North Korea-China friendship shows signs of strain

North Korean workers gather after lunch at the Hong Chao Zhi Yi garment factory in Hunchun in northeastern China's Jilin province, Sept. 30, 2017. AP-Yonhap

Relations between North Korea and its primary patron, China, appear to be fraying, observers said Wednesday, suggesting that their ties have grown increasingly distant as Pyongyang has strengthened its longstanding partnership with Russia.

In January, Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un jointly announced 2024 as the China-North Korea Friendship Year, marking the 75th anniversary of their diplomatic relations. They said various activities will take place to celebrate this milestone.

But so far, there have been few signs of festivities or high-level exchanges.

The latest known high-ranking Chinese official to visit North Korea was Beijing’s top legislator, Zhao Leji, who traveled to Pyongyang in April.

“The visit by Zhao, China’s No. 3 official, cannot be viewed as the most significant exchange for the 75th anniversary. Yet we are still not seeing any signs of Xi Jinping’s visit to Pyongyang materializing,” Park Won-gon, professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University, told The Korea Times.

Park noted that signs of cracks in their relationship have become increasingly visible in recent months.

Recently, Beijing reportedly demanded that Pyongyang recall all of its laborers — estimated to be tens of thousands — currently working across China. While North Korea wanted a gradual repatriation of these workers, China has insisted that all workers whose visas have expired must be sent back en masse, according to reports.

United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2397, passed in 2017, mandated member states to complete the repatriation of North Korean workers abroad by the end of 2019. To comply with these sanctions, Beijing initially set a deadline of 2019 for all North Korean workers to return home, but this was hindered by Pyongyang’s stringent COVID-19 border lockdowns.

“Once these workers return home, North Korea would want to send new workers to China. But it is uncertain whether Beijing would openly 커뮤니티 accept these new laborers, which would violate the U.N. sanctions,” Park said, adding that China’s handling of the North Korean laborer issue could be a litmus test of the friendship between the two nations.

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