It is remarkable that in the short space of three months, the political situation on the Korean Peninsula has moved from the edge of war into an unwonted atmosphere of hope.
The mastermind behind the entire show, from the Pyongcheong winter Olympics to the coming meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, was the North Korean leader himself.
It was Kim who sought North Korean participation in the Olympics, he who invited South Korean leader Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang, and he who told Moon’s visiting delegation of his interest in meeting the American leader and his willingness to discuss denuclearization, suspend weapons testing and accept the resumption of joint US-South Korean military exercises in April.
Through all this, China was little more than an observer. While China has long advocated dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang, now that it is happening, it seems to have been transformed into a bystander.
The fear of marginalization in Beijing is palpable. While China had played a critical role in ensuring the survival of North Korea and the political stability of the region, it now finds itself on the sidelines while critical decisions are being made in Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington.
When Trump called Xi Jinping the day after his decision to meet Kim, the Chinese leader no doubt appreciated being consulted and said he hoped that the dialogue with North Korea would start as soon as possible.
The same day, the Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesman, Geng Shuang, said that it was important for “all relevant parties” to follow up by making “corresponding and concerted efforts”. Chinese officials have repeatedly said that China would play its part.
Asked if China would welcome the chance to host the Trump-Kim meeting, the spokesman gave a cautiously worded response, which amounted to “yes, but we need to be asked first”.
After having been the guarantor of North Korea’s security, indeed, its very existence, for years and after having acceded to Trump’s numerous appeals for help, China today is in the awkward position of not knowing if either the US or North Korea is willing to hold their unprecedented meeting on Chinese soil. Its level of frustration must be high indeed. But it is still sticking to its principles of preferring a negotiated resolution to economic sanctions or military action.
To remind the world of China’s contributions, the Global Times newspaper, published by the official People’s Daily, issued a commentary Sunday night which asserted that “as Kim and Trump grab headlines and enjoy the limelight, one thing that deserves special attention is China’s role in promoting the US-North Korea summit”.
The economic sanctions, the commentary pointed out, “played an essential role in forcing Pyongyang to recalculate the cost-and-benefit equation” and “China’s faithful implementation helped make the Security Council’s resolutions effective”.
China is claiming credit for the breakthrough in US-North Korea relations. After all, it had sent envoys to Pyongyang to explain its stance and to persuade the North to negotiate. “Even though China’s efforts did not produce immediate results,” Global Times said, “the consistency of those efforts helped convince North Korea it had no future with nuclear weaponry and the only way out of its dilemma was to abandon nuclear weapons.”
As for the Trump-Kim talks, China expects “an uphill battle in the run-up to the meeting” but, the commentary promises, China “will play a large role in the process”.
That is an important commitment whose details are unclear. North Korea has said that for it to give up nuclear weapons, the safety of its regime must be guaranteed and the military threat against it must be removed. “We believe that neither of the preconditions could be satisfied without China’s active involvement and support,” the commentary said.
This is something to which the Trump administration must give deep thought. What actions would it need to take to remove the military threat against Pyongyang and to reassure the regime of its safety? Will it need to withdraw American forces from South Korea?
Trump cannot enter into talks with Kim without deciding ahead of time what his own bottom line is. The future of the US-South Korea alliance may well be in the balance.
The US should consult China on what it has in mind and the role it is prepared to play. Perhaps China wants it and the US to be joint guarantors of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula. That idea may well be appealing to Trump, though the same cannot be said of his Asian allies, South Korea and Japan.
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