also noteworthy is that Kim used the expression "people" more than 90 times, as he sought to highlight his top priority on people's livelihood ― a crucial issue for Kim striving to secure his political legitimacy and public support.

"Yes, he was seen toning down his usual harsh wording, and seemed to have felt the need to restrain himself to a certain extent, and stably manage external relations particularly with China," said Chang Yong-seok, a senior analyst at Seoul National University's Institute for Peace and Unification.

"But we should still be cautious, and wait and see whether the Kim regime would really turn its focus toward improving people's livelihood, from its excessive focus on nuclear arms, self-reliance and self-dignity."

With the North Korea-China relations turning for the better, the speculation grew that Kim could travel to China later this year or early next year for a summit with Xi.

"Yes, there is a possibility for a summit as Liu proposed strengthening high-level exchanges," said Koh of Dongguk University. "Given the traditional bilateral relationship, the current situation is abnormal. Thus, the two sides would try to bring the relations back to normalcy."

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