China and South Korea at odds over first step in nuclear crisis talks
Beijing wants to ensure it has a major role in reining in Pyongyang’s nuclear programme while Seoul prefers a process built around US talks with the two Koreas, the Post has learned
Beijing and Seoul appear split over how to start talks on ridding the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons, as each player vies for influence in the negotiations, according to diplomatic sources.
Sources told the South China Morning Post that Beijing wanted a structure that would continue to give it an active role in reining in Pyongyang’s nuclear programme while protecting China’s regional interests.
Meanwhile, Seoul prefers a process built around US talks with the two Koreas, according to the sources.
The sources said China and South Korea saw eye to eye on the need to maintain peace and stability on the Korean peninsula when Yang Jiechi, who is both a Politburo member and special envoy of Chinese President Xi Jinping, sat down with South Korean National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong and President Moon Jae-in during a visit to Seoul last week.
“Both sides have agreed on two things: denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and no war under any circumstances in the region,” one source said. “But there were minor differences on other aspects.”
During the Seoul trip, Yang stressed that Beijing needed to be actively involved in any dialogue.
The Chinese envoy told South Korean officials that Beijing needed to be allowed to play a central role in guaranteeing both the security of the North Korean regime and the removal of nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula, according to the source.
Yang’s comments showed “China’s strong will to actively take part and engage in the talks on the Korean peninsula”, the source said.
China positions itself as the central state in Korean peninsula diplomacy, harking back to its role along with the US and North Korea in the Korean Armistice Agreement – the 1953 accord that led to an end in hostilities in the Korean war.
But Seoul, which was not part of the armistice pact, prefers the three-party talks with Pyongyang and Washington to prevent China’s participation diluting South Korea’s influence.
South Korea wants to avoid having to take a back seat in any move towards reconciliation with the North, given the South’s direct involvement in the matter.
Cheong Yang-seog, a lawmaker with the Liberal Korea Party, said: “China is a powerful stakeholder of the region, and the presence of such a powerful stakeholder in the talks will make [it] that much [more] difficult to have an agreement.”
South Korea’s presidential office said no decision has been reached yet on the collective dialogue mechanism. But Moon said last month that a three-way summit with North Korea and the US was possible.
Meanwhile, Beijing has called for the six-party talks – with China, both Koreas, Japan, Russia and the US – to be resumed to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.
The intermittent meetings have been stalled for more than six years. Pyongyang formally quit the negotiations in 2009 and then carried out a series of nuclear and missile tests, angering neighbours including China.
Growing mistrust over North Korea’s ultimate intentions, especially in Seoul and Washington, have complicated prospects for restarting the multilateral talks.
And as North Korea’s isolation grew, China’s influence over the Korean peninsula appeared to wane.
But that perception changed last month when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited China to meet President Xi Jinping ahead of Kim’s talks with Moon and US President Donald Trump.
Jilin University Korean affairs professor Wang Sheng said the Kim-Xi meeting, Yang’s visit to South Korea and a trip to Russia by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi all indicated China was preparing for multilateral talks.
“Without China, it will be difficult for the denuclearisation talks to make actual progress, because China acts as a guarantor for North Korea in the talks, to ensure that North Korea will deliver on its promises,” he said.
“North Korea will also feel that it is being more fairly treated with China involved in the talks.”
Zhao Tong, a fellow in the nuclear policy programme at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy, said China worried about being isolated in any conversation related to the North Korean nuclear issue.
“Whether it is four- or six-party, the number is not key for China as long as it is involved,” Zhao said. “But at the moment, China would seem to opt for the four-party talks because it will be a more direct discussion.”
Some South Korean politicians have said that Seoul ultimately has no choice but to allow China to be involved in discussions aimed at bringing peace to the peninsula.
“It is true that the three-party talks is our priority,” Won Hye-young, a Democratic Party of Korea lawmaker, said.
“However, after the talks, we are likely to invite China [to join in discussing] the settlement of permanent peace in the Korean peninsula.
“We acknowledge that China is also one of the region’s major players.”
Additional reporting by Kinling Lo