China alone cannot solve the North Korean issue

Meeting between Xi Jinping and a high-level delegation from Pyongyang is a step in the right direction, but other parties must come to the table

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 June, 2016, 11:54pm
UPDATED : Monday, 06 June, 2016, 11:54pm

North Korea’s refusal to scrap its nuclear weapons programme is exacerbated by its diplomatic isolation. Difficult ties with its closest ally, China, have made chances of restarting six-party talks, seen as the best chance of ending the threat, remote. But there is hope that the world can again start talking to supreme leader Kim Jong-un’s regime now that the first high-level delegation from Pyongyang to meet President Xi Jinping (習近平) in three years has taken place. Only through interaction can there be understanding and then negotiations.

Xi, State Councillor Yang Jiechi (楊潔箎 ) and top Communist Party official Song Tao (宋濤) held bilateral talks last week with the delegation led by Ri Su-yong, a member of the North’s Workers’ Party political bureau and a former foreign minister. A message from Kim was delivered and accomplishments of the party’s recent first congress in 36 years presented. Official reports did not reveal whether the nuclear issue was discussed, nor the harsh UN Security Council sanctions that were imposed and signed up to by China after the North’s fourth nuclear device test in January. Xi said after the meetings that Beijing would work with Pyongyang to ensure healthy ties.

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Relations between China and the North began souring in 2013 after a third nuclear test was carried out. Xi and Kim have yet to meet and the North’s leader would appear to have been repeatedly snubbed in favour of his rival, South Korean President Park Geun-hye. A higher-ranking official than Ri, head of state Kim Yong-nam, transited Beijing on his way to Equatorial Guinea last month, but did not meet any officials. Chinese Politburo Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan (劉雲山 ) met Kim in Pyongyang last October and China’s top representative to the six-party talks, Wu Dawei, visited in February, but both trips were followed by arms tests, suggesting a lack of progress.

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Bold plans for North Korea’s development were announced at the congress, the focus being on economic reforms. Their success would depend on China, though; it provides the bulk of fuel supplies and imports. Beijing’s abiding by the sanctions impedes those proposals, so prospects depend on improving ties.

The nuclear issue will be high on the agenda of the annual three-day Strategic and Economic Dialogue between China and the US, which began in Beijing yesterday. Beijing alone cannot end the North’s nuclear proliferation; Washington and Seoul also have crucial roles to play. That Pyongyang is finally making an effort to reach out is at least a good start.