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US-China tensions give North Korea an opportunity to strengthen its position in nuclear talks

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In this Feb. 10, 2018, file photo, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, waits with North Korea's nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam, for the start of a women's hockey game at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea. AP
In this Feb. 10, 2018, file photo, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, waits with North Korea's nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam, for the start of a women's hockey game at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea. AP

Four years ago, during the first two months of the Trump administration, North Korea launched three weapons tests and murdered Kim Jong-un's half-brother in the middle of a crowded airport.

By the same point in the Biden administration, nothing of the sort has happened, but observers say the quieter start does not mean the new US president and his team will have an easier time coaxing North Korea back to the negotiating table over its nuclear weapons programme.

It has always been difficult for negotiators in Washington to strike any kind of deal with Pyongyang ― the two countries have technically been at war since the 1950s ― but observers say it may be harder than ever now without help from China.

"North Korea likely views the growing US-China rift as an opportunity," said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a former intelligence analyst for the US government.

"From North Korea's point of view, China is now even less motivated to cooperate with the US to pressure North Korea into denuclearisation, which gives North Korea some more wriggle room vis-a-vis the US."

US-China relations have plummeted over the last year, and have shown few signs that they were ready to improve in the early weeks of the Biden presidency. Experts say that has affected Washington's prospects for any diplomatic progress with Pyongyang.

This week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Tokyo and Seoul ― their first overseas trip - to discuss the various threats they say are posed by China and North Korea.

The Biden administration is currently conducting a review of its North Korea policy, which is expected to be released in the coming weeks, and the State Department has emphasised that the trip to Seoul and Tokyo was in large part meant to bring the three allies together on the issue.

In Seoul, Blinken said China also must help on the North Korea issue.

"Beijing has an interest, a clear self-interest, in helping to pursue the denuclearisation of the DPRK, because it is a source of instability, it's a source of danger, and obviously a threat to us and our partners," he said.

Analysts say that may not be so easy while US-China tensions are soaring.

"If Biden's government was willing to extend goodwill to China here, then China will be more active on cooperation on North Korea," said Zhao Tong, a senior fellow in the nuclear policy programme at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing.

"But from what we see now, space for a fundamental improvement in China-US relations is not big, so I suspect space for cooperation with North Korea is also not big."

At the same time, experts say China has effectively remained North Korea's only lifeline during the pandemic.

Pyongyang shut down the country's borders when the coronavirus outbreak first began in the Chinese city of Wuhan more than a year ago. It cracked down hard on trade and border smuggling, and also severely restricted diplomats from moving around the capital.

Last month, Russian diplomats and their families had to use a handpowered railway pushcart to leave the country.

"Covid-19 turned out to be more powerful and effective [in isolating North Korea] than any other UN-mandated sanctions," saidLee Seong-hyon, director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at the Sejong Institute, a South Korean think tank.

In 2019, China accounted for about 95 per cent of North Korea's total trade, according to the website North Korea in the World, which is operated by the East-West Centre and National Committee on North Korea. Over the last year, China's own trade with North Korea has plummeted too.

According to Chinese customs data ― which experts caution does not show the full extent of trade with North Korea ― China's exports to the country dropped from more than US$250 million in November 2019 to just US$3,000 in February.

"A lot of the pain the North Koreans are currently going through is self-inflicted," said Peter Ward, a doctoral candidate at the University of Vienna who studies the North Korean economy.

"I don't know if we're facing a famine quite yet," Ward said, adding that corn prices, a staple for poorer households in the country, have shot up. "The problem is we don't have particularly reliable data, but we do have a lot of stories from the border areas, and basically the market situation is bad."

Throughout the pandemic, North Korea's leaders have continued to develop their military, nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.

The country has revealed multiple new missiles "and a whole new look to their military" during the pandemic, said Jenny Town, director of the North Korea monitoring website 38 North and a senior fellow at the Stimson Centre.

"The North Koreans likely perceive these advancements as putting them in a stronger position than before," she said.

Naoko Aoki, a research associate at the University of Maryland's Centre for International and Security Studies, said that North Korea will now have to consider how much it wants to antagonise both the Biden administration and China - as it tries to get sanctions lifted, push the US military off of the Korean peninsula, keep trade going with Beijing, and also survive the pandemic.

"North Korea's decision-making regarding missile or nuclear tests involves both technical and political factors," Aoki said.

For intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which can travel thousands of miles and potentially hit US territory, "political factors will play a major part in that decision," she said.

The last time North Korea conducted an ICBM test, in November 2017, China backed an aggressive package of sanctions afterwards at the UN Security Council.

The worsening of US-China ties helped bring Beijing and Pyongyang back onto good terms, said Anthony Rinna, senior editor at research group Sino-NK.

Beijing has since come out and said the sanctions should be lifted, in part because North Korea has so far held off on similar long-range missile tests.

This week, the US general in charge of the military's Northern Command warned Congress that North Korea could try to test another ICBM "in the near future".

"[North Korea] will need to maintain a good relationship with China, as North Korea is relying on China at this moment of economic difficulty," Aoki said.

For now, two months into the Biden administration, while Pyongyang has not launched any missiles so far, it has once again begun to voice its concerns about what it calls the "hostile policy" of the US.

After White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed that the Biden administration had reached out to Pyongyang but had not received a reply,

Choe Son Hui, a senior North Korean official, said this week that any conversations would be meaningless if the US does not change its policies first.

"If the US wants so much to sit even once with us face to face, it has to drop its bad habit and adopt a proper stand from the beginning," Choe said, according to North Korea's state news agency.

"It will only be a waste of time to sit with the US as it is not ready to feel and accept new change and new times."

Evans Revere, a former state department official who negotiated with Beijing and Pyongyang over North Korea's nuclear weapons programme in the late 1990s, said that if the US goal really is to denuclearise North Korea, "we're running out of time".

"This is really hard, especially when you've seen every iteration of policy fail over the years," Revere said. "Nothing has succeeded more than temporarily, and so at the end of the day, North Korea is a stronger, more capable nuclear and ballistic missile power today than it ever was before."

Whether Pyongyang will risk upending calm relations with Beijing and infuriating Washington by testing those weapons remains to be seen. North Korea's first of three ICBM tests during the Trump administration did not take place until July 4, 2017 - US Independence Day.

"We're fully counting on being successful," said Marc Knapper, a deputy assistant secretary of state, speaking to reporters from Seoul. "But we're realistic, seeing what the track record has been."


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