The Yomiuri ShimbunConfirming the normalization of relations between China and North Korea, which had cooled, and showing off to the United States Beijing’s resolve to play a leading role in the North Korean nuclear issue — these moves alone will not lead to promoting the denuclearization of the North.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has made an official visit to North Korea and conferred with leader Kim Jong Un, chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea. It was Xi’s first visit to North Korea since he took office in 2013.
Relations between China and North Korea worsened when Xi came to power. This is because Kim had pushed ahead with nuclear tests and other things without complying with China’s demand for self-restraint. Xi visited South Korea in 2014, becoming the first Chinese leader to visit Seoul ahead of Pyongyang.
North Korea, for its part, expressed discontent with China, arguing that “China has been joining U.S.-led sanctions against North Korea.”
A turning point for the restoration of relations between China and North Korea likely came when the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump ramped up pressure on Pyongyang and launched an offensive against China over bilateral trade friction. Beijing and Pyongyang were forced to close ranks as a check on hard-line U.S. policy.
Since last year, Kim has visited China as many as four times. Xi’s recent visit to the North, which was realized on the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, means that Beijing and Pyongyang have put an end to the abnormal bilateral relations of recent years.
In an article contributed to the Rodong Sinmun, which is the organ of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Xi emphasized, “No matter how the international situation may change, our firm position to strengthen and develop the China-North Korea relationship of friendship and cooperation will not change.”
U.S. stance remains firm
The question is what effect this commitment will have on North Korea’s denuclearization.
Even after the Trump-Kim summit in February ended without an agreement, the United States has remained unchanged in its stance of calling for “complete denuclearization.” Washington plans to maintain sanctions until Pyongyang complies with demands for reporting and relinquishing all its nuclear weapons and facilities.
Kim tacitly conveyed to Xi his discontent with the United States. He insisted that his country “failed to obtain a positive response from the country concerned” despite efforts made by the North. Kim likely requested that Xi play a mediation role of asking Washington to give rewards in return for the North’s phased steps for denuclearization.
Faced with continued economic stagnation, Pyongyang desperately longs for the lifting of sanctions. Kim visited Russia in April and met with President Vladimir Putin. The North’s strategy is to bolster relations with China and Russia as its backers, thereby pressing Washington to make concessions.
Xi showed understanding of Kim’s assertion. The Chinese president said that “China will play an active role” in denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and even expressed an intention to resolve “reasonable concerns over the safety and development of North Korea.”
Xi will meet with Trump in Osaka at the end of this month. As long as he merely speaks from the standpoint of North Korea, China will not be seen to be tackling the denuclearization of North Korea in earnest.