Pyongyang – Washington: Maybe Yes, Maybe No

Chinese President Xi Jinping, the man that Donald Trump described as a “world-class poker player,” is grabbing a stake in the fight between Washington and Pyongyang and their meeting, which may or may not take place. * As the North Korean regime’s lone ally, China had encouraged, at the beginning of March, the Trump-Kim summit in order to dissipate the nuclear clouds that were gathering over the Asian peninsula. Uncle Xi made this daring gamble with full knowledge of the facts, convinced that the rapprochement between Washington and Pyongyang would not be to China’s detriment.

Except that he should have been more cautious and determined which way the wind was blowing. After having ignored the North Korean leader for years, and taken part, with conviction if without enthusiasm, in the international sanctions against the North Korean nuclear program, President Xi suddenly changed tack, receiving Kim Jong Un twice in six weeks in an effort to strengthen ties. Some say that Beijing wanted to convince Kim not to be too taken by the Trump administration’s promises, at the risk of subjecting itself to an Iraqi scenario or, as the American leaders like to say, a Libyan one. Kim Jong Un was advised to move cautiously through the process of dialogue and avoid locking himself up in firm commitments.

Apparently, Xi was understood, since in the midst of President Trump and his team’s lavish praise, Pyongyang brusquely changed course and clearly rejected the idea of “total” denuclearization, before or during the Singapore summit, arguing that annual American-South Korean military exercises are an explicit threat.

For some observers, the turning point occurred in the seaside Chinese resort of Dalian, where Xi Jinping received the North Korean leader for a second meeting on May 7. Following that meeting, Pyongyang changed its tone, which of course did not escape President Trump’s notice, who immediately saw in Xi Jinping an exceptional “poker player.” As expected, Beijing promptly dodged the accusation, claiming that it had “no ulterior motives” and warning Washington about its attempt to make China the scapegoat for the process’ failure, a failure whose responsibility lies “solely with the Trump administration hawks.” **In fact, what would China have to gain in the short term from abandoning this process, and returning to the military option against North Korea? Beijing’s focus on maintaining a balance between its relationship with Pyongyang and the still unlikely relationship between the United States and North Korea would, after all, be a legitimate strategy. What’s more, the economic boom that can be seen in the new China can easily compensate for the Trump administration’s unpredictable promises about a spectacular North Korean development long awaited by Kim Jong Un, which the country has now made as much of a strategic priority as the nuclear option.

Another strong signal of Chinese willingness to appease the climate in the region is Beijing’s call to show “good will.” This does not go in the direction of any break in the process. To the contrary, China has every interest in assuming a decisive role at a time when difficult negotiations are being conducted with the United States in the commercial sphere. By bringing the two parties back to the table, China will undoubtedly play that good role and can hope for dividends.

*Editor’s note: As of June 3, 2018, the June 12, 2018 meeting between the U.S. and North Korea in Singapore was being reinstated, according to President Trump, who met with North Korean official Kim Yong Chol at the White House on June 1.

**Editor’s note: The quoted remarks in this paragraph, although accurately translated, could not be independently verified.

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