Greater sense of hope as Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un put ties back on track
Talks between China and North Korea mean Pyongyang now has a reliable partner to turn to should it need help with US and South Korean negotiations
A crucial element of bringing stability to the Korean peninsula and the region has been put in place with the reset of relations between China and North Korea. The landmark meeting between President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Beijing earlier this week marked the start of a more “normal” relationship, producing pledges that have reversed a chill in ties.
Uncertainty has been vanquished, replaced by goodwill and renewed cooperation. Coming ahead of planned separate summits between Kim and the presidents of South Korea and the United States, Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump, in coming weeks, a mood of purpose and possibility has been created that bodes well for the watershed talks.
Kim promised Xi he was committed to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and would personally inform him of the fast changing developments. He said that if the US and South Korea responded to the efforts with sincerity, the nuclear issue “can be solved”.
The Chinese leader pledged to work with the North to achieve its aims and called on all sides to resolve differences through dialogue. The presence of the leaders’ wives at a banquet and art performance showed a desire for warm ties.
The North’s leader had not made a foreign trip since coming to power with the death of his father in December 2011; that the first was to China, his country’s traditional closest ally, was fitting.
Relations had been cooling as a result of a series of nuclear and missile tests by Pyongyang that caused such concern in Beijing it sided with the United Nations Security Council in imposing sanctions. Those measures sent ties to new lows and with China being crucial to their success, they remain a significant factor in shaping relations.
Kim still needs Beijing’s support to provide his nation with energy and food.
Burst of diplomacy
The specific details of the summits still have to be announced. Talks between Kim and Moon are set for the Korean truce village of Panmunjom late next month, but a date and place for those with Trump are undetermined, although they are likely to be in May.
Their announcement ended months of tensions arising from weapons tests by Pyongyang and threats of war by Trump, and were the result of a sudden burst of diplomacy spearheaded by Moon that began with the North’s participation at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
But the missing link in ensuring the summits could make progress was the poor state of Sino-North Korean relations. High-level contacts that were once regular had become infrequent and messages of displeasure were exchanged in state media.
Kim’s secretive trip thankfully puts an end to that. With China briefing Trump and Moon on progress, it is now playing a key role and could even set the tone for the summits. State Councillor Yang Jiechi will go to Seoul today as Xi’s special envoy.
The wrangling extends from the Korean war six decades ago, which ended not with a peace treaty, but an armistice. Successive US governments have refused to negotiate a pact and the stationing of 29,000 American troops in South Korea have exacerbated tensions. Their presence is claimed by Pyongyang to be behind its development of nuclear weapons to prevent invasion.
China has long sought stability on the Korean peninsula through dialogue; that was the motivation for Beijing to host six-party talks to end the nuclear impasse.
Those efforts began in August 2003, but stalled six years later with the North’s withdrawal and the resumption of nuclear testing. Conflict and attempts to bring down the North’s regime are not in China’s interests.
A war would inevitably lead to Chinese military involvement and regime collapse is likely to cause a cascade of refugees that would compound the nation’s challenges.
Cold war mentality
Denuclearisation of the peninsula is a far from straightforward matter, with trust and security issues to be resolved. There is also the cold war mentality of the Trump administration, which has named the North’s allies, China and Russia, as its biggest threats. Trump is likewise a novice to international diplomacy, his eagerness in accepting Kim’s offer of talks and the unpredictability of his decisions making for an uncertain outcome.
Scepticism is rife in Washington and Seoul about Kim’s sincerity and motives. Deals struck in the past with his predecessors failed or collapsed under an increasing tide of demands and secretive arms programmes.
Kim is unlikely to easily give up weapons that took so much effort to develop. Nor are the US and South Korea going to be so easily persuaded to meet demands for a military rollback.
It is good that talks have been seen as the best way to de-escalate tensions. But there is a danger with the summit between Trump and Kim that a lack of concrete progress will prompt the White House to become frustrated and opt for the risky option of a military solution.
That would be a disaster. All sides need to manage their expectations and be flexible.
But Kim’s visit to Beijing and the mending of ties offers hope. Removing the uncertainties of the relationship is good for China.
Pyongyang now has a reliable partner to turn to should it need help with negotiations. Building the right environment for a peace deal will not come easily.
But the warm words between Xi and Kim set the tone that is needed and can help provide impetus for the summits.