China claims victory on Korean nuclear issue

August 09, 2018 08:31
Chinese leader Xi Jinping is said to consider moves to peacefully resolve the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue as one of the battles he has won on the diplomatic front. Photo: Reuters

At a time when much of the world is concerned about how to implement the denuclearization agreement reached between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on June 12 in Singapore, China is quietly patting itself on the back even though it wasn’t party to the talks. Beijing considers the outcome a Chinese victory.

At a key but little noticed conference on foreign affairs held in Beijing 10 days after the Singapore meeting, Chinese leader Xi Jinping reported that “China has won some tough battles on the diplomatic front” since he became the Communist Party’s general secretary in 2012. According to one conference participant, Xi said the battles won included “moves to peacefully resolve the South China Sea issue, the Doklam standoff with India and the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue”.

Xi’s words were reported by Fu Xiaoqiang, a research fellow at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, who was approached by the China Daily for his views for an article published June 28.

Why does China consider the Trump-Kim accord a Chinese victory? The answer lies in the roadmap that China, along with Russia, has championed for the Korean peninsula. This “dual-track approach” calls for both the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the provision of security guarantees to North Korea, which feels threatened by the United States.

This was the approach adopted in Singapore. In the Trump-Kim accord, the United States and North Korea pledged to “join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula” before North Korea committed itself “to work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”.

This is a far cry from the approach of some in the US, notably that of the hawkish diplomat John Bolton before he became national security adviser in April. All Pyongyang has to do, he said then, was to inform the US “how to pack up their nuclear weapons program and take it to Oak Ridge, Tennessee”.

The first step in this phased Chinese approach is a “freeze for freeze” with North Korea suspending missile and nuclear testing in return for a suspension in US-South Korea joint military exercises.

North Korea has not held any test in 2018 and, in Singapore, Trump agreed to suspend joint American-South Korean military exercises.

So the Chinese feel vindicated that their phased approach has been adopted. It is significant that when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang last month to fill in the details of the agreement reached by the two leaders, he was rebuffed when he sought details of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and a timetable for denuclearization.

After his departure, North Korea’s foreign ministry issued a statement denouncing what it called America’s “gangster-like mindset”. Instead, North Korea called for “phased, simultaneous actions” to realize the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

There are signs that the US doesn’t appreciate actions China is taking behind the scenes, seeking to influence Pyongyang’s decisions. At a Florida rally in early August, Trump said enigmatically that “China maybe is getting in our way” where North Korea was concerned.

There are indications that North Korea doesn’t want to be smothered by China’s embrace. Last month, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou visited Pyongyang to meet Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho. Kong made clear that “the Chinese side is willing to make joint efforts with all parties to push forward the process of denuclearization and the building of peace mechanism of the Korean Peninsula”.

Ri, the North Korean official, affirmed an “important consensus” between leaders of the two countries. He supported improved bilateral relations but was silent on joint efforts with China.

This month, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi also met with Ri while both men were in Singapore for a regional foreign ministers’ meeting.

Wang commended North Korea’s efforts to advance denuclearization. He promised to cooperate with all parties, including North Korea, to “jointly advance the Korean Peninsula denuclearization and strive to realize enduring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula at an early date”.

Ri responded that his country was ready to improve bilateral relations. North Korea, he said, will “maintain strategic communication with the Chinese comrades to ensure stability and development of the Korean Peninsula and the region”.

But again, he said nothing about working jointly with China. This absence of a response to repeated Chinese offers of “joint efforts” may be a straw in the wind that North Korea is resisting Chinese efforts to work more closely together which, given their disparity in size could well mean accepting Chinese dominance.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.