The inter-Korean summit meeting was political theater of a high order, where two heads of state expertly played their parts, including skipping back and forth between the line dividing their two countries like schoolchildren playing hopscotch.
The denouement, while not unexpected, brought general relief to the worldwide audience. President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Chairman Kim Jong-un of the State Affairs Commission of North Korea signed the Panmunjom Declaration in which they agreed to “actively cooperate to establish a permanent and solid peace regime on the Korean Peninsula”.
Although fighting ceased 65 years ago after the signing on July 27, 1953 of the Military Armistice Agreement, the Korean war itself was never ended since no peace treaty was signed.
The declaration said the two Koreas sought the goal of “declaring an end to the War, turning the armistice into a peace treaty, and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime” this year.
To achieve this objective, the declaration said “South and North Korea agreed to actively pursue trilateral meetings involving the two Koreas and the United States, or quadrilateral meetings involving the two Koreas, the United States and China” to bring about a “solid peace regime”.
It is interesting that both North and South Korea are willing to contemplate a situation whereby China is not involved in such talks.
Both Koreas have had strained relations with China. South Korea recently felt China’s wrath when it deployed, despite Chinese opposition, the THAAD missile defense system. China insisted that such deployment affected its own security, and imposed economic sanctions on South Korea, even though the latter faced an existential threat.
Pyongyang, on its part, was angered by Beijing’s willingness to take part in stiff United Nations sanctions. China is by far North Korea’s most important trading partner and Pyongyang saw this as a betrayal by a fellow socialist state.
China’s fear of being marginalized may well intensify. This began in March with President Donald Trump’s acceptance of Kim’s offer of a face-to-face meeting. The offer, relayed by South Korea, bypassed China and, since then, the Chinese have repeatedly made clear their desire to play a key role in Korean peninsula developments.
Ironically, it was the effectiveness of Chinese sanctions that led Kim to abandon his bellicose stance towards South Korea and the United States. Because of China’s perceived hostility, North Korea decided to reach out to Washington and Seoul.
But China, fearing marginalization, then sent signals making clear its desire to improve relations with Pyongyang. Kim responded with a lightning visit to Beijing, where he and Xi apparently patched up the bilateral relationship, with each recalling their alliance in the Korean War.
In the aftermath of the highly successful inter-Korean summit, the Chinese foreign ministry issued a statement hailing the “positive outcomes”, adding: “China stands ready to continue to play its positive role to this end.” But it did not indicate what kind of role China wanted to play.
The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, was invited to Pyongyang for a visit May 2-3 by his North Korean counterpart, Ri Yong-ho, presumably to be briefed on the latest situation.
Logically speaking, since China was a participant in the war, it should be party to any peace treaty that formally ends the conflict. Moreover, it was a signatory of the armistice, since General Nam Il of North Korea signed on behalf of the Korean People’s Army and the Chinese People’s Volunteers. The other signatory was General William K. Harrison Jr. of the United Nations Command, controlled by the United States.
Hence, the parties involved should be the two Koreas, the United States, and China. This means, in effect, replacing the six-party talks with four-party talks. Japan and Russia, no doubt, don’t want to be excluded, but they did not participate in the war and it is difficult to argue that they should be included in a treaty to end that war. Besides, the more parties there are in any talks, the more inefficient and ineffective they become.
A peace treaty by the end of 2018 is ambitious but not inconceivable. This, of course, is separate from the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, which will be the topic of discussions between Kim and Trump when they meet, presumably in a matter of weeks. Those talks are likely to be much more complicated.
But while North Korea and the United States are the main parties, the denuclearization talks may well end up involving other parties as well, especially China. So there is no need for China to fear marginalization.
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