The complex relationship between China and the United States has long been characterized by both gaming and coordination, and the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula offers no exception. Last year, there were some tricky moments, as momentum ebbed and flowed in the dialogue between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the U.S., while at the same time, relations between the DPRK and China saw an upgrade after the thaw of 2018.
Starting in Singapore and continuing through the abortive meeting in Hanoi, the restart in Panmunjom and then the failed coordination in Stockholm, the U.S.-DPRK dialogue failed to break through the impasse, which has its roots in obstruction by those in favor of a hawkish stance against Pyongyang. Yet both parties have left the window open. In June 2018, following the historic first summit between DPRK leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore, both sides pledged in a joint communique that they would build a new relationship and a lasting, stable mechanism for peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Although negotiations were halted over the failure to reach an agreement on lifting sanctions, the parties haven’t closed all doors to dialogue.
Trump dramatically met with Kim at Panmunjom, becoming the first incumbent U.S. president to set foot on North Korean soil. Both leaders expressed satisfaction with the meeting and agreed to restart denuclearization talks.
Those talks ended fruitlessly in Stockholm in early October. The DPRK insists the reason for the stalemate was U.S. failure to reward the active efforts it had made, and it repeatedly condemned the U.S. and South Korea for continuing their joint military exercises. It urged the U.S. to come up with sincere, practical conditions for negotiations.
The DPRK conducted 10 tests of short-range ballistic missiles between May and October, as well as two consecutive “significant tests” in December that were believed to be related to engines for intercontinental ballistic missiles.
On the U.S. side, Trump’s attitude is closely tied to changes in the political winds at home. It was only after he gained tremendous momentum in June 2018 by way of a tax-reduction bill that he signed a joint declaration with Kim. This happened despite harsh criticism from conservative hawks and Democrats at home, who believed he should not have accepted Kim’s pledges, calling them “devoid of substance.”
In the 2018 midterm elections, the Republican Party lost control of the House of Representatives, and as Trump met with Kim in Hanoi, congressional hearings airing Trump’s dirty laundry were going on in Washington.
Thanks especially to strong opposition from the hawks at home and in the military, Trump lost the momentum and had to shift to a tougher stance. Lately, messages from both sides indicate the two sides are attempting to create the conditions necessary for restarting negotiations.
2. China-North Korea relations have been improving since 2018, with both leaders meeting frequently and China repeatedly emphasizing support for dialogue between North and South, as well as between the North and the United States. It is playing an important role in easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
In his 2019 New Year address, Kim pointedly mentioned his three visits to China in the past year, and proposed to turn the current Korean Peninsula truce regime into a peace regime via “multiparty consultation” and establish a substantive foundation for lasting peace. U.S. media speculated that he was suggesting China should be a signatory to the future peace treaty.
In January last year, Kim traveled to Beijing for his fourth summit meeting with President Xi Jinping, during which they discussed the denuclearization process. Xi paid his first visit to North Korea in June. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Pyongyang in September, engaging in deep discussions with his hosts about Peninsula issues.
3. China-U.S. interaction over the Korean nuclear issue has become trickier and more complex. China and the United States preserved the general pattern of cooperation on the Korean nuclear issue in 2019, yet their divergences and policy differences became even more obvious.
Trump sees China as an indispensable actor in resolving the nuclear issue. In April 2017, after Chinese and U.S. leaders met at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, Trump in a Twitter post expressed hope of solving the problem with China’s help. China and the U.S. have parallel interests on denuclearizing the Peninsula. The U.S.-DPRK negotiations and Chinese endeavors were consistent with each other. Even though China-U.S. strategic competition had become more intense, they agreed to cooperate on the Korea nuclear issue, and China offered support.
Chinese and American leaders talked about Peninsula issues on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Osaka, Japan, in June, after which Trump met with Kim at Panmunjom. Undersecretary of State and Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun visited China in December to seek Chinese assistance in restarting U.S. negotiations with the DPRK. Obviously China and the U.S. maintain high-frequency communication on Peninsula issues. Even though there has been no substantial breakthrough in U.S.-North Korea dialogue, the state of “dual freezing” that China has proposed has already emerged on the Peninsula. This can be taken as an important step forward in easing tensions.
Meanwhile we should also realize that China-U.S. strategic competition has yielded some sophisticated influences on both sides’ Peninsula policies, which have to some extent resulted in different considerations about how to approach the goal of denuclearization. The U.S. is preoccupied with the DPRK coming up with practical denuclearization moves that are comprehensively verifiable and irreversible. China, while adhering to the parallel goals of denuclearization and preserving peace and stability on the Peninsula, further says that the process of dialogue means two-way interaction, and the U.S., to sustain momentum, should properly reward the positive moves the DPRK has made.
That China-DPRK relations have returned to a positive development track will matter in preserving peace and stability of the Peninsula. Chinese Permanent Representative to the United Nations Zhang Jun pointed out recently that North Korea has taken a series of steps toward denuclearization, but its reasonable concerns and demands for security and development are yet to receive corresponding attention and response. This is an important cause of the present stalemate and escalating tensions, he believes.
Actions need to be taken to adjust the sanctions the UN Security Council has imposed on North Korea. Sanctions are a means, not the end. North Korea’s concerns, including the creation of reversible clauses in Korea-related resolutions and adjusting sanctions in fields affecting people’s livelihoods, deserve due attention. All that is conducive to easing tensions, creating the right atmosphere, facilitating dialogue and promoting a political solution.
At the recent China-Japan-ROK leaders’ meeting in Chengdu, China, the three parties pledged to promote denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula through dialogue. Judging from the developments described above, while the U.S. and North Korea find it difficult to break their deadlock and restart talks, the Chinese side has already begun to push for multilateral dialogue on the nuclear issue in a more proactive manner.