China-North Korea-United States: An Increasingly Dangerous Triangle

Why the rapprochement between Beijing and Pyongyang has upset Trump’s plans

Will China and the United States collaborate over the North Korean dossier or not? According to the moves of Kim Jong Un, who on May 16 threatened to skip the Singapore summit with Donald Trump, it would seem to be an agreement in name only, rather than something more substantial. Something along the lines of: I will keep you informed (about whatever I want, because even if I hide a detail here or there you will never find out), but at the same time I will continue to push forward only my own interests.

Kim and Xi – Friends Once More?

While the whole world was hanging on Donald Trump’s every word to find out the date and location of the meeting between the American president and the North Korean leader, the latter flew to Dalian to once again meet Xi Jinping. Not only that: According to the Japanese press, a North Korean delegation arrived in Beijing a few days ago specifically to “coordinate the details of the June 12 summit,” and there are murmurs that Xi had accepted an invitation from Kim and would go to Pyongyang “shortly after the Singapore summit.” It’s important to note that this could be the first visit to the Korean capital by a foreign leader, just as the only foreign capital Kim has been to is Beijing.*

What Is Going On?

Without a doubt, China has high interest in “taking the situation back in hand” and convincing Kim to be a more amenable partner than the United States.

An interesting aspect of this is that while the meetings with Moon Jae-in and Trump were publicized far in advance, those with Xi Jinping were kept secret until after they had taken place. However difficult it might be to figure out why, there will definitely be a reason.

What Xi Offers Kim

China has much to offer North Korea. Above all, it has a vision that is less categorical than “denuclearization” because it seems disposed to accept that this will happen in several phases and not follow the American formula of complete, irreversible, and verifiable renunciation.

In addition, China remains North Korea’s biggest market, and it is certainly true that if there is a country which, more than any other, could ease the grip of sanctions on Pyongyang, it is the People’s Republic.

Finally, if it is true that reciprocal concessions are what Pyongyang is after, it is also true that in drawing closer to Kim, Xi will find himself with more cards on the American table, putting him in a better position to negotiate over tariffs.

Besides, are we quite sure that after everything Trump has said and written about Chinese commercial irregularities, and Beijing’s underhanded attempt to use liberalism to illegally appropriate American technology, the president would have decided to take a step back just to “protect jobs in China”?

A New Model of Governance

The Korean crisis represents a chance for Beijing to test the Chinese model of governance. As Chinese commentators and representatives of Chinese institutions repeat ad nauseam, the People’s Republic is “an unaligned, peaceful, and responsible power, charged with sharing the future with humanity.”

Beijing does not impose the Chinese model on anyone, but “remains inclined to help collaborate with those interested in adopting elements of its system, whichever are considered appropriate in the local context.”

Perhaps, then, Xi and Kim did nothing at Dalian other than talk about socialism, shared prosperity, gradual development and the centrality of the party in managing the transition period.

If North Korea should emerge from this crisis stronger than before, including on an economic level, credit for this success would inevitably be associated with China and would end up indirectly reinforcing the credibility and advantages of the New Silk Road.

What Does Kim Think?

What Kim Jong Un has truly demonstrated in recent months is his nature as an intelligent, astute, attentive and farsighted leader. Today, for Kim, who knows well that Trump cannot be completely trusted, it is useful to have China onside. Among other things, after having shown his ability to sideline China if he wishes thanks to the manner in which he managed the rapprochement between Pyongyang and Seoul, Kim has accrued the necessary power to face up to the People’s Republic from a position that is anything but subordinate.

Today, Kim Jong Un threatened to skip the summit with Washington due to the unsuccessful blockade of the military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea. And yet, these are more or less the same type of exercises that just a few weeks ago Kim had declared as being of “routine strategic importance.” It is very important for North Korea to show it can move forward without the United States, in order to successfully negotiate from a position of power, just as it has done in the past with China.

The Anti-American Offensive in the National Press

In actual fact, a few days ago, Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper for North Korean propaganda, changed its tone; suddenly, all editorials have become pro-Chinese and anti-American. It is enough to cast an eye over the length of the messages talking about the meetings between Kim and Xi and Kim and Mike Pompeo to understand that now, in Pyongyang, the word of the U.S. is worth less than that of the Chinese. Just today, the North Korea press demanded that the United States provide “formal apologies” for its involvement in the Gwangju massacre, supporting the 1980 military repression halting the democratic opposition of Gwangju citizens against the dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan, the man who led South Korea from 1980 to 1988.**

What Could Happen

As always, it is incredibly difficult to predict how the Korean crisis will evolve. There are only three givens: China will want to play a key role in the detente. It has found a way to convince Kim of the benefits of not continuing to exclude it, and now China will take advantage of this.

Kim is not an amenable partner, but wishes, as everyone does, to pursue his own interests. At the moment, that means accepting denuclearization, but only if it doesn’t include a complete, verifiable dismantling of his arsenal in order to begin discussing economic collaboration.

Trump is not the right man to accept a compromise “imposed by force.” His insolence in foreign policy truly risks turning him into a useful scapegoat for Kim to justify breaking off negotiations that don’t satisfy Kim’s priorities.

*Editor’s note: Donald Trump pulled out of the June 12, 2018 summit with Kim Jong Un on May 24, 2018. On May 26, 2018, it was reported that the U.S. and North Korea might reschedule the meeting.

**Editor’s note: Gwangju is also spelled Kwangju.

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