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China reaffirms its protagonism in the Korean crisis

When on March 26 the leader of North Korea , Kim Jong-un , traveled secretly to Beijing in an armored to hold unofficial meetings with train Xi Jinping , China took possession of the stage where the drama of the Korean Peninsula is represented . Probably, at the same time China also gave its truculent neighbor invaluable assurances and a bargaining chip for the upcoming talks on its nuclear program .

In March, for a few weeks, it seemed that China, concerned about its domestic political disputes and the reforms undertaken, had been left aside by the whirlwind of Korean Olympic diplomacy . Kim Jong-un’s sister monopolized the spotlights at the Pyeongchang Winter Games; South Korean President’s emissaries, Moon Jae-in , dined with Kim himself in the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK); finally, those same envoys revealed that US President Donald Trump had accepted an invitation to meet Kim Jong-un “before May”.

Any illusion that China was being ignored, however, faded with the visit of Kim Jong-un.


china and korea


Before the meeting, Chinese authorities and analysts were confident that their country would have to participate in any effort to resolve the dispute on the Korean peninsula. Some said that Beijing could calmly observe and express its support for the negotiations and the implementation of the freeze-for-freeze approach that it has been advocating for some time (Crisis Group also supports a variant of the freeze-for-freeze , which in fact is observed from early January). Any kind of negotiation seemed preferable to chaos or war.

Even so, in private many worried that China was excluded from the talks and their interests ignored. When the news about the reorganization of the cabinet in Washington became known, there was a kind of different anxiety: hawks like John Bolton , who have always advocated the war against North Korea, could pose conversations to fail and create a new predicate around strength solutions. Evidently, Xi did not want to take any chances and quickly received Kim. But, although the diplomatic protocol required China to launch the invitation, it is difficult to say which party was most interested in the meeting. Consulting Beijing was also good for Kim.

Meeting the Chinese leader rather than any other is a tradition of the Kim family, which, as indicated by the general coverage of the meeting on national television in North Korea, provides a source of national legitimacy for the North Korean leader. In 2000, Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, made the same train trip to Beijing, marking the end of an often violent process of consolidating power in Pyongyang and the start of a period of intense diplomacy that It would include summits with the leaders of South Korea, then with Russia and, finally, Japan. The images of Kim father meeting with Jiang Zeminas an equal they were publicized all over the world. Appearing with Xi Jinping is the same for Kim Jong-un, helping to taint his position within the country and pushing the meetings first with President Moon in the city where the Korean War truce, Panmunjom, was signed on April 27. , and then, if you go ahead, with President Trump. With a meeting with the Chinese leader on duty under Kim’s arm, the following now seem more likely.


China is the link in the chain of application of sanctions that can be broken more easily

North Korea’s links with Beijing have worn down in recent years. By beginning to repair them, Kim polishes her new charismatic offensive, potentially disrupting Sino-US and Sino-South Korean coordination, and could gain economic incentives and partial and discreet relief from sanctions. From Kim’s perspective, China is the link in the chain of application of sanctions that can be broken more easily. While the current government of South Korea may be interested in offering economic incentives to persuade North Korea to compromise, it faces much higher political obstacles to do so and also does not have the pockets so deep.

For China, the time is right. There has been a broad and divisive debate in their political circles about how to handle the North Korean dossier, which leads to a certain degree of paralysis. Beijing accepted wave after wave of Security Council sanctions mainly because Pyongyang was flagrantly ignoring its security interests, but also because they were the logical continuation of a tolerable status quo and the path of least resistance under relentless US pressure. In addition, Xi has been concerned about a series of meetings and maneuvers by the CCP and the government that formalized and perpetuated their control of power and led to a massive reorganization of the government.


North Korea is far from being the puppet of China, but it is an important letter that Beijing has to play by competing with the US


Now Xi, with his unquestioned authority, a new foreign policy team, his team, and an impending summit between the DPRK and the Republic of Korea, has seized the moment to reaffirm China’s pivotal role in managing inter-Korean tensions. Sour relations and a trade war with the United States probably also influenced his calculations. North Korea is far from being the puppet of China, but it is an important letter that Beijing has to play in intensifying its strategic competition with Washington.

In an unusually detailed report, the state news agency Xinhua said the meeting was “unofficial” and a “strategic choice,” and that Kim arrived in Beijing for “moral responsibility,” indicating that relations are cold but the they can fix. According to that report, Xi also told Kim what he should do now if he wants China’s help: meet regularly with policy makers, communicate quickly and frequently, prioritize economic development, promote interpersonal exchanges and agree on the denuclearization of the peninsula. Korea as a long-term goal. A Chinese proposal that does not appear in the Xinhua reportIt may have been to host some upcoming meetings. Symbolically, but also in practice, that would consolidate the position of the Middle Kingdom.

If Xi gets away with it, by the end of the year the talks on the Korean peninsula could return to a dialogue framework made up of China. North Korea would become an unmanageable problem but not an imminent threat, denuclearization would be a distant political objective, and sanctions would become an adjustable valve to control the pressure on Pyongyang. Order under the sky, from the perspective of China. But although this is Beijing’s preferred route, the road ahead is far less certain than the one that led the DPRK leader to its first summit, and many factors could derail diplomacy, particularly Kim Jong-un himself. and Donald Trump.


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