China will play bigger role in North Korea

June 28, 2018 09:31
Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. China will play an increasingly important role in North Korea's denuclearization. Photo: Reuters

After hours of intensive talks with the North Korean leader in Singapore, President Donald Trump held a rambling press conference during which he praised Kim Jong-un as “very talented”, someone who took over the running of his country at the age of 26 and was “able to run it and run it tough”.

The US leader said it had been a “tremendous three months”. It was in early March that Trump first accepted Kim’s offer of a meeting. He added: “We’re prepared to start a new history and we’re prepared to write a new chapter between our nations.”

In fact, Kim had orchestrated events since January, skillfully shifting from missile tests to diplomacy, beginning with North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics in South Korea to the dual summits with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and the triple summits with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

It was Kim who planned these meetings, some of which were daringly conceived and executed. But the meetings also show that while Kim is talented, he does need help.

For a period in mid-May, North Korea seemed to revert to its old self, canceling a high-level meeting with the South, threatening to exclude South Korean journalists from coverage of the dismantling of a nuclear testing site and making derogatory remarks about senior American officials. Pyongyang even threatened to pull out of the scheduled meeting with Trump in Singapore on June 12.

When Moon saw Trump on May 23, the American leader was in a foul mood. Surprisingly, he blamed Xi for having changed Kim’s attitude. “I will say I’m a little disappointed,” Trump said, “because when Kim Jong-un had the meeting with President Xi in China, the second meeting, I think there was a little change in attitude from Kim Jong-un. So I don’t like that.”

The next day, May 24, Trump formally informed Kim by letter that their planned meeting was no longer possible “based on the tremendous anger and open hostility” shown by Pyongyang in its most recent statements.

At this critical time, Kim turned to his newly acquired friend, President Moon of South Korea, whom he had met barely four weeks ago in their historic summit. Kim asked for an urgent second meeting, and Moon acquiesced.

Again, they met near their common border. But while in April Kim was Moon’s guest in the south, this time the meeting was on the northern side of the border.

Kim, Moon recounted later, told him of his concern whether the US could be trusted to carry out its promise to end hostile relations with North Korea and “provide a security guarantee if they do denuclearization”.

Moon told him that in his recent meeting with Trump, the American leader had assured him that “the US is willing to clearly put an end to hostile relations and help [the North] achieve economic prosperity if North Korea conducts denuclearization”.

Partly as a result of Moon’s efforts, which had the support of Washington, the Singapore talks were put back on track.

A week after the historic meeting, Kim showed up again in China, his third visit in less than 100 days. According to North Korea’s state agency, Kim and Xi “assessed the historic meeting Kim had with US President Donald Trump in Singapore last week and exchanged ways to resolve the issue of denuclearization”.

That is to say, Kim turned to Xi to help in the resolution of a particularly knotty issue. The US had insisted on what it called “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” of the North’s nuclear programs, but the accord signed by Trump and Kim simply talked about “complete denuclearization”.

While China wasn’t a central player in the last six months, it will play an increasingly important part from here on. As Kim well knows, China played a key role in imposing economic sanctions and will be able to facilitate their lifting. In the longer term, China can also help North Korea as it adopts economic reforms as China itself did 40 years ago. Most important of all, China can help balance the US as North Korea faces an as yet uncertain future.

So far, China has remained in the background. But as the US and the two Koreas move towards the signing of a peace treaty to replace the Korean War armistice, China will be more directly involved as a signatory to the 1953 truce.

As for North Korea, it will face a future that will be highly challenging even for the most talented leaders.

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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.