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Foreign Policy

Is China Playing the North Korea Card?

Jun 28, 2019
  • Cui Lei

    Research Fellow, China Institute of International Studies

On June 20 and 21, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a state visit to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). As the first time in 14 years that a top Chinese leader has come to the country, the visit attracted broad international attention. As for the purpose of the trip, some overseas media and analysts assume that China is “playing the North Korea card” in order to enhance its position in trade negotiations with the United States. The assumption sounds reasonable. On June 17, the Chinese government announced Xi's upcoming visit to the DPRK — the very second day, Xi and Trump had a phone conversation, agreeing to meet during the G20 summit in Osaka at the end of month. People can't help linking the two incidents to each other.

Understandably, under constant US pressures on trade, China needs to respond, and has openly vowed to take retaliatory moves. Considering China's tremendous influence on the DPRK nuclear issue, North Korea certainly could be an ideal bargaining chip. Yet is the main purpose of Xi's trip to showcase Chinese influence over the DPRK nuclear issue, and to seek US concessions on trade? The answer is no.

First, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has paid four visits to China since March 2018, while Xi had yet to visit the DPRK since assuming presidency. As a matter of international convention and etiquette, Xi was supposed to reciprocate with a visit of his own. After all, this year marks the 70th anniversary of China-DPRK diplomatic relations, as the DPRK established diplomatic relations with the People's Republic as soon as it was founded in 1949. Only a state visit could match such an occasion.

Second, China has its own endogenous motivation to improve ties with the DPRK, rather than estrange it: to prevent North Korea from tilting toward the US. Especially since early 2018, in a dramatic reversal in their personal relations, Trump and Kim have been in frequent contact, which makes some Chinese worry that the US and DPRK may abandon China, and maneuver in private.

Third, and most importantly, no matter how its relations with the US evolve, China will proceed from its own interests in handling relations with the DPRK: thus Beijing will continue to oppose North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons, provide aid to Pyongyang, and encourage the UN to loosen sanctions. Even if Beijing has to engage the US in a Cold War, China will not allow or encourage the DPRK to develop nuclear capabilities for the sake of nuclear security and non-proliferation. Given the DPRK's significant value in geopolitical strategy, China should provide aid to ensure stability of the DPRK regime. Loosening sanctions on the DPRK can serve both purposes – preserving political stability in the DPRK, and encouraging it to forsake nuclear weapons.

Besides, China still has many other options in coping with the trade war. It doesn't have to play the North Korea card. On the contrary, if it does play this card, it may attract US attention to double down on geostrategic competition. This outcome is contrary to China's will, because it wants to confine the tensions in Sino-US bilateral ties to the realm of economics and trade.

To say the least, even if China attempts to play the DPRK card, it may hardly work to produce a desirable change in relations with the US, especially on trade negotiations.

First, the US is not anxious for a nuclear deal with the DPRK, so there is no strong demand for Chinese cooperation. After two Trump-Kim summits, the US and DPRK have established a diplomatic model for direct leader-to-leader communication. Despite the setback in nuclear talks, the two countries have not shut the door on negotiations. With Trump and Kim exchanging letters of goodwill, a third Trump-Kim summit is in the works. Under such circumstances, the US doesn't need China to convey messages to the DPRK.

Second, the DPRK won't be willing to serve as China's bargaining chip. Instead, it insists on dealing directly with the US. Though the North Korean side gave its Chinese guest a high-profile welcome, that doesn’t meant it will give in to the US in order to please China, so that Xi can present Trump an impressive gift when they meet in Osaka in exchange for the US easing pressure on China.

To sum it up, the main purpose of the visit was to further promote improvements in China-DPRK ties, and encourage the DPRK to continue the denuclearization process. After all, it doesn't take the pageantry of a state visit to remind the US that "Beijing remains an unavoidable stop on one's way to Pyongyang."

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