Concerns outweigh hopesChinese President Xi Jinping kicks off a two-day trip to North Korea today. His visit takes place at a sensitive time when the United States and North Korea may resume the stalled denuclearization talks after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un once again sent a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump last week. Xi’s summit with Kim also occurs just eight days before the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan, from June 28 to 29.
We hope Xi’s trip will help put the deadlocked denuclearization talks back on track. As long as a head of state can make substantial progress on denuclearization, it doesn’t matter who plays the role of a mediator or facilitator in the negotiations.
But we cannot shake off suspicions over Xi’s decision to go to Pyongyang at such a critical moment. First, China could use the visit as leverage to get the upper hand in the ongoing Sino-U.S. trade war. Also, Xi’s trip is most likely aimed at showing off China’s influence over its ally on key issues, including denuclearization. Chinese state broadcasters’ recent efforts to bring back memories of the 1950-53 Korea War — in which it sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers to Korea to help fight U.S. forces — is linked to such intention. It is a very worrisome development if China really wants to take advantage of the denuclearization issue in its hegemony war with Uncle Sam.
If Beijing and Pyongyang get closer to one another, it could hamper any denuclearization talks. While North Korea wants an action-for-action approach to easing international sanctions, the United States demands final and fully-verified denuclearization. If Xi supports Kim Jong-un in an upcoming summit, it will only help consolidate Pyongyang’s position. In a contribution to the Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s leading mouthpiece, Xi expressed hopes for a “political resolution” of Korean Peninsula issues.
Another concern is the possibility of China helping relieve North Korea of some of its economic pain from sanctions. China can help North Korea in many ways without violating UN resolutions, as seen in its aid of rice and fertilizer — the largest amount in seven years — following Kim’s four visits to China last year. Without violating UN resolutions, it can substantially mitigate the effect of sanctions. After Xi’s trip to Pyongyang, China is expected to offer a massive aid package to North Korea.
Xi’s trip must bring a turning point in the deadlocked denuclearization talks. To achieve that, he must urge North Korea to denuclearize in a sincere manner and gain the trust of the international community.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 20, Page 30