China has key role to play in North Korea despite Trump claim
Beijing is right to call on Pyongyang and Washington to stand by agreements reached at the Singapore summit, and can work towards peace and stability
It was only ever US President Donald Trump’s word that North Korea no longer posed a nuclear threat, although no verifiable evidence that Pyongyang would discontinue its nuclear programme emerged from his historic summit in Singapore last June with Kim Jong-un. It is looking like summitry hype in the light of Trump’s change of tone and capricious behaviour.
He has cancelled a highly anticipated trip to North Korea by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the eve of take-off and just one day after it was announced, on the grounds of a lack of progress on the nuclear issue. Then he threatened to go back on the suspension of war games with South Korea, a key goodwill gesture leading up to the summit accord, and to resume them on a scale “far bigger than ever before”. And, in a series of tweets in which he expressed respect for Kim and President Xi Jinping, he blamed Pyongyang’s lack of progress in dismantling its nuclear programme on pressure from China because of “our major trade disputes”, and claimed China was providing the North with “considerable aid”.
As North Korea’s main ally, Beijing has a legitimate interest in its security. With an escalating trade war starting to bite, China needs a resolution of the trade dispute sooner rather than later, and Trump needs a Korean nuclear deal to take to the midterm congressional elections in November. So does Trump expect Beijing to deliver one without the other? Cryptically, he added that as for trade disputes, and other differences, “they will be resolved in time by President Trump and China’s great President Xi”. Sadly for those who took Trump’s word too literally after the summit, the reality is that concrete progress towards denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula is likely to come in small, halting and incremental steps, and to be achieved only by patient diplomacy and dialogue that build trust and confidence between the principal parties and their big-power backers. Impatience is counterproductive.
Beijing is right to call on Pyongyang and Washington to push forward the agreements reached at the summit. Trump’s latest remarks sit oddly with his overhyping of the summit’s outcome. If his initial upbeat assessment is to be borne out, it will be through flexibility and consistency rather than capricious behaviour. Trump’s repeated claims that China is interfering in the nuclear issue are misguided. Beijing’s involvement is necessary. It has a key role in ensuring peace and stability. It is already pushing economic reform, which is essential to prepare the North for a stable post-nuclear future. In this respect Xi’s expected trip to North Korea early next month, around the country’s 70th anniversary celebrations, is a chance for its most powerful friend to give fresh impetus to nuclear disarmament and economic reform.