In July 2013, China sent Vice President Li Yuanchao to the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Korean armistice agreement. A few months before, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, despite China's repeated objections to the move. Therefore, the outside world was keen to find out who the Chinese Communist Party's leadership would pick as its envoy.
The visit took place amidst the widespread stated view that "China is very upset with North Korea" and China's patience with its ideological ally was "wearing thin." Under these circumstances, the envoy's seniority would be interpreted as a barometer for "how really upset" Beijing was with Pyongyang, as well as the importance China would attach to the North Korean leadership under Kim Jong-un.
After knowing that it would be Li Yuanchao, South Korea's strategists on China felt relieved. Seoul had been appealing to Beijing not to send a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the top echelon of the Chinese Communist Party. Li was a member of the Politburo, but not among its Standing Committee.
Washington's reaction to the matter was different. It lodged a protest with China for sending such a still very senior-level envoy to North Korea. The U.S. was concerned that China's sending a senior official would send a wrong message to North Korea at a time when the international community should be in unison to condemn Pyongyang's nuclear test.
Li went to North Korea. The prominent photo-op of Li standing next to Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang sent an unmistakable message to the world that Beijing was standing by Pyongyang as a key partner at a time when the latter was diplomatically isolated.
The above episode was not reported by South Korean media. It is debatable whether a "vice president" in China is a "high-ranking" figure or not. What is clear is that the judgments by South Korea and the U.S. on the matter were different, and one of them was wrong. Perhaps the big diplomatic game surrounding Sino-North Korean relations often leaves its subtle hints at what is not reported, in addition to what is reported.
Over the weekend, China's state media reported Liu Yunshan, the head of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Propaganda Department, would visit North Korea to attend the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party. Liu is a member of the Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee and fifth in the Communist Party's hierarchy.
This time, China is indisputably sending a high-ranking envoy. It is safe to assume that the South Korean government lobbied hard to the Chinese side not to send a high-ranking official to the North.
Liu was also the person, who went over to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing in 2014 on the third anniversary of the death of North Korea's former leader Kim Jong-il, to deliver Xi Jinping's oral message. Liu at that time read: "(Xi) places great importance on the traditional friendship between China and the DPRK (North Korea)." Liu was also among the top Chinese leaders who met with Choe Ryong-hae, a confidant of Kim Jong-un, when he visited Beijing in May 2013. We should note that China is sending a senior envoy who is well-known to the North Korean elite.
It was only a month ago that South Korean President Park Geun-hye visited China in a high-profile diplomatic photo-op. She stood in the same row with the Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was presiding over a huge military parade by the People's Liberation Army. Many South Korean analysts portrayed the photo-op as a symbolic moment of strengthening South Korea-China cooperation in pressuring North Korea. The problem with this interpretation is that Liu will go to North Korea and have a photo-op with Kim Jong-un, too.
The Park Geun-hye government often markets a public narrative that portrays China closely cooperating with Seoul on North Korea affairs. The conservative Chosun Daily even ran a column that said "Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping hold hands" in cornering North Korea.
The reality of China-North Korea relations can be seen more objectively if South Korean media outlets simply report more facts, without consideration of domestic politics.
China has been making gradual and clear steps of mending its ties with North Korea, based on a clear vision of its geopolitical strategy. For instance, as South Korea is balancing between Washington and Beijing, China is also balancing between Seoul and Pyongyang. For Beijing, that includes granting its top leaders a photo-op with Park Geun-hye and also with Kim Jong-un.
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D. is an assistant professor at Kyushu University. He can be reached at email@example.com