“I am convinced that a towering tree called friendship between China and North Korea will shoot out thick branches and leaves that will never ever wither away.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping rhapsodized about China’s relationship with the secluded neighbor in an op-ed published June 19 on the front page of North Korea’s state newspaper Rodong Sinmun. The article, which appeared the day before Xi’s visit to the country, represents an unusually pronounced gesture of welcome shown to a foreign leader by the official mouthpiece of the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of formal diplomatic ties between the two countries. The op-ed piece was awash in flowery words and phrases about strong bonds between the two countries, but Xi’s real message coming from between the lines seemed to be a desire to put bilateral ties back on good terms after several years of disharmony between Beijing and Pyongyang.
Xi’s visit to North Korea was the first since he became China’s president in 2013. It was also the first visit by a Chinese president to the country since Hu Jintao set foot in Pyongyang 14 years ago. Xi’s trip is the diplomatic prize North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been eagerly pursuing since he became the country’s ruler after his father’s death in 2011.
There is no doubt that the United States was in the forefront of the minds of both leaders as they met. But their aims are slightly different.
The North Korea leader’s principal objective is to strengthen his hand in the nuclear negotiations with the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump, while Xi’s main goal is to ease current tensions between Beijing and Washington. The difference in their basic stances toward the United States is difficult to ignore.
China would be acting in an irresponsible manner if it tries to use the Korean Peninsula problem as a short-term means to improve its position in talks with the United States. Beijing should remain firmly committed to urging North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions for the sake of peace and stability in the entire East Asia region.
After taking power eight years ago, Kim started playing the dangerous game of brinkmanship, developing and testing nuclear arms and missiles.
Kim even criticized China, North Korea’s only major ally, which urged him to restrain himself, causing the bilateral relationship to become frosty.
Last year, however, Kim made repeated visits to China to mend the bilateral ties prior to his first summit with Trump in Singapore in June. After his second summit with Trump, held in February in Hanoi, Vietnam, ended without any deal, Kim made his first trip to Russia.
These moves indicate Kim has been resorting to the traditional tactics of North Korea–enhancing its relations with China and Russia, its two friends, to extract concessions from the United States. Kim may also be seeking to create a new Cold War-style confrontation between two camps–Beijing-Moscow-Pyongyang pitted against Washington–over the Korean Peninsula.
China’s primary diplomatic challenge now, however, is to remedy its soured ties with the United States over trade and other issues.
Xi seems to have tried to underscore the importance of cooperation between Beijing and Washington for tackling the problem of North Korea’s arms programs ahead of his scheduled meeting with Trump on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka in late June.
In his article in the North Korean newspaper, Xi stressed North Korea’s potential to achieve economic development and the importance of problem-solving through dialogue.
Xi’s argument, which raised the prospect of economic development as an incentive for Pyongyang to discard its nuclear arsenal, is reminiscent of the rhetoric Trump has often used recently in referring to Kim’s situation.
If China is serious about acting as a mediator between Washington and Pyongyang, its diplomatic efforts should be welcomed. But Beijing’s real intentions remain unclear.
If, on the other hand, China moves to ease the international sanctions on North Korea based on U.N. Security Council resolutions, it will only hamper the international efforts to achieve the crucial goal of denuclearizing North Korea.
The deterioration of the security situation in Asia caused by North Korea’s development of weapons of mass destruction is detrimental to the security and economic interests of all countries.
Both the United States and China should focus on the goal of denuclearization without dealing with North Korea from the viewpoint of their battle for global hegemony. Xi and Trump should share their commitment to the cause in their meeting in Osaka.