By Takeshi Kamiya (in Seoul), Yoshikazu Hirai (in Ji’an)
The Chinese government is beefing up its behind-the-scenes assistance to the DPRK. It is sending rice, corn, and other foodstuffs as humanitarian aid and offering cooperation in the promotion of the tourism industry, which the DPRK hopes to use as a source of obtaining foreign currency. With this support, Pyongyang is putting more distance between itself and Seoul and is trying to promote the denuclearization consultations with the United States to its advantage.
According to sources close to the ROK government and China-DPRK trading firms among others, China decided to provide food aid to the DPRK after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s DPRK visit in June. China plans soon to send 800,000 tons of rice, North Korea’s staple, via ships and other means. The total volume [of food assistance] is thought to be around 1 million tons, including the corn. Sending food aid to the DPRK is not in violation of the United Nations sanctions, but the Chinese government has not publically announced the content of the assistance.
According to the UN World Food Programme, the production of food crops in the DPRK last year was down by 12% from the previous year due to drought. More than 10 million people are thought to face food shortages. A Chinese research agency also predicts that North Korea will have a shortage of 1.5 to 1.8 million tons of grain this year.
Seeing the DPRK’s difficult situation, the South Korean administration under President Moon Jae-in pledged humanitarian aid totaling $8 million through international agencies in May. It was about to send approximately 50,000 tons of rice, but the DPRK declined the aid without clarifying the reason [for its action].
With the restart of U.S.-ROK joint military exercises, the DPRK also rejected dialogue with the ROK. Sources familiar with the internal situation in North Korea say, “Pyongyang hopes to gain some relief from its food and economic situation with the Chinese aid and there is a chance it will become bolder.”
China is the DPRK’s largest trade partner. In recent years, however, China-DPRK relations have been cool because of Pyongyang’s launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles and testing of nuclear weapons. China consented to UN economic sanctions, and the DPRK’s economic difficulties were growing severer.
China, however, softened its stance when the DPRK started to engage in the inter-Korean dialogue and denuclearization consultations with the United States. China permitted Kim Jong Un to visit, and Xi agreed to a summit meeting. It is thought that China is trying to regain its influence in the DPRK and contain the United States through this aid. (Abridged)