[News analysis] Xi Jinping’s N. Korea visit indicates 4-party format in denuclearization talks  

Posted on : 2019-06-19 17:31 KST Modified on : 2019-06-19 17:31 KST
Beijing’s growing role may signal progress in Korean Peninsula peace process
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in June 2018.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in June 2018.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s upcoming visit to Pyongyang on June 20–21 means that the Korean Peninsula peace process is shifting from its previous three-party framework spearheaded by South and North Korea and the US to a four-party one involving China. The growing role for Beijing could result in an even more complex situation – but the change could also be seen as a positive shift toward progress and intensification of the Korean Peninsula peace process rather than a step backward.

China is one of the parties to the armistice agreement that halted the Korean War. This had led to predictions that the Korean Peninsula peace process will unfold with all four parties to that agreement taking part to resolve a complex issue involving cooperation and conflict. While many experts and media have focused only on the North Korean denuclearization aspect, the Korean Peninsula peace process entails the resolution of far more complex and deeply rooted structural conflicts. The Cold War framework on the Korean Peninsula is a complex structure sustained by four “pillars,” as described by former South Korean Minister of Unification Lim Dong-won: mutual distrust and antagonism between South and North, hostile relations between the US and North Korea, an arms race involving weapons of mass destruction (including nuclear weapons), and a military armistice regime. For the four “Cold War pillars” to be fully removed, China’s participation is not optional but necessary.

China is a staunch ally of North Korea, serving as its sole “patron” in a relationship of close interdependence. China’s participation, cooperation, and support are pivotal if North Korea’s deeply rooted regime security concerns are to be resolved and its economic development to become a reality. This is the main reason the US and other countries involved are paying close attention to the ramifications of Xi’s visit to the North – the first by a Chinese head of state in 14 years – not only in terms of “strengthening friendly relations” between the two sides, but for Northeast Asia as a whole.

To begin with, the North Korea-China summit that takes place during Xi’s visit could be regarded as a “certified check” from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – an assurance that he will not be turning his back on denuclearization negotiations, at least for the time being. This explains why a key Blue House official said on June 18 that North Korea-China dialogue was “seen as likely to help in keeping the momentum for dialogue alive and ensuring the embers don’t die.” The dialogue could serve as a psychological safety valve of sorts in the search for a way through the risky impasse since the North Korea-US summit in Hanoi ended without an agreement.

A more important question concerns the content of whatever new message on denuclearization Kim presents in his summit with Xi. That message is very likely to become the “new proposal” shared on Kim’s behalf by Xi during his summit with US President Donald Trump at the G20 Summit in Osaka on June 28–29. A former senior South Korean official predicted the content of Kim’s message would “be more flexible and accommodating than Kim Jong-un’s official position [from an Apr. 13 Supreme People’s Assembly policy speech] calling for a ‘new method of calculation’ from the US.”

Many observers are also predicting Xi will pledge to provide large-scale humanitarian aid to the North after acquiring a “gift” from Kim to offer Trump. This in turn would reduce potential demand from the North for South Korean support.

Xi’s newfound status as mediator and facilitator

Xi’s newfound status as a mediator and facilitator in the tug-of-war between Kim and Trump is particularly noteworthy. In the past, South Korean President Moon Jae-in acted more or less on his own as a mediator and facilitator. The most prominent example of this was his bridging role in bringing about the two North Korea-US summits after securing Kim’s written promise to denuclearize through the Panmunjom Declaration on Apr. 27 of last year, in which he pledged “complete denuclearization,” and the Pyongyang Joint Declaration the following Sept. 19, in which he expressed his willingness to “take additional measures, such as the permanent dismantlement of the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon.”

This time, however, it will be Xi who meets with Trump carrying a new denuclearization message from Kim. The shift was seen by observers as being based on Kim’s provisional judgment after the Hanoi summit’s collapse that Moon’s mediating role and the three-party framework with the US had reached their limits. But it also appears to be less a matter of one mediator/catalyst being replaced and more a case of going from one to two.

A former senior South Korean official noted that there were “concerns that with China’s growing role, South Korea’s room to maneuver could end up shrinking if it doesn’t get its act together right now.”

A current senior official said, “It’s time for us to resolve this issue day by recalling the experience in 2005 when South Korea-China cooperation nudged North Korea and the US toward the adoption of the September 19 Joint Statement at the Six-Party Talks.”

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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