Last fall, as North Korea raced to demonstrate it could strike the United States with a nuclear-armed missile, the Chinese government acceded to strict international economic sanctions it previously resisted. This spring, after North Korea declared it had achieved its goal and would stop further testing, the Chinese government acceded to North Korean requests for greater engagement, including high-profile meetings between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un.
President Trump, along with many US officials and observers, praised China’s willingness to sign on to tougher sanctions. But they greeted China’s positive response to North Korea’s testing freeze with a mix of skepticism and suspicion. Trump suggested his Chinese counterpart was playing geopolitical poker with the summit in Singapore. US observers wondered whether China felt threatened by the summit and intentionally undermined it.
China consistently advances two oft-stated objectives. The first is to prevent a war on the Korean peninsula. The second is to maintain political stability within North Korea. It accepted strict international sanctions in order to decrease the risk of a US military attack. It agreed to greater engagement with North Korea to sure up the government in Pyongyang. The prospective summit meeting advances both Chinese objectives. Should it fail to occur, the risk of a US military attack will increase. And China will face unwanted US pressure for new and potentially destabilizing economic sanctions.
China’s Current Successes
Throughout the fall, as North Korea kept testing and the United States kept piling on sanctions, China pushed for a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, a freeze on US military exercises and direct talks between the United States and North Korea.
As US threats to attack North Korea were elevated in the US press, Kim used his 2018 New Year’s address to announce that the goal of developing a nuclear-armed missile that could reach the United States had been accomplished. At the same time, the North Korean leader extended an olive branch to South Korea.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in seized the opening and the two Koreas agreed to cooperate in hosting the Winter Olympic games in PyeongChang, which were held in mid-February and reversed the downward spiral of counterproductive rhetoric and behavior. The United States cooperated by postponing regularly scheduled annual military exercises with South Korea during the games. Kim received a high-level South Korean delegation in early March and agreed to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The South Korean envoys then told the United States Kim was open to discussing denuclearization. President Trump quickly agreed to meet with Kim and the US military scaled back the postponed military exercises.
Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke with President Trump by phone the day after he agreed to meet with Kim. The Chinese press reported that Xi praised Trump for his “enthusiastic embrace of a political solution” to the North Korean nuclear problem and encouraged Trump to hold the meeting as soon as possible. Xi also expressed the hope that all concerned parties “could discharge a little more good will” and “avoid doing anything that might interfere with the continuing relaxation of tensions.” China’s president did not sound like he was trying to downplay or undermine bilateral US-North Korean talks the Chinese government had been publicly recommending for decades.
Xi Jinping, unlike his predecessors, did not meet with the North Korean leadership during his first term in office. US and Chinese observers opined about the deterioration of the relationship and a possible shift in Chinese foreign policy. China’s massive state propaganda apparatus put that discussion to bed after Kim traveled to Beijing in late March. Ever since, China’s state media has gone overboard to emphasize the traditional fraternal relationship between the two communist nations.
A week before his late-April summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Kim unilaterally announced a halt to nuclear and missile tests, noting they were no longer needed. Kim also declared the nation was moving into a new stage of history focused on economic development.
It is difficult to know whether Kim’s meeting with Xi was responsible for the late-April announcement, but China appears to have received the North Korean freeze it requested during the height of tensions in the fall. Chinese state media reported that during Xi’s second meeting with Kim in the Chinese city of Dalian in early May, the North Korean leader told Xi that “significant progress in the situation on the Korean peninsula” was the product of their “historic” first meeting. Xi responded by emphasizing the following “four mutually agreed upon principles of a new era in China-North Korean relations.”
- That the traditional friendship between North Korea and China was a shared precious treasure.
- That because China and North Korea were both socialist nations their relationship had very important strategic significance requiring strengthened unity, cooperation and exchange.
- That high-level exchanges had an irreplaceably important influence in building bilateral relations.
- That consolidating the foundation of popular friendship was an important avenue for advancing the development of China-North Korea relations.
The fourth principle left many Chinese with the impression that a productive summit between North Korea and the United States would precipitate a regional economic boom. Chinese expectations for success were so high that articles on opportunities in the North Korean real estate market circulated in the press.
All of these developments are inconsistent with the suggestion that China is trying to undermine a successful summit between North Korea and the United States.
China’s Hopes for the Future
Many Chinese look at North Korea through the lens of their own history. Their hope is that North Korea will follow China’s example and gradually reform its economy. As the process of economic reform unfolds, regional anxieties about provocative and violent North Korean behavior should recede, and North Korean concerns about its security should become less pressing.
Most Chinese nuclear arms control experts tell us that as long as those security concerns persist, North Korea is unlikely to agree to denuclearize. But they do believe that now that the North Korean leadership thinks it has demonstrated the potential to retaliate with a nuclear weapon it would be willing to freeze its program in exchange for some loosening of the severe economic sanctions constraining its economy.
The question for the United States, North Korea’s other neighbors and the international community is whether that’s a bargain they are willing to make.
Yesterday, after North Korea responded constructively to President Trump’s suggestion that the time for a summit was not ripe, the Chinese Foreign Ministry told reporters that China was “paying attention to the twists and turns in the preparations for the summit,” suggesting the Chinese leadership was still expecting it would eventually take place. Moreover, ministry spokesperson Lu Kang emphasized, “The Chinese government’s position on the problems on the Korean peninsula is clear and consistent. We feel that as the parties to the peninsula’s nuclear weapons problem, the meeting between the leaders of North Korea and the United States will have a critical impact on the progress of the process towards the denuclearization of the peninsula.”
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