March 29, 2018 12:34
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is playing all ends against the middle with a surprise visit to Beijing whose aim seemed to be to further fracture international cooperation over North Korea.
Kim may also be trying to boost his leverage in upcoming summits with South Korea and the U.S. in April and May by mending fences with his sole ally. Kim is proving an adept manipulator, driving a wedge between South Korea and the U.S. and taking advantage of China's fierce trade dispute with the U.S.
China is unlikely to halt sanctions against North Korea immediately, but they will inevitably be eased once relations with Pyongyang improve since there are so many possible backdoors.
The fact that China invited Kim demonstrates how cleverly he had managed to sideline the country that was once the global driving force in dealing with the North. Instead he focused on inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korean dialogue, sparking concerns in China that Beijing may be losing its influence.
Trump helped with a major drive to step up trade pressure against Beijing, while warming up to Taiwan, which China considers a rogue state, and embracing Tibet and North Korea. The North is China's surest bet in regaining leverage.
Park Byung-kwang at the Institute for National Security Strategy said, "At a time when U.S.-China relations are deteriorating, China needs North Korea as a strategic asset. If the U.S. raises trade pressure on China, China could strike back by easing sanctions against the North. That is why it's extremely worrying to see the U.S. and China compete over North Korea."
Former ambassador to Japan Shin Gak-soo said, "North Korea agreed to hold talks because it was under pressure. Once China eases sanctions, we could be back to square one."
But Kim also needs China behind him in upcoming talks with South Korea and the U.S. Lee Hee-ok at the Sungkyun Institute of China Studies said, "North Korea is using U.S.-China relations to bolster its negotiating power. The Trump administration's foreign policy team is so hawkish that the North is warming up to China to gain an ally."
A Cheong Wa Dae official said, "North Korea appears to be sending a message that it has China on its side, even if talks with the U.S. go bad."
The North is also looking to Russia in order to boost its negotiating power. At a meeting with Russian officials in Pyongyang last week, the two sides discussed building a railway bridge across their borders, and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho plans to visit Moscow in the middle of next month.
There is even the possibility of Kim visiting Moscow. Wi Sung-lac, a former South Korean representative to the six-party talks said, "Bolstering ties with China and Russia is essential as North Korea prepares to deal directly with South Korea and the U.S."
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