North Korea

Trump says Kim summit could still happen, as China worries about being caught in US-North Korea crossfire

The apparently temporary cancellation of the planned meeting raised concerns in China of a military crisis on its doorstep, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 May, 2018, 6:57pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 May, 2018, 12:27am

US President Donald Trump said on Friday that his administration is in contact with North Korea and that a June 12 summit meeting with the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, might still take place, reversing comments that the White House made a day earlier.

A meeting with Kim “could even be the 12th … It was a very nice statement they put out”, Trump told reporters in Washington before departing the White House to deliver the commencement speech at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

‘They stood us up’: US ended Kim talks after Pyongyang contact went silent

Trump was referring to a statement by North Korea’s vice-foreign minister, Kim Kye-gwan, that his government was still “open” to a meeting, and would work with the US “at any time, in any way”.

“We had set in high regards President Trump’s efforts, unprecedented by any other president, to create a historic North Korea-US summit,” the North Korean official said in a statement released by the North’s central news agency.

In his response, Trump added, “We’ll see what happens. We are talking to them now. They very much want to do it. We’d like to do it.” 

Trump’s comments are a turnaround from his letter to Kim, released by the White House on Thursday, in which he cancelled a planned meeting with North Korea’s leader because of the “open hostility” the country had directed at US Vice-President Mike Pence earlier this week.

Speaking soon after Trump made those comments, a senior White House official said that joint coordinating sessions scheduled to take place in Singapore last week never happened because US officials, including the White House deputy chief of staff, were “stood up”.

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“Korea watchers are getting a severe case of whiplash this year with the back-and-forth nature of the US-North Korea relations,” Bruce Klingner, the Washington-based Heritage Foundation’s senior research fellow for Northeast Asia and a former CIA officer, told the South China Morning Post

“The wording of [Trump’s] letter and subsequent comments were fairly mild and gracious so that it left the door open for diplomacy,” Klingner said. North Korea’s reaction “could have been ‘watch this space for future missile launches’ or they could have chosen an equally gracious response.

“They took the latter course and Trump welcomed it, so we seem to be back on track.”

The surprise cancellation of the June 12 meeting had raised fears in China of a military crisis on its doorstep, analysts said. If Washington-Pyongyang tensions rise to the levels they hit last year, when both sides were threatening to attack each other, Trump could ratchet up pressure on China to enforce United Nations sanctions meant to isolate North Korea economically.

“Despite the moniker of ‘maximum pressure’, the US under Trump is continuing to pull its punches, most notably on Chinese violators of US law,” Klingner said. 

Caught off guard by meeting collapse, Seoul tries to play down impact

“The administration has been holding back on Congressional recommendations to go against Chinese financial entities including the largest banks, which are thought to have evidence against them for facilitating prohibited North Korean behaviour.”

According to a senior White House official who briefed reporters in Washington on Thursday, the US Treasury Department “is constantly evaluating intelligence as it comes in to look for targets – that is, people, companies, entities and ships that are violating US law and UN Security Council resolutions.”

“That is a constant process,” the official said. “The goal is to achieve maximum pressure. We’re still short of that.”

Cheng Xiaohe, a North Korea specialist at Renmin University in Beijing, said that China was willing to facilitate talks between the United States and North Korea but that it would be in a difficult position if Washington and Pyongyang confronted each other again.

“China cannot afford confrontations with the US over trade, the military and how affairs on the Korean peninsula should be managed,” Cheng said.

Zhang Liangui, a specialist in North Korean affairs at the Central Party School in Beijing, said that China was concerned the US might step up interceptions of ships suspected of violating United Nations sanctions on North Korea – tensions that could escalate to military action.

The cancellation of the summit meeting, Zhang said, “shows that the US and North Korea remain deeply divided over the path to denuclearisation”.

The Chinese foreign ministry has urged the US and North Korea to be patient and show goodwill, saying Beijing still wants the summit meeting to proceed.

‘Dear Mr Chairman’: here is the full text of the letter Trump sent Kim

“A summit between the leaders of the US and North Korea would play a key role in denuclearisation. We hope both North Korea and the US will treasure the recent positive developments, be patient and make positive gestures,” ministry spokesman Lu Kang said on Friday.

Michael Kovrig, a senior adviser for Northeast Asia for the International Crisis Group, said that China’s role in the future of the Korean peninsula would be strengthened because Kim would look to Beijing for economic support and guarantees for his regime.

“Kim is already trying to move closer to China, and further uncertainty about the US will likely make him more willing to offer concessions to Beijing,” Kovrig said.

“If Kim refrains from further testing and demonstrates good behaviour, while blaming the US for being unreasonable, he could encourage China, South Korea and Russia to lobby for loosening of sanctions, either formally, or through less rigorous implementation and enforcement.”

However, analysts disagree about exactly who Kim hopes to align with.

Hugh Dugan, who served in the US State Department’s bureau for economic and business affairs and is now a visiting scholar at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy in South Orange, New Jersey, said that North Korea might be seeking protection from China.

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“The North is probably more concerned about China than it is about the US,” Dugan said. “China’s always been there to squeeze the North. They’ve had the option to enforce sanctions or not, and over the years and centuries, China has occupied, colonised and influenced their neighbours in unfriendly ways.

“The door is open for Kim to realise that he can make an existential decision and he’s leaning toward” the US.

Critics of Trump’s willingness to meet Kim said that the initial decision for the two leaders to meet was made in haste and without taking into account the deep strategic distrust and divisions over the path to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

Regardless, strategic distrust appears to have grown with Kim’s trip to the Chinese city of Dalian in early May for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Before he cancelled the Singapore meeting, Trump hinted that China might be trying to play North Korea and the US off each other, calling Xi a “world-class poker player” who had influenced Kim.

“The US has been increasingly sceptical towards China as they think the meeting in Dalian with President Xi may have changed Kim Jong-un’s mind,” Nanjing University international relations professor Zhu Feng said. “The US thinks China might have spoiled the [summit] plan.”

Zhu said that China should clarify its strategic intentions with the Trump administration.

“China needs to maintain communication with the US and clarify that it is not in our interest for the meeting to be cancelled,” he said.

Bilahari Kausikan, ambassador-at-large at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that while it was unclear whether China had changed Kim’s mind, the relationship between China and North Korea was “not the one that suggests that Kim listens to Xi unless it suits his purposes”.

“At any rate, it is clear that China was ambivalent about the summit,” he said.

Additional reporting by Jun Mai and Teddy Ng