Last year saw both a frost in relations between Beijing and Washington and stagnation in the negotiations between the US and North Korea after the collapse of the Hanoi summit. US President Donald Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un at the demilitarised zone in June bore little fruit. Further talks in October stalled and the hopes of denuclearisation in the restive state faded. Pyongyang continued its short and medium-range missile testing throughout the year, and at the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee, Kim said Pyongyang must “take positive and offensive measures for fully ensuring the sovereignty and security of the country”. It remains to be seen whether those words are a precursor to further missile tests and a bolstering of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent in 2020, or the commencement of harsh rhetoric against the US for failing to meet Kim’s end-of-year deadline. And what about the role of China, Pyongyang’s only ally on the world stage? China views North Korea as an irritant, but the status quo suits Beijing for now. The “invincible friendship” between the two nations was hailed in October, as they celebrated 70 years of diplomatic ties. In June, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Pyongyang exacerbated Beijing’s irritation at the lack of progress on the removal of US and UN sanctions on North Korea. China has repeatedly called for a relaxation of the restrictions and is set to continue its appeal this year, especially if tensions between Washington and Pyongyang do not abate. UN sanctions in 2017 set a deadline for December 2019 for North Koreans working overseas to return to their homeland. But China continues to host North Korean workers and seems unlikely to stop doing so, as many North Korean government-owned businesses operate within and beyond Beijing. We should not be surprised if there are further meetings between Xi and Kim in 2020, given Pyongyang’s frustrations with dealing with Washington, and Beijing’s frustrations over the sanctions. Both China and Russia have called for bans on North Korean exports and infrastructure projects – enforced by UN sanctions – to be eased. While the US calls for a tightening of sanctions, China and Russia show few signs of following suit. China calls for easing of United Nations sanctions on North Korea Given North Korea’s focus on domestic economic development, China may seek alternative ways to support Pyongyang. It may increase its humanitarian and food aid, for instance, while not contravening existing sanctions. At the same time, Chinese tourism and business exchanges with North Korea may also continue to bolster the North Korean economy. So long as there are no long-range or intercontinental ballistic missile tests, nuclear tests, or build-up of conventional weapons, which only exacerbate China’s ire and concerns of instability on the Korean peninsula, China is likely to be content with maintaining the status quo. In his final speech at the plenary meeting on December 31, Kim said the country’s self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile testing, announced in 2018, was no longer in force under particular conditions. The country would “steadily develop necessary and prerequisite strategic weapons for the security of the state until the US rolls back its hostile policy”, he said. But this still leaves the possibility open for dialogue if, for example, there was an easing of the sanctions. What is more, a “ new strategic weapon ” will be unleashed. This is by no means an overt call for a resumption to the days of nuclear and long-range missile testing. But it is a warning. If the US does not drop its “hostile policy”, comprising a range of activities – from its military exercises with South Korea to its calls for North Korea’s unilateral denuclearisation – things will continue apace. We should not be surprised if Pyongyang continues its short, medium and long-range missile testing. There is also the chance it will develop and test submarine-launched ballistic missiles, rocket launch systems and increasingly sophisticated conventional weapons. Pyongyang has long been a master of evading sanctions and that is unlikely to change in 2020. Kim said it was a fait accompli that North Korea would “have to live under the sanctions” in the future. With China assisting in this regard, it seems unlikely that Beijing will take any drastic action, unless Pyongyang or Washington moves first. Beijing knows it must maintain its role as a responsible global power. A noticeable escalation in military exercises between the US and South Korea, an easing of sanctions on the part of Washington, or increasing frequency of long-range missile tests by North Korea – whether including an ICBM or not – may also cause China to act more decisively. It has often been said that Beijing holds the key to any change regarding North Korea. Now, however, the ball remains in North Korea’s court, and it is up to Pyongyang, or Washington, to make the first move. It is time to wait. Edward Howell is an ESRC scholar in international relations at the University of Oxford, specialising in East Asia and the Korean peninsula. Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. 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