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Korean peninsula

Why China remains cautious over prospects for breakthrough at Korean leaders’ peace summit

Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in’s meeting could help get long peace process off to a good start, but Beijing sees US-North Korea talks as key

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2018, 8:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2018, 4:31pm

China is remaining cautious about the outcome of Friday’s summit between North and South Korea as it is waiting to see whether the proposed talks between the US and Pyongyang lead to real progress, mainland analysts have said.  

The meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the truce village of Panmunjom has the potential to get what is likely to prove a long and difficult process off to a good start, they said. 

It will also serve China’s interests because Beijing would be happy to see the two sides starting a reconciliation process after the North’s nuclear and missile tests ramped up tensions on the peninsula in the past couple of years, Su Hao, a professor at China Foreign Affairs University, said.

China has close ties to both sides, with a treaty binding it into a military alliance with the North. Meanwhile the South is its third biggest trading partner (with an annual volume of US$280 billion in 2017), its second biggest destination for outbound investment and fourth biggest source of foreign investment.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the meeting would help to “ease tensions on the peninsula as well as advancing regional peace and stability”.

However, China’s biggest concern is the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and it remains to be seen if all parties can agree on what that will mean in practice. 

South Korea wants the complete dismantling of the North’s nuclear weapons, but Pyongyang may insist that all US troops must leave the peninsula as part of the process.

China welcomes North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s promise to freeze nuclear tests 

Last week North Korea said it would halt its nuclear tests, but the Panmunjom summit is only expected to reconfirm that statement rather than advancing the process of denuclearisation.

Su said that Beijing would be closely watching to see how the meeting helped pave the way for the planned US-North Korea summit in May. 

“The security risks on the peninsula, the nuclear programmes and crisis, all the problems, they essentially originate from the bitter hostility between the United States and North Korea,” he added.

The inter-Korean summit is a first step in working towards a peaceful resolution of the situation on the peninsula, but the complexity goes far beyond North-South relations, said Sun Xingjie, a Korean affairs expert from Jilin University.

“The inter-Korean relationship is not even the most important bilateral relationship in this complex structure,” said Sun. “Issues like the presence of US troops, or a peace treaty, they can’t just be handled between the Koreas.”

The US has been pushing for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, which may now include missiles capable of striking the US mainland.

China has said it welcomed direct dialogue between the US and North Korea. The meeting between US President Donald Trump and Kim, if it goes well, will possibly be followed by a trilateral meeting of the US and two Koreas, then possibly four-party talks involving China to bring about a formal peace deal. 

“To sign a peace treaty it takes four, and to denuclearise the peninsula it might have to involve six parties,” said Su, referring to Russia and Japan.

Kim and Moon: the heir born to rule and the son of a poor escapee

This summit is highly symbolic as it will be the first top-level meeting between the two Koreas in 11 years and marks the first time a leader from the North has travelled south of the military demarcation line since the 1950-1953 Korean war.

The conflict began with the North invading the South, before a US-led coalition and China intervened in support of their respective allies.

The fighting ended with an armistice signed in 1953, but there has never been a formal peace treaty to end the conflict. 

South Korea’s Moon has said “the signing of a peace agreement must be pursued”, while Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying has said Beijing supports “an early end to the state of war and the establishment of a peace regime on the Peninsula”.

Observers said this topic would certainly be on the agenda of the summit and there is likely to be a joint declaration by Moon and Kim stating their common willingness to work towards peace.

“But the signing cannot be without the participation of all parties in the war,” said Sun.

“The summit is like when you want to get across a river and now you are gathering concerned people to talk about the possibility of a bridge. It is way too early to expect anything to be built soon.”