There’s still room for cautious optimism on North Korea talks
A warning by a Pyongyang official that a meeting with US President Donald Trump was at risk reflected the current fragility, but China’s role in the peace process will prove crucial
The stepped-up pace of diplomacy ahead of the much anticipated summit between the leaders of North Korea and the United States in Singapore on June 12 gave cause for optimism.
A second meeting of President Xi Jinping with the North’s Kim Jong-un, a phone call between Xi and his American counterpart Donald Trump and another trip to Pyongyang by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during which three American prisoners were set free raised expectations.
But a turnaround on Tuesday, when a senior official from the North said the talks would be cancelled if Washington pushed for the scrapping of nuclear weapons, showed the fragility of the process. With the sides having different goals and the outcome unpredictable, hopes should not be overly high of a significant breakthrough in the short term.
Still, Xi and Kim made plain their desire for peace on the Korean peninsula at their surprise summit in the coastal city of Dalian in Liaoning last week and Pompeo later expressed similar sentiment during meetings with North Korean leaders. Central to the desire for peace and stability is denuclearisation and that is where the challenge in negotiations lies.
Each nation has a different definition of what denuclearisation means, and how that is to be attained will be tied to goals and objectives, making for tough bargaining.
China has a crucial role in the peace process, which in part explains Kim’s decision to end North Korea’s isolation by rekindling warm ties with Beijing during the first summit in March.
Xi and Chinese negotiators have considerable experience dealing with the Trump administration, although Kim’s tapping of that knowledge cannot prevent the US leader’s unpredictable ways.
As the phone conversation between Xi and Trump also showed, the North Korean issue is intertwined with the trade row China is locked in with the US. As much as Kim needs China’s help, Trump also relies on Beijing to ensure a deal can be struck.
Kim has proven a masterful strategist, despite international perceptions that he is also erratic. His country now has a nuclear deterrent and is in a position of negotiating strength with rivals the US and South Korea, which it is technically still at war with.
The next objective is economic development, which is also in the interests of Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo. But there are conflicting agendas that make the outcome of talks with Trump uncertain.
A hopeful sign is that Trump faces midterm elections in October and a positive result, no matter how small, would help his cause.
The warmer ties between China and North Korea boost optimism, with Xi backing Kim’s pledge to denuclearise the peninsula and to hold negotiations with the US and South Korea. Such cooperation and hopes for peace are cause for cautious optimism.