Pyongyang visitors: The spotlight is on Xi and Moon

August 20, 2018 14:22
Chinese President Xi Jinping plans to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, his first visit to the North Korean capital since becoming China’s leader in 2012. Photo: Reuters

The denuclearization agreement reached by US President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12 is in trouble, in large part because of its vagueness, with no common understanding as to what is meant by complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula or the timeframe in which it is to be achieved.

Much depends on what transpires over the next few weeks, as key figures fly in to Pyongyang.

The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, is expected to travel there soon, his fourth visit to North Korea.

Presumably, if his visit goes ahead, it will be because of progress at the working level. The United States has pressed North Korea, unsuccessfully, for a list of nuclear facilities but Pyongyang has agreed to allow a UN agency to conduct an on-site inspection to ensure the safety of international flights.

North Korea, in turn, has urged Washington for a formal declaration ending the Korean War. An armistice signed 65 years ago halted the fighting but, technically, the war isn’t over.

Pompeo will be followed to Pyongyang by two heads of state, President Xi Jinping of China and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, both important players on the Korean nuclear issue.

Xi will be making his first visit to Pyongyang since becoming China’s leader in 2012. In fact, it will be the first visit by a Chinese president in 13 years. Moon, too, will be visiting Pyongyang for the first time, though technically he has been in North Korea before, having stepped across the border when he and Kim held their first summit April 27 in the demilitarized zone.

The Chinese leader is pushing for an end-of-war declaration and, according to South Korean legislators briefed last week by Zhang Yesui, chair of the foreign affairs committee of China’s National People’s Congress, China has made a proposal to the US about a four-party end-of-war declaration involving South Korea, North Korea, the US and China.

China claims that as a signatory to the armistice agreement, it should play a role in any peace declaration. Sounds simple, but China didn’t really sign the armistice. It was signed by General Nam Il, on behalf of the “Korea People’s Army and the Chinese People’s Volunteers”.

Mao Zedong created the fiction that the regular Chinese troops sent to fight in Korea were “volunteers”, not agents of the Chinese government. This distancing of the Chinese state from its soldiers was an attempt not to give the US an excuse to attack the newly established People’s Republic of China.

Now, Beijing insists that it must have a seat at the table because the troops were not really volunteers after all. Interestingly, of the so-called volunteers taken prisoner, more than 7,000 refused to go home. They chose to be sent to Taiwan.

But that’s all water under the bridge. Now, no one challenges China when it says that its troops fought in Korea and that it was a signatory to the armistice. China has succeeded in having its cake and eating it too.

Both Koreas support such an end-of-war declaration. In fact, they want it to happen this year, and the opening of the UN General Assembly in September appears to be ideal in terms of timing.

However, the US is unenthusiastic, since such a declaration has ramifications for the American military bases in South Korea, the Washington-Seoul alliance and the US presence in East Asia.

Moon’s visit may well provide an opportunity to clarify whether Pyongyang is, indeed, willing to denuclearize and, as a first step, to provide a declaration of its nuclear program, including how many nuclear weapons it has and where they are kept.

While Moon is passionate about improved relations between the two Koreas and the possibility of future unification, he is also practical. It was he who helped to salvage Kim’s meeting with Trump after the US leader abruptly canceled it. Moon knows that he has almost four more years in office and sufficient time to advance plans that actually have a chance of succeeding.

In this context, events may well have put him in the position of enabling the world to understand exactly what North Korea means by “complete denuclearization”. If Moon gets an answer to this question, he might be in a position to propose not only the East Asia railway community, a plan that includes South and North Korea, China, Russia, Mongolia, Japan and the US, but also the realization of the goal of genuine peace on the Korean Peninsula.

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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.