As North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un is slated to meet US President Donald Trump for a second time in June this year, the former's recent visit to Beijing has raised some eyebrows in Washington.
For a successful dialogue between North Korea and the US, there needs to be trust. When the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met his US counterpart Donald Trump in June last year, the engagement ended with Trump tweeting that "he fell in love" with Kim. Both leaders agreed "to work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.” In return, Trump offered "security guarantees" to North Korea.
The encounter suggested some trust between the two leaders was established. But experts in Washington began to urge caution, criticising Trump for not achieving anything concrete except for a few "vague" points on the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
The two leaders are planning to meet again in June this year. Things have changed this time, however. Much to the surprise of many watchdogs, Kim showed up in China last week to meet the Chinese President Xi Jinping. His tone has also changed from being warm and friendly to sharp and shrill.
“If the United States does not keep the promise it made in the eyes of the world and . . . attempts to unilaterally enforce something upon us and persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our republic,” Kim said. “We may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country.”
Kim's China visit indicated that the North Korean issue cannot be resolved if its only ally China is not on board. Experts also see a deeper significance in Kim's arrival in Beijing.
"The North's relationship with China is difficult but important," Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and special assistant to former president Ronald Reagan, told TRT World. "Kim Jong-un wants to ensure China's backing and probably hopes to gain some relaxation in sanctions as he moves forward in negotiations with the US."
China’s support for North Korea dates back to the Korean War in 1950, when its troops flooded the Korean Peninsula to aid its northern ally against the US and South Korea. Since the war, China has lent political and economic backing to North Korea’s leaders, but strains in the relationship began to surface when Pyongyang tested a nuclear weapon in October 2006 and Beijing supported UN Security Council Resolution 1718, which imposed sanctions. Beijing also advocates for the resumption of the Six Party Talks, the multilateral framework aimed at denuclearising North Korea.
Despite taking a tough stance against its Korean ally, Beijing continues to be one of North Korea’s most important trading partners, making sure Kim's regime sustains its isolation from the West.
With Trump cosying up to Kim, Bandow, the Korean expert at Cato Institute, said China fears three scenarios: "North Korean collapse, reunification that strengthens US influence and leaves American forces on the Chinese border, and a US-North Korean rapprochement that essentially leaves China behind, still involved by losing its primary position."
It's the fear of losing influence over North Korea, Bandow says, that China fears the most, and probably drove "Beijing to stage four summits in a year after refusing to sanction a meeting of Kim with Xi Jinping for six years."
The US-North Korea stalemate
The political and diplomatic relations between North Korea and the US have been historically hostile, developing primarily during the Korean War.
In recent years relations have largely been influenced by North Korea's nuclear programme, six nuclear weapons tests, its development of long-range missiles capable of striking targets thousands of miles away, and its ongoing threats to strike the United States and South Korea with both nuclear weapons and conventional forces.
During his presidency, George W Bush referred to North Korea as part of the “Axis of Evil,” due to the threat of its nuclear capabilities. However, 2017 marked a significant rise of tensions and amplified rhetoric from both sides as Trump took the presidency, and it appeared that North Korea's nuclear weapons programme was developing at a faster rate than previously thought. The increasing rhetoric, missile testing and growing military presence on the Korean Peninsula sparked speculation of a nuclear conflict.
As a peninsula, Korea has frequently served as a buffer between countries like Russia, China, and Japan. North Korea has similarly depended on China and Russia for its security since the Cold War, while South Korea has relied on the United States, each to the detriment of its freedom of action.
After the Korean war, South Korea, against the advice of the United States, worked to develop heavy industry and briefly pursued a nuclear weapon of its own. North Korea has turned to military might and an advancing nuclear missile program to ensure its national security and independence.
To counter the nuclear threat and safeguard its ally in the south, the US deployed troops in South Korea, and today there are 28,500 US troops stationed in the country.
While a Kim-Trump meeting raised hopes for peacebuilding, there's still a lingering unease over the prospect of getting Kim to agree on denuclearisation. And China's role in recent months is being viewed with suspicion in Washington.
Zhao Tong, an expert on North Korea at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying China is probably seeking to use the North Korean puzzle as a bargaining tool to resolve its own trade dispute with America.
“This could undermine the United States’ coercive leverage over North Korea,” said Tong. “This would make the US nervous."
Each of the previous Kim-Xi meetings has come shortly before or after the North Korean summits with either Trump or South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
According to Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute, North Korea's relationship with China is difficult but important.
"Beijing can make or break efforts to isolate the North Koreans," he said. "And China always will be next door, even if the Americans eventually go home. So it is in Kim's interest to maintain a friendly relationship with China even as he attempts to improve relations with the US."