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China's role complicates North Korean denuclearization process

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Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, waves with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on the former's visit to Pyongyang in June 2019. Xinhua via AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, waves with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on the former's visit to Pyongyang in June 2019. Xinhua via AP

Pyongyang emerges as key challenge for Yoon Suk-yeol administration

By Kim Bo-eun

HONG KONG ― Pyongyang's series of provocations this year signal that addressing the neighbor to the North will be one of the greatest challenges for President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, who has pledged to take a hardline stance toward the reclusive state compared to his predecessor, Moon Jae-in.

Yoon is scheduled to take office in May and has outlined the direction of his administration's foreign policy ― which is to strengthen Seoul's alliance with Washington, while relying less on Beijing. This would be a shift from Moon's policy towards China, given that South Korea depends largely on the Asian neighbor, not only for trade but also in regards to progress in relations with North Korea.

Although China and North Korea have not always been on the best terms, the two have had a special relationship. Beijing is Pyongyang's greatest ally, among the few that exist, with the two countries signing a treaty in 1961. China has played a complex role in the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula. It took part in efforts for North Korea's nuclear disarmament, as one of the participants of the six party talks, and in 2017 backed the United Nations Security Council sanctions on Pyongyang, which strained ties with the country. However, Beijing's role has shifted in recent years.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made his first overseas trip, since taking power in 2011, to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2018, and four more summits followed, the last being Xi's visit to Pyongyang in 2019. It was the first time in 14 years a Chinese head of state visited North Korea.

China continues to be North Korea's largest trading partner, accounting for 88 percent of total trade in 2020, while the figure is down due to sanctions and Pyongyang closing its border after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beijing has continued to supply key resources not only through legal trade, but also through illicit means. Beijing, along with Moscow, has recently been backing Pyongyang at the United Nations, leading efforts to ease sanctions imposed for its weapons testing as well as the prevention new ones being realized.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, left, holds hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Pyongyang Sunan Airport before Xi's departure for China in June 2019. Korean Central News Agency-Yonhap
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, left, holds hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Pyongyang Sunan Airport before Xi's departure for China in June 2019. Korean Central News Agency-Yonhap

China has acted as a buffer, speaking on behalf of Pyongyang. Beijing's ambassador to the United Nations, Zhang Jun, in February said that Washington should "show more flexibility" if it wanted to see a "new breakthrough." He said more "attractive, practical policies and actions accommodating the concerns of North Korea" were necessary.

Analysts have stated that China is invested in relations with North Korea, because it is a means to counter U.S. influence in the region, with U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. On the other hand, the Beijing-Pyongyang relationship also provides China with some leverage as a broker if the process of North Korea's denuclearization were to actually occur.

"Beijing, since Kim Jong-un's visit in March 2018, has transformed its North Korea policy into a historic new form: restoring the alliance discourse and the expression of ideological commonality with North Korea, while ending any reference to denuclearization of the Peninsula as an element of China's position and policy toward that country," Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University of China, said via email.

"That 'new normal' will be kept intact in the predictable future."

China's current role has complicated the situation on the Korean Peninsula, analysts said.

"By propping up the Kim regime, China allows North Korea to threaten Seoul and reject offers of engagement," Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international relations at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said in an email.

President Moon Jae-in, right, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shake hands at the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom at an inter-Korean summit held April 2018. Korea Times file
President Moon Jae-in, right, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shake hands at the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom at an inter-Korean summit held April 2018. Korea Times file

As progress with North Korea was one of the Moon administration's greatest goals, the president took a dovish stance, which led to historic summits in 2018, and denuclearization talks with the U.S. But it is unclear how Yoon's expected hardline stance will drive relations with North Korea, and whether negotiations with the U.S. can resume.

This challenge is presented at a time when expectations are growing that the alliance of China, Russia and North Korea will likely be strengthened against the backdrop of the Russia-led Ukraine invasion. Beijing has not condemned the aggression, while Pyongyang has attributed Russia's invasion of Ukraine as a result of the U.S.' refusal to take Moscow's security demands seriously.

South Korean president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol / Newsis
South Korean president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol / Newsis

Shi said that China's stance on Russia's attack on Ukraine has further deteriorated relations with the U.S. and other major allies.

"In this context, Kim Jong-un is accelerating his nuclear missile development program, and South Korea's president-elect, a so-called hardline conservative, will therefore, take a harsher stance towards Kim, based on closer allied cooperation with the U.S. and perhaps also Japan," he added.

"The incoming Yoon administration is aware of the strategic and economic importance of China, but wants the bilateral relationship to be based on mutual respect and framed by the rules-based international order," Easley said, referring to Beijing's rivalry with Washington, which prompted it to strengthen alliances with Russia and North Korea.

"Yoon won't seek to escalate tensions but will strengthen deterrence via the U.S. alliance and demand reciprocity from the Kim regime," he said.

President Moon Jae-in, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to Beijing in December 2017. Yonhap
President Moon Jae-in, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to Beijing in December 2017. Yonhap

While Beijing's role has varied over past decades, it is set to continue to have a presence in the geopolitical dynamics of the Korea Peninsula, analysts said.

"In the past, China has acted at times as a mediator for North Korea's denuclearization, and at times it has also taken part in UN Security Council moves to pressure Pyongyang," Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said via phone.

"China plays a weighty role in achieving peace on the Korean peninsula," he said.



Kim Bo-eun bkim@koreatimes.co.kr


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