Talks With North Korea? China Approves (No Matter the Outcome)

“China’s priority is for the tension to be defused and for the talks to start,” said Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, a research institute in Washington. “The Chinese have acknowledged their inability to make that happen, so they are O.K. with not leading the campaign.”


President Xi Jinping of China at the National People’s Congress in Beijing this week. Mr. Xi would welcome any strains between South Korea and the United States over how to deal with the North.

Wu Hong/European Pressphoto Agency

South Korea’s announcement on Tuesday that North Korea was ready to bargain with the United States, and to suspend nuclear and missile tests during any talks, was warmly received by China. The country’s state news outlets praised the efforts of the South Korean envoys who met with Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang this week, the first time officials from the South had met the North Korean leader.

That the South Korean effort is being led by President Moon Jae-in, a progressive who has been as alarmed by the Trump administration’s threats of war with the North as China has, is a plus for Beijing. Conservative governments in South Korea have been far more resistant to overtures from the North, always taking a tougher stance in accord with Washington.

Almost any friction between South Korea and its American patron would suit President Xi Jinping of China, who is in the midst of a national legislative meeting that is likely to confirm him as the country’s strongman leader well into the 2020s, and conceivably beyond.

“The Chinese enjoy the wedge North Korea is driving between South Korea and the U.S.,” Ms. Yun said, “and it will create a further rift between the allies.”

In the long term, Mr. Xi would like the United States to withdraw its nearly 30,000 soldiers from South Korea, though the Chinese do not expect that to happen anytime soon. “But the wedge between South Korea and the U.S. is wildly welcomed, with enthusiasm,” Ms. Yun said.

The North has yet to publicly confirm that it made the offer described by the South Koreans. But according to the South, Pyongyang expressed a willingness to “denuclearize,” saying it “would have no reason to keep nuclear weapons if the military threat to the North was eliminated and its security guaranteed.”

President Trump was guardedly optimistic about the announcement. But American officials have tended to see progressive South Korean leaders as too willing to accept North Korean peace offerings.


South Korean marines during a joint military exercise with American troops last year. Pyongyang said it would have “no reason” to keep its nuclear weapons “if the military threat to the North was eliminated and its security guaranteed,” according to the South.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Any such disagreement between the allies this time could lead to more diplomatic wrangling, drawing out the process and, in China’s eyes, averting war. Such delays would be of less concern to China than to the United States, which would be worried about the North making further improvements to its nuclear arsenal in the meantime.

“One of the important reasons behind the improvement of the relationship between China and South Korea is that the two countries have reached a consensus that no war should be allowed to occur on the Korean Peninsula,” said Feng Zhang, a fellow in international relations at Australian National University. “Here, China and South Korea have a perfect common interest, even though China was not directly involved in the inter-Korean talks.”

One of China’s senior experts on North Korea said it was not clear whether Mr. Kim was really offering anything new, and that it could turn out that the North was taking advantage of Mr. Moon’s eagerness for dialogue.

“North Korea believes South Korea is the weakest link in the U.S. alliance,” said the expert, Zhang Liangui, a professor of international studies at the Central Party School of the Communist Party in Beijing. “The United States and the outside world will continue to doubt the true purpose of North Korea, because they do not know whether this is just a diplomatic strategy or a fundamental policy shift.”

China has supported United Nations sanctions against the North over its nuclear program — like sending its workers home, curbing shipments of oil and cutting off coal exports — though it has stopped short of imposing unilateral financial sanctions, as proposed by Washington. Mr. Trump said on Tuesday that China had been “very, very strong and very biting” in its support for sanctions.

Beijing’s cooperation with Mr. Trump on the issue has made relations between North Korea and China so poisonous that the North has refused to allow a visit by Kong Xuanyou, a senior diplomat appointed by Beijing to deal with Pyongyang.

A close look at the language used on Tuesday by Chung Eui-yong, one of the top South Korean envoys who met with Mr. Kim, indicates that the North Koreans are offering a formula similar to what has been rejected in the past, said Evans J. R. Revere, a former State Department official who participated in past talks on the North.


A 2005 session of the so-called six-party talks over the North’s nuclear program in Beijing. Those negotiations, which included both Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia, ended in failure in 2009.

Pool photo by Guang Niu

According to Mr. Chung, Pyongyang was asking for the “denuclearization of the whole Korean Peninsula” and the removal of the “threat” to the North, Mr. Revere said. The North, he said, has always defined that threat as the alliance between the United States and South Korea, the presence of American forces on the Korean Peninsula and the nuclear umbrella that Washington extends over South Korea and Japan.

“If you remove those things, we will feel secure and some day we can consider denuclearization,” Mr. Revere recalled Ri Yong-ho, a North Korean diplomat who is currently the foreign minister, as saying.

But even if those terms are unlikely to be accepted, Mr. Revere said, there is no reason for the United States not to sit down with the North for an exploratory chat, something that China would welcome.

Mr. Zhang said that if talks were to start and then falter, the opening by Mr. Kim would give China a chance at some point to try and convince the Trump administration that some sort of deal is preferable to war.

If talks between Washington and Pyongyang make serious progress, China is likely to give up its bystander status and insist on being a party to the discussions. The logical conclusion to successful negotiations — though an unlikely one, at the moment — would be a permanent agreement to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953, Ms. Yun said.

China fought on the side of the North against the United States in that three-year conflict, which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers. “To say the least, for any arrangement to replace the armistice, China has to be involved, because it is an original signatory,” Ms. Yun said.

Moreover, she said, North Korea would be unlikely to accept any kind of security promises from the United States without an “external guarantee” — that is, a guarantee from China.

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