US, China vie for advantage in dealing with North Korea
By ANNA FIFIELD | The Washington Post | Published: September 10, 2018
BEIJING — North Korea's national spectacle over the weekend featured a performance of the popular Chinese folk song "Love My China" and pleased President Donald Trump by not parading nuclear missiles, showing that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is no diplomatic dunce.
By including the song and literally holding hands with a top Chinese official during a weekend of celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation, a smiling Kim sent a clear message of comradely friendship to Beijing.
And by excluding nuclear-related hardware from a huge parade held Sunday, the young North Korean leader also sent a message that Trump immediately interpreted as "a big and very positive statement" on denuclearization.
"Kim Jong Un managed to put on a great show, and make progress on two of his most important foreign policy goals at the same time," said Zhao Tong, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. Kim's goals are boosting an anemic economy while holding on to his nuclear program for as long as possible.
"North Korea has great faith in the darkness of humanity. So Kim Jong Un is making good use of the growing mistrust and rivalry between the U.S. and a rising China," he said.
Kim knows that Beijing is worried he's getting too close to Trump, while Washington continues to worry that China is acting as a spoiler.
A multiplayer game of chess is now being played in northeast Asia, revolving around North Korea. South Korea's pro-engagement President Moon Jae-in, who will travel to Pyongyang next week, is trying to keep the momentum going in the diplomatic process he kicked off at the beginning of the year. Japan's conservative government, meanwhile, is poised to return to a harder line if — or when, as it would say — the current denuclearization effort falls through.
Kim is trying to play the parties off against each other, said John Delury, a China specialist at Yonsei University in Seoul. "When Kim makes a move like this, it gives him a lot of leverage over Seoul and Washington," he said.
Despite all the ups and downs since their June meeting, Trump is hoping Kim will make good on their agreement to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, a hope made apparent in his Sunday tweets thanking "Chairman Kim."
But he is also holding China's feet to the flames to make it happen by linking the North Korean problem with the trade war festering between Beijing and Washington. Trump has cited China's role in the North Korea as part of the rationale for imposing punishing tariffs on China.
"Always blaming China for negatively influencing North Korea's stance," Hu Xijin, editor in chief of the Global Times, Beijing's main foreign affairs newspaper, said Monday when retweeting the American president. "Now North Korea behaves better, shouldn't China be given credit?
For his part, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has met Kim three times this year, appears to want to return to an equilibrium where North Korea is quiet and he can concentrate on expanding China's international economic influence.
That's where China's and North Korea's interests collide, however, analysts say.
Kim, having achieved a credible nuclear program, is now moving on to the second track in the two-track strategy he laid out in 2013: economic development. The economy was front and center at the weekend's celebrations, with parade floats extolling "economic construction" and scientific advancement.
Xi did not attend the celebrations, perhaps to avoid antagonizing Trump during a tense period in the trade war, but instead sent a close aide as a special representative. Li Zhanshu, the third-ranking official in China's Communist Party, was greeted with cheering crowds when he arrived in Pyongyang and given the place of honor at Sunday's parade.
He also delivered a warm letter from Xi to Kim. "Comrade chairman" Kim had achieved important results in "social and economic development," Xi wrote. "I'm really pleased to see all this," Xi said, adding that he was "willing to work hand in hand" with Kim to "benefit both countries."
The show of unity continued Monday. Communist Party ties have been "totally restored," the Global Times declared.
The big question now is what happens with the sanctions imposed last year, both unilaterally and through the United Nations, as part of Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign.
As Trump threatened military action against North Korea over its nuclear tests and numerous missile launches, China overcame its usual reluctance to implement international sanctions against North Korea and cracked down on border trade like never before.
Now, with diplomatic talks underway, albeit in fits and starts, China has no need to continue blocking North Korean exports of seafood, garments and coal.
"China's positions that, because North Korea has started to participate in denuclearization negotiations with a positive attitude, the international community should ease some sanctions on North Korea," said Xuan Dongri, director of Institute of Northeast Asia Studies at Yanbian University, near the Chinese border with North Korea.
The United States should agree to ease sanctions to "establish a relationship of trust," he said.
Reports from the border suggest that trade has been returning this year, although it is not appearing in official statistics. That would make sense, experts said, given that China has never believed that sanctions are the right way to deal with North Korea anyway.
Regardless, relations between Beijing and Pyongyang will continue to improve if North Korea made progress on denuclearization, said Jin Qiangyi, a North Korea expert also at Yanbian University.
"This is not just a political issue, it's crucial for the economic ties between North Korea and the three northeastern provinces of China," he said, referring to a region with a large ethnic Korean population and an economy reliant on trade with North Korea.
But there can be no large-scale economic cooperation between China and North Korea until the sanctions were lifted, Jin said.
Indeed, said Adam Cathcart, an expert on Chinese-North Korean relations at Leeds University, for all the effusive language in the Chinese press, there were no indications that Xi was going to help Kim with the economic development he now desperately needs if he is going to adhere to his promise to improve the standard of living. There has been no mention of investment or any other rewards for North Korea's turn away from provocations and toward diplomacy.
"China is not turning on the economic taps," Cathcart said. "There's still a long way to go there."
The Washington Post's Yang Liu contributed to this report.