China steps inNorth Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s surprise trip to China and summit with President Xi Jinping this week reminds us of the unique relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing. Xi welcomed Kim warmheartedly. Flanked by Premier Li Keqiang and Vice President Wang Qishan, Xi called the guest “our comrade Chairman Kim.” Kim saved Xi’s face by stressing that he chose China as the destination for his first overseas trip because of a need to discuss the rapidly changing situation on the Korean Peninsula.
Xi’s proposal to “visit each other just like relatives” helped melt a seven-year freeze in relations after China’s participation in international sanctions. The two leaders’ meeting vividly shows they can change their positions for the sake of national interests at any time. With the meeting in Beijing, North Korea could bring China to its side ahead of an inter-Korean summit in April and another one with the United States later. On China’s part, it could set the stage for flexing its muscles on the peninsula by dispelling concerns that Beijing could be isolated from the negotiations. The Moon Jae-in administration welcomed the summit between Kim and Xi, hoping it could lead to denuclearization and peace on the peninsula.
But the blitzkrieg-like meeting in Beijing one month before Moon’s scheduled summit with Kim makes the situation more complicated because Xi stepped into the negotiation all of a sudden. In the summit with Kim, Xi expressed hope that China will continue to play a constructive role on the peninsula. In other words, China will not simply look on. Beijing is wary of the possibility of Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington having a tripartite summit without its presence.
Kim’s solutions for denuclearization are controversial. He said, “If South Korea and the United States respond with good will to our efforts and create an atmosphere of peace and stability, and take phased, synchronized measures to achieve peace, the issue of the denuclearization of the peninsula can reach resolution.” That bodes ill for the future of denuclearization talks as it is not what the United States wants — a settlement with a single stroke.
With the summit in Beijing, North Korea strengthened its leverage in future negotiations with South Korea and the United States, which means Seoul will face even tougher challenges down the road. High-level inter-Korean talks are held at Panmunjom today. The government must wisely deal with the unexpected developments to achieve the goal of denuclearization.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 29, Page 29