North Korean leader’s Bei­jing visit un­der­scores China’s piv­otal role

THE TIM­ING SUG­GESTS BEI­JING COULD SEE PY­ONGYANG AS A LEVER­AGE IN ITS TRADE DIS­PUTE WITH THE UNITED STATES

The Nation - - THAILAND -

JOSH CHIN, AN­DREW JEONG WITH de­nu­cle­ari­sa­tion talks be­tween Py­ongyang and Wash­ing­ton at a stand­still, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un turned last week to his coun­try’s long-time pa­tron, China.

For months, North Ko­rea has de­manded the US ease sanc­tions, claim­ing to have dis­man­tled some of its nu­clear fa­cil­i­ties. Wash­ing­ton has re­fused to budge, pledg­ing to main­tain sanc­tions un­til Py­ongyang’s com­plete de­nu­cle­ari­sa­tion in ac­cor­dance with the agree­ment be­tween Pres­i­dent Trump and Kim in Sin­ga­pore last year.

Kim’s ar­rival in Bei­jing last Tues­day at Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s in­vi­ta­tion of­fered a re­minder of the close ties be­tween North Ko­rea and China, whose ac­tions have been es­sen­tial to the US-led ef­fort to en­force sanc­tions on Py­ongyang. That has given Pres­i­dent Xi lever­age in China’s deal­ings with Wash­ing­ton, with whom re­la­tions have de­te­ri­o­rated as their trade dis­pute has un­folded.

The tim­ing of the Xi-Kim meet­ing – as US and Chi­nese ne­go­tia­tors held their lat­est round of trade talks in Bei­jing – rep­re­sents a “coin­ci­dence of in­ter­est” be­tween North Ko­rea and China, said Steve Tsang, di­rec­tor of the SOAS China In­sti­tute in Lon­don. Back in 2017, when Py­ongyang was test­ing long-range nu­clear mis­siles, the US and its al­lies looked to Bei­jing to help bro­ker a so­lu­tion.

Now, Bei­jing could see North Ko­rea as lever­age in its trade dis­pute with the US, while Py­ongyang needs China’s as­sis­tance se­cur­ing a sec­ond sum­mit with Trump.

“It’s in Bei­jing’s in­ter­est to re­mind the US they can be very help­ful on North Ko­rea,” Tsang said. “It’s a mes­sage from both Bei­jing and Py­ongyang to Wash­ing­ton.”

This year marks the 70th an­niver­sary of the es­tab­lish­ment of diplo­matic re­la­tions be­tween China and North Ko­rea. Last Tues­day, which was also Kim’s birth­day, Chi­nese state-run me­dia ran com­ments by ex­perts ex­tolling China’s role in find­ing a so­lu­tion to the nu­clear is­sue.

“Kim Jong-un’s will­ing­ness in 2018 to walk the path to de­nu­cle­ari­sa­tion and meet with the US stems in large part from his trust in China,” the Global Times quoted Wang Sheng, a North Ko­rea ex­pert at Jilin Univer­sity in north­east­ern China, as say­ing.

Kim ar­rived in Bei­jing by train. He trav­elled with his wife and se­nior of­fi­cials, and stayed in China un­til Thurs­day, of­fi­cial North Korean and Chi­nese news agen­cies re­ported.

Bei­jing de­nial

Chi­nese For­eign Min­istry spokesman Lu Kang said at a reg­u­lar press brief­ing that Kim’s visit aimed to strengthen com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the two coun­tries and that China also en­cour­ages com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween North Ko­rea and the US. He de­nied any con­nec­tion with US trade talks.

“You would know that China’s diplo­macy is rich and colour­ful, and we have many ma­jor diplo­matic en­gage­ments,” Lu said. “There’s noth­ing par­tic­u­larly un­usual for some diplo­matic en­gage­ments to co­in­cide.”

China has long been North Ko­rea’s top eco­nomic part­ner and de facto se­cu­rity guar­an­tor. Bei­jing sent hun­dreds of thou­sands of troops to aid North Ko­rea dur­ing the 1950-53 Korean War.

Se­cu­rity an­a­lysts said Kim’s mis­sion in Bei­jing was likely to seek Xi’s sup­port for his ap­proach in the nu­clear talks with the US, and to press China to ease sanc­tions pres­sure.

“Kim Jong-un is ask­ing Xi to give him the lever­age to say ‘no’ to US Cen­tre: Kim be­fore his de­par­ture from Bei­jing.

Above: Kim chats with Song Tao, head of the In­ter­na­tional Li­ai­son Depart­ment of the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of the Com­mu­nist Party of China, in a train after their de­par­ture from Bei­jing sta­tion. de­mands to per­mit in­spec­tion of North Ko­rea’s nu­clear fa­cil­i­ties,” said Nam Sung-wook, a for­mer South Korean in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial. “That lever­age is breath­ing room from sanc­tions.”

Choi Kang, vice pres­i­dent of re­search at the Asan In­sti­tute for Pol­icy Stud­ies, a pri­vate think tank in Seoul, said Kim could be hop­ing to se­cure a Chi­nese agree­ment to pro­vide the North with more en­ergy aid.

“It’s go­ing to be dif­fi­cult for Bei­jing to pub­licly an­nounce en­ergy sup­port to Py­ongyang, due to sanc­tions,” said Choi. “But the Chi­nese are al­ready do­ing it furtively,” he added, re­fer­ring to al­le­ga­tions that China has been pro­vid­ing North Ko­rea with oil through ship-to-ship trans­fers on the high seas.

A US con­gres­sional com­mis­sion re­port said in Novem­ber that China ap­peared to have re­laxed en­force­ment of sanc­tions on North Ko­rea and was “un­der­min­ing the US ‘max­i­mum pres­sure’ cam­paign”.

Bei­jing has said it en­forces sanc­tions in ac­cor­dance with United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tions.

De­spite his­toric ties be­tween their coun­tries, Kim didn’t visit China for the first six years of his rule after suc­ceed­ing his fa­ther, Kim Jong-il. But hav­ing met Trump, Kim now en­joys new diplo­matic clout, said John Delury, an ex­pert in China and North Ko­rea at Yon­sei Univer­sity in Seoul.

On the flip side, he said, Xi and other Com­mu­nist Party lead­ers now have to work harder to make sure Py­ongyang doesn’t de­cide to deal di­rectly with the US and cut China out of the nu­clear con­ver­sa­tion.

“IT’S IN BEI­JING’S IN­TER­EST TO RE­MIND THE US THEY CAN BE VERY HELP­FUL ON NORTH KO­REA,” SAID STEVE TSANG, DI­REC­TOR OF THE SOAS CHINA IN­STI­TUTE IN LON­DON. “IT’S A MES­SAGE FROM BOTH BEI­JING AND PY­ONGYANG TO WASH­ING­TON.”

Delury said Xi has an in­ter­est in link­ing North Ko­rea with trade, be­cause it al­lows Bei­jing to por­tray it­self as do­ing Trump a favour by help­ing him notch a for­eign-pol­icy win.

“If it’s those two is­sues and if the fo­cus is on North Ko­rea, then it takes a lot of pres­sure off China across the board,” he said.

Mean­while, spec­u­la­tion has grown around the tim­ing and venue for a sec­ond US-North Ko­rea sum­mit. Last year, Kim went to China for talks with Xi about a month be­fore the North Korean leader’s June meet­ing with Pres­i­dent Trump. He fol­lowed up with an­other visit to Bei­jing a week after its con­clu­sion.

South Ko­rea’s semiof­fi­cial Yon­hap News Agency re­ported that Viet­namese of­fi­cials had alerted North Ko­rea of their de­sire to host the next US-North Ko­rea sum­mit. The re­port men­tioned Viet­nam’s port city of Da Nang as a pos­si­ble lo­ca­tion. The city hosted a ma­jor Asia-Pa­cific sum­mit in 2017, which Trump at­tended, and a US car­rier docked there last year.

A US State Depart­ment of­fi­cial de­clined to com­ment, cit­ing re­duced staffing amid the US gov­ern­ment shut­down.

“Viet­nam is one of the best places,” said Nam, the for­mer in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial. But the prob­lem isn’t where to hold the sum­mit, he added, but rather the need to reach spe­cific de­nu­cle­ari­sa­tion agree­ments be­fore the two lead­ers meet.

“If Trump and Kim agree to weak agree­ments again, it’ll be bad for both of them. Kim Jong-un won’t have his sanc­tions lifted,” Nam said.

A photo re­leased by the of­fi­cial Korean Cen­tral News Agency shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping dur­ing Kim’s visit to Bei­jing on Jan­uary 10.

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