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North Korea

Kim Jong-un in Beijing: is North Korea a bargaining chip in US-China trade talks?

  • Lee Seong-hyon says despite its denials, China is not above mixing politics with economics to gain an upper hand in international relations. Neither is America under Trump. It’s safe to say the North Korea nuclear issue is a consideration
PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 January, 2019, 1:05am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 January, 2019, 6:47am

There is a debate about whether China used the “North Korea card” against Washington in its trade negotiations with the US, capitalising on Kim Jong-un’s visit to Beijing. The two international headline-making events happened simultaneously in Beijing. Interestingly, both Beijing and Washington flatly deny any link. Analysts are divided. It warrants discussion because it offers an important insight into how the two superpowers strategise the North Korea issue in their dealings.

Donald Trump has already openly complained, at least three times, that China was behind North Korea's defiant attitude that led to the negotiations being stalled last year. The US president said earlier this month that he would meet Kim soon. Therefore, President Xi Jinping’s meeting with Kim raised concerns in Washington.

In a gentlemen’s world, one does not mix apples and oranges. (Actually, we learned that early on, in kindergarten.) In a gentleman’s world, one also does not mix politics with trade; otherwise, the global free trade structure will crumble. Both Washington and Beijing claim they are gentlemen, in which case they should treat the North Korean nuclear issue and the US-China trade war as separate issues. But the idea that China may use North Korea as leverage in the trade war keeps popping up.

The probing question should be: are we living in a gentlemen’s world now, especially amid the increasing rivalry, competition and distrust between China and the United States?

Both Washington and Beijing feign political correctness.

When Mike Pompeo was asked, on January 7, whether the ongoing trade war was undermining progress on North Korea’s denuclearisation, the US secretary of state insisted, “The Chinese have been very clear to us that these are separate issues”, labelling China “a good partner” in Pyongyang’s nuclear disarmament.

Can Kim Jong-un become North Korea’s Deng Xiaoping?

In China, in the afternoon of January 8 at the Chinese foreign ministry's briefing, reporters repeatedly asked whether it would be possible for China to use North Korea as a card in negotiations with the US, pointing out that Kim’s visit was taking place while the US-China trade negotiations were under way. Chinese foreign ministry spokesmen Lu Kang brushed it aside, saying, “China doesn’t need any jiqiao [manoeuvres] to send a signal to the United States.”

Some analysts in Washington also agree. They believe the trade war in itself is so complex and intricate that there is no room for the North Korean issue to be involved, and point out that the US government also treats it as a separate issue.

But others think it makes sense for China to use “Kim’s visit” as leverage with Washington. With Kim having visited four times in a mere 10 months, Beijing is confident that Washington cannot solve the North Korean issue without China’s help. China is seen as the country that wields the most clout over Pyongyang; more than 90 per cent of North Korean trade depends on China.

For the North Koreans, it also makes sense for Kim to use his visit to China to hedge against the possibility of slow progress with the US, by making sure that he maintains good guanxi (relationship) with President Xi.

Sensing the narrative that Beijing may be using the “North Korea card” in the trade dispute, China’s Global Times chipped in. In an editorial, it argued: “Hardly any serious Chinese strategist would see it this way”, as if it would be beneath the dignity of a rising superpower to mix the two. Oh, really?

When the THAAD dispute erupted between China and South Korea, there was also a strong argument in South Korea that China would not retaliate economically because they were separate issues. The South Korean minister in charge of the nation’s economy advocated this view, rationalising that to retaliate would also hurt the Chinese economy, given the interdependent nature of trade.

But China chose to retaliate economically to send a political signal: when a country sides with Washington in a US-China dispute, they will pay a dear price. It was also a warning to other Asian countries.

Five places that have paid the price for displeasing China

Trump also enjoys mixing apples and oranges. He has publicly said China's stance on North Korea influenced his trade policy. Specifically, he suggested he would be softer on trade if China was helpful on North Korea. It is safe to assume that Beijing knows how to play that game, too.

It is clear that Washington was the primary outside audience for both Kim and Xi when they displayed a strong bonding last week in front of the world. What was different about Kim’s visit this time was that after his train arrived in Beijing, China's propaganda media outlets suddenly switched from a “high-trumpeting” mode to low key. In other words, China let Washington know about Kim’s visit in a remarkable display featuring a motorcade that escorted Kim when he arrived in Beijing. But Chinese media went dark afterwards, including on the much-anticipated meeting between Xi and Kim. The media blackout heightened curiosity and anxiety regarding what the two talked about.

Interestingly, it happened on the day trade negotiations between the US and China were extended by a day.

It’s irresponsible to haphazardly link the two. It may simply have been a coincidence. However, one thing to note is that when the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang was inundated with questions from journalists regarding Kim’s meetings and itinerary in Beijing, he assured them, at least three times, that China would release the relevant information in a timely manner. It didn’t.

How the United States got lost in Chinese translation

Why would China trumpet Kim's visit, then have Washington play a guessing game about his activities? Even if North Korea was not part of the US-China trade war calculus, it was a psychological factor embedded in the larger geopolitical power game between the two. China is quite skilled at psychological warfare and can unleash it when it wants.

Washington is not immune to such tactics, either. The US denies that the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Sabrina Meng Wanzhou has anything to do with the trade war. But it has made many in China quite anxious.

Business and pleasure shouldn’t be mixed in the world of gentlemen. But they also say: “It was a pleasure to do business with you.”

Lee Seong-hyon, PhD, is director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at the Sejong Institute in Seoul