As US-China relations deteriorate on various fronts, the last thing Beijing wants is for North Korea to fall into Washington’s sphere of influence
If it was an uphill task in June for the United States to win China’s support for its efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile programs, the chances now are virtually nil.
With an escalating trade war, allegations of Chinese meddling in US elections, and saber-rattling in the South China Sea, China is more concentrated than before on its own security interests – and the last thing it likely wants is for North Korea to fall into America’s sphere of influence.
To be sure, it’s still not clear that North Korea plans to yield to Washington’s denuclearization demands, though the process is inching forward despite setbacks that haven’t yet proven fatal.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said after his visit to Pyongyang on October 7 that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had agreed to allow outside inspectors into his nation’s key nuclear and missile testing sites.
That is progress, as is recent news that US President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un plan to hold a second summit meeting, but the US and North Korea still have widely divergent interpretations of what denuclearization actually means.
To the US, it entails a “final, fully verified denuclearization”, until which economic sanctions and other punitive trade measures imposed against North Korea will not be lifted. It is thus notable that the US has accused China, as well as Russia, of helping Pyongyang elude United Nations-enforced trade sanctions against Pyongyang.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, on the other hand, told the UN General Assembly in September that there was “no way” his country would disarm as long as US sanctions remained in place.
As for Beijing, the escalating US-China trade war has added an entirely new dimension to the seemingly insolvable North Korea dilemma.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, while meeting Pompeo in Beijing on October 8, criticized Washington for imposing tariffs on an ever-widening range of Chinese goods and for alleging China has meddled in upcoming US mid-term elections.
Wang went even further by saying the imposition of the tariffs — and what he termed US support for Taiwan, which Beijing considers a break-away province — was tantamount to “a direct attack on our mutual trust and has cast a shadow on China-US relations.”
Wang added: “We demand the US stop the unwarranted accusations and wrongdoings against China immediately.”
The fact that this was said publicly while Pompeo was in Beijing underlined just how far China and America have drifted apart since Trump met Kim in a much ballyhooed summit in Singapore in June.
Increasingly, China has little interest in mediating the Korean nuclear crisis, a situation that previously consumed America’s security agenda in Asia.
An end to tensions on the Korean Peninsula is in China’s interest, but Beijing wants that peace on its own terms, not Washington’s. That would include a withdrawal of US soldiers and military installations from nearby South Korea. And while China is not in favor of a nuclear-armed North Korea, it does want Pyongyang to be strong enough to resist US pressure.
Even before Trump met Kim, it was clear that Beijing would not brook North Korea striking a unilateral deal with the US that might undermine its security interests. Analysts suggest China could easily derail the process through economic means, including by closing its border and starving North Korea of crucial imports such as fuel.
As initial US-North Korea talks were underway in March, Kim traveled to Beijing, his first foreign trip since he inherited power from his father Kim Jong-il in December 2011.
Until the younger Kim’s private train pulled into Beijing’s central station, many felt he had deliberately avoided China, a country his father and grandfather Kim Il-sung frequently visited with fanfare.
An advisor to South Korean President Moon Jae-in suggested that Kim Jong-un sought the meeting with Chinese leaders for guidance, considering he had no experience in dealing with Washington in diplomatic terms.
Kim’s maiden voyage to Beijing was followed by a visit to Pyongyang in mid-April by Song Tao, the head of the powerful International Liaison Department of China’s Central Committee, an influential body which conducts foreign policy from behind the scenes.
Tellingly, Kim traveled to China again in May to meet with President Xi Jinping in the northeastern port city of Dalian. Although a formal date has not yet been set, Xi is expected to pay a reciprocal visit to Pyongyang either this month or next.
Neither of those earlier meetings received as much international media attention as the ones Kim held with Trump and Pompeo, but they are of equal if not greater importance in determining the future of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction programs and foreign policies.
China clearly wants for North Korea to remain within its sphere of influence, particularly as the US ramps up trade and security threats against it. And Beijing no doubt recognizes that the US aims to play on its quietly strained relations with Kim.
In 2013, Kim is believed to have ordered the execution of his uncle Jang Song-thaek, a leading government figure with close connections to Beijing, for reputedly trying to organize a faction within the ruling elite that was opposed to Kim’s rigid economic policies.
More executions followed in a crackdown on North Korean government insiders who were believed to be in favor of Chinese-style market reforms, a policy direction Beijing is known to have advocated.
Kim is also believed to have ordered Jang’s execution over rumors that Jang wanted to replace him with his estranged half-brother Kim Jong-nam, who was known to have spent time in China.
Kim, in turn, was murdered at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017 in what had all the hallmarks of a state-ordered hit.
Against that cloak and dagger backdrop, there is clearly a level of lingering mistrust between Beijing and Pyongyang. As China’s relations with the US deteriorate on several fronts, Beijing will likely view suspiciously any further warming of ties between Pyongyang and Washington.
As China continues to provide North Korea with sanctions-busting economic sustenance, Beijing ultimately has greater leverage than Washington over Pyongyang. Whether China would be willing to torpedo America’s denuclearization efforts will depend on the wider state of their fast declining and increasingly acrimonious bilateral relations.
Bertil Lintner is a Swedish journalist who has written about Asia for forty years.