March 29, 2018
Kim Jong-un’s visit to Beijing this past week has raised questions and is a cause for muted optimism across Asia.
The visit is the latest in a series of goodwill gestures that the North Korean regime has put forth in recent months starting with its participation in the winter Olympics to receiving a South Korean delegation in the North.
With Kim due to have summits with the leaders of the Republic of Korea and the United States in the next two months, the meeting with Xi came about at an opportune time as the North needed to reaffirm its commitment to its longtime ally and primary trading partner.
“China takes into consideration other factors such as nuclear non-proliferation and peace and stability on the peninsula, and therefore it is opposed to Pyongyang continuing to develop nuclear weapons,” the China Daily said in an editorial.
“Nuclear weapons cannot guarantee the security of the DPRK. Instead, it will ensue more international pressure and a possible military strike by the US. Thus the DPRK has realized that denuclearization will improve its ties with China.”
Undoubtedly, Chinese-DPRK relations have been strained over the past year with Pyongyang going ahead with its nuclear program. China has signaled that it is increasingly agitated both by Pyongyang’s insistence on continuing down the nuclear path and questions over its relations with the DPRK at the UN Security Council.
Chinese diplomats and Xi Jinping have insisted that China is against the nuclearization of the Korean peninsula, even going so far as to sanction Pyongyang according to UN guidelines. Pyongyang’s overtures to Washington and Seoul over the past few months may also have government officials in Beijing feeling sidelined. The Xi-Kim meeting changes that.
“Suggestions that Beijing had been sidelined by Pyongyang’s approaches to Seoul and Washington were always unfounded given the two countries’ long-standing friendship, which was forged in the crucible of war,” wrote an editorial in the China Daily. “The Xi-Kim meeting also shows that China is still a key player in maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula.”
According to state media, the meeting between Xi and Kim means that all the stakeholders on the Korean peninsula have been addressed and the planned meeting between Trump, RoK President Moon Jae-in and Kim will have more chance of success.
Cautious and muted optimism seems to be the tone generated by the Xi-Kim bilateral in South Korea.
Commentators in the South agreed that Kim Jong-un needed to repair relationships with his biggest ally before the planned US-ROK-DPRK summit.
“I think North Korea wanted to have ‘insurance’ against the upcoming summit with the US and check how much China is willing to protect North Korea’s interests,” Shin Beom-chul, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, told the Korean Herald.
“It is a win-win for China, too. With China’s President Xi Jinping tightening his grip over the country, his next challenge is to expand his clout on the matter of the Korean Peninsula,” said Jung Jae-hung, a researcher at the Sejong Institute.
While the meeting between Xi and Kim may have been anticipated, the chance for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is tantalizing and offers some cause for optimism, especially after a year when the President of the United States has threatened, more than once, to attack the north.
“North Korea appears to be sending a message to the US that it is serious about its commitment to denuclearization if its security is guaranteed, as the US is filling its national security team with hard-liners who are suspicious about North Korea’s intention,” said Hong Min, director at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
Where South Korea is cautiously optimistic about future talks with Pyongyang, Japan has raised questions about the Xi-Kim meeting.
North Korean missile tests regularly fly over the Japanese home islands and the country hosts several US overseas military bases.
Shinzo Abe has applauded Trump’s hardline measures against Pyongyang and has advocated strong missile defense initiatives within Japan to protect against potential North Korean attacks.
During an intensive deliberation at the House of Councillors Budget Committee on Wednesday morning, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe referred to the visit by the chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea and his summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“With profound interest, we are working to analyze and collect information,” Abe said. “We also want to receive briefings from the Chinese side.”
According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, Abe added “It is imperative that North Korea dismantle its nuclear and missile programs completely, verifiably and irreversibly. Sanctions [against North Korea] must be maintained unless [Pyongyang] takes concrete actions” regarding dismantlement.
Tokyo believes Pyongyang’s moves to improve ties with Beijing — following its steps for rapprochement with Washington and Seoul — are meant to allow the nation to proceed with denuclearization negotiations at a pace that it finds advantageous. North Korea is apparently “aiming to leave Japan out of [denuclearization] talks as Tokyo is leading the charge to pile on pressure” on Pyongyang, a senior Foreign Ministry official told the Yomiuri Shimbun
Japan has urged the United States and South Korea to conform with its basic stance of not loosening pressure on North Korea unless it takes specific steps toward denuclearization.