GP Insights # 78, 18 June 2019
After multiple visits by Kim Jong-Un to Beijing, Chinese president for the first time has agreed to Kim’s invite and hence will be travelling to Pyongyang on 20th June for a two day visit. It will be Xi’s visit after establishing power in 2012 and the first formal visit to North Korean capital by a Chinese leader in 14 years.
What is the background?
Sino-Korean alliance dates back to the Korean war and because China is North Korea’s biggest trading partner yet none of the Chinese leaders has visited North Korea since it began testing its nuclear weapons in 2006 is a strong statement China tried to convey. Beijing had joined hands with Washington by voting in the favour of denuclearization of North Korea in UN. North Korea’s nuclear program was one of the greatest threats to US security for decades after it started to indulge in nuclear and missile tests in 2016 and especially intercontinental ballistic missile test in 2017. On June 2018, starting a new chapter, Trump and Kim met in Singapore to discuss ways to denuclearize and establish peace in the entire Korean peninsula, however, unfortunately, both sides failed to stick to the negotiations and objectives, which further led to disagreements in their second summit in Hanoi on February 2019. Washington and Pyongyang disagreed regarding the means to achieve an end, where Pyongyang wants to take ‘step by step’ approach and has its demands, while Washington wants to denuclearize it completely failing which, sanctions will be imposed.
China’s attitude towards North has drastically changed compared to its previous regime as it highly emphasizes on preserving peace and stability, for war would severely impact China’s security and will lead to cross border terrorist conflict and hike in the inflow of refugees posing a severe threat to its national security. Any dispute in the Korean peninsula will also create a hard time for China in capturing Taiwan and hence shows much interest in denuclearizing North Korea.
China has also joined hands with the US in this issue as it poses a significant threat to the regional stability which might lead to US intervention and military deployments triggering regional actors like Japan and South Korea to strengthen their defensive capabilities which are all against China’s interest. However, it is highly impossible to expect only China to exert maximum pressure on North Korea. As far as the peninsula is divided it helps in serving China’s interests while a unified one will pose a threat to its strategic balance, as it might led to Korea becoming US ally by replacing China. The importance of Korea is its role in acting as a buffer state in the great power competition.
What does it mean?
The trip to North Korea is a reciprocal visit, but considering the timing of the visit and the trade war, it is a geopolitical move. Possibly the talks can be about denuclearization, North and South Korean relations or to strengthen trade relations between North Korea and China.
China being North Korea’s strong ally will it be in the position to solve the failed talks between Kim and Trump regarding the denuclearization or is it the visit to strengthen Kim’s position against trump which might have a more significant impact on the ongoing trade conflict between US and China. The timing of the visit leads to suspicion as Trump and Xi are expected to meet at the G20 summit in Japan later this month and Trump’s visit to South Korea as well. Though the ties between the two countries are not as strong as it once used to be, Xi is trying to prove that China is a global player who will have a say in dealing with North Korea and it cannot be sidelined when it comes to establishing a secure Asia. While we cannot ignore the fact that North Korea’s dependence on China is much more than China’s dependence on North Korea’s, as its economy is greatly affected under international sanctions and China is its biggest trading partner and is highly dependent on it.
Even though the trade war between the US and China is a pressing issue, China can either help or worsen the situation in North Korea. As for Kim, Xi’s visit is a matter of pomp and show to justify his power even though there were failed talks between US and North, but it is not wholly isolated as China is there to support.