China Scrambles to Regain Lead in N.Korea Negotiation

  • By Choi Yoo-sik, Lee Kil-seong

    April 03, 2018 12:50

    Chinese President Xi Jinping is trying to push his way back to the front in negotiations about North Korea's nuclear weapons.

    Xi swiftly invited North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to Beijing when an inter-Korean summit and a U.S.-North Korea summit suddenly appeared on the horizon. China is the first foreign country that the reclusive North Korean leader has visited since taking power.

    In the meantime, U.S.-China relations are chilling rapidly. U.S. President Donald Trump has opted to warm up to Taiwan, signing a bill that permits officials of both sides to travel to each other's country. But by inviting Kim, China has tried to show that the North Korean issue cannot be resolved without its cooperation.

    There is also a world of difference between China and the U.S. over how the North Korean nuclear problem should be tackled. The Trump administration wants a speedy, "Libyan" style solution of "complete, verifiable and irreversible" denuclearization.

    Beijing seems inclined to side with Pyongyang in demanding a halt to joint South Korea-U.S. military drills in return for a mere halt to North Korea's nuclear and missile tests.

    Hwang Jae-ho at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies said, "China will be able to take the lead only if nuclear negotiations progress in a phased process as North Korea is demanding." He added that in case of any successful agreement between North Korea and the U.S., China will probably demand a revival of six-party talks.

    Lu Chao, a Korea specialist at Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, said, "China will have a greater say in Korean affairs and the North Korean nuclear issue while strengthening its influence in the region during President Xi Jinping's second term in office."

    But fresh six-party talks being led by China could result in more delays and give North Korea more time to develop nuclear weapons and missiles, as they have done in the past.

    One Chinese academic in Beijing said, "North Korea embarked on a complex diplomatic maneuver ahead of the U.S.-North Korea summit in May by visiting China first. Even if tangible results come out of the U.S.-North Korea summit, there is a lot of skepticism in the Chinese academic community that such results will lead to denuclearization."

    As China-North Korea relations recover, concerns are rising that this will weaken international sanctions against the North. Although no details were revealed, Xi and Kim are believed to have discussed the issue.

    Bong Young-shik at Yonsei University said, "If Xi promised to ease sanctions on North Korea, the U.S.-led international sanctions could receive a heavy blow, and China will have to take responsibility for that."

    For now, China could boost exchanges with North Korea and humanitarian aid that is not covered by the sanctions. But it could also slacken crackdowns on illegal trade with North Korea.

    What is more important than high-profile sanctions is the level of crackdowns enforced by Chinese administrators in the border regions." A diplomatic source in Beijing said. "If China-North Korea relations recover, such crackdowns could ease."

    Shi Yinhong of Renmin University said in an interview last month with Taiwan’s China Times, "One of the reasons Kim Jong-un traveled to China to meet with President Xi Jinping was to obtain a pledge to ease sanctions, while gaining an ally ahead of his summit with U.S. President Trump. From that perspective, Kim Jong-un is the winner of the diplomatic chess game with the U.S. and China."

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