[News analysis] The potential of Xi’s N. Korea visit to change Korean Peninsula affairs

Posted on : 2019-06-18 16:37 KST Modified on : 2019-06-18 16:37 KST
Beijing may plan to use “North Korea” card in negotiations with Trump at G20 summit
Chinese President Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping

The surprise visit to Pyongyang by Chinese President Xi Jinping signals that China is returning to the fore after previously taking a step back from the Korean Peninsula peace process, which has been unfolding since early last year. Analysts are predicting it could be a starting point for major changes in the Korean Peninsula situation, which has remained at an impasse since the North Korea-US summit in Hanoi.

While the North Korea-US summit set to take place in Pyongyang on June 20–21 was obviously a mutual decision by the two sides, Xi’s determination was a crucial factor. Xi has yet to visit North Korea despite requests to do so from leader Kim Jong-un over the course of four visits to China since March 2018. Coming six-and-a-half years after he became China’s top leader as general secretary of the Communist Party of China in late 2012, Xi’s visit is also the first by a Chinese head of state in the 14 years since then General Secretary Hu Jintao visited in 2005.

The reasons for Xi’s decision to visit North Korea now warrant consideration in several respects. First, one undeniable factor is the trade and technology war under way between China and the US, which has been likened to a “war without gunfire.” This suggests Xi plans to make use of the “North Korea card” ahead of negotiations with US President Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Osaka on June 28–29 – although the decision could be interpreted as focused on seeking cooperation rather than confrontation. For Xi, the summit with Kim could be used as a good discussion topic to reduce tensions and conflict in negotiations with Trump, emphasizing China’s role as a “partner in cooperation” to the US. The fact that Xi’s stay in Pyongyang is scheduled to last just two days – an unprecedentedly short time for a Chinese head of state visiting North Korea in the 70 years of diplomatic relations between the two sides – signals that larger political considerations were a greater factor in the visit than the “goodwill diplomacy” between parties that is characteristic of communist countries.

Xi’s decision to visit North Korea also reflects his awareness that the current moment is one that calls for Chinese intervention. Under Xi’s leadership, China has been reluctant to take action despite constant pressure from Trump and the US since last year for Beijing to “take on a role.” Instead, it has stuck to an approach of waiting for the right moment – insisting that there is a “right time for everything.” While the possibility of Xi stopping in Seoul between his Pyongyang visit and trip to Osaka cannot be ruled out, no such agreement had been reported between South Korea and China as of the evening of June 17. For now at least, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Xi meeting for a bilateral summit in Osaka appears to be a likelier scenario.

In addition to Xi’s considerations, Kim’s calculations are also a key factor. In that sense, it is worth considering the circumstances surrounding Kim’s four summits with China since coming to power. His second and third visits to China last year (Dalian on May 7–8 and Beijing on June 19–20, respectively) came before and after the first North Korea-US summit in Singapore on June 12, while his fourth visit earlier this year (Beijing on Jan. 7–10) came ahead of the second North Korea-US summit in Hanoi last February. Kim’s first visit to China (Beijing on Mar. 25–28, 2018) also happened ahead of his first summit with Moon (Apr. 27), and his second came before a second inter-Korean summit at Panmunjom’s Tongilgak building on May 26 of last year.

Xi’s N. Korea visit may lead to fourth inter-Korean summit in near future

The precedents have raised anticipation that the fifth North Korea-China summit between Kim and Xi could lead to a fourth inter-Korea summit in the near future between Moon and Kim, if not a third North Korea-US summit. The behind-the-scenes variable of Xi’s visit appears to have been a factor in Moon’s remarks last week in Norway and Sweden, where he left open the possibility of a fourth inter-Korean summit by declaring the matter “up to Chairman Kim’s determination.”

Indeed, Blue House Spokesperson Ko Min-jung said on the evening of June 17 that the South Korean government had been “watching the situation with President Xi’s North Korea visit and observing related activities since last week.” Ko also said the administration “believes a North Korea visit by President Xi could contribute to a peaceful resolution of Korean Peninsula issues, and has been in close discussions with the Chinese government to help bring it about quickly.”

“We look forward to this visit contributing to the swift resumption of negotiations toward the Korean Peninsula’s complete denuclearization and the resulting establishment of permanent peace on the peninsula,” she added. The message signaled that Seoul was previously aware of Xi’s plans to visit Pyongyang and is looking forward to the shift having a positive effect on the political situation.

“President Xi’s visit to North Korea is a factor for positive change,” said a senior administration official.

“We could say the chances of an inter-Korean summit are now that much greater,” the official added.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

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