In a surprise development, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with South Korean officials last Monday as part of an effort to bring regional powers into line with US President Donald Trump’s decision to accept a face-to-face meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, breaking unprecedented ground in the conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
No sitting US president has ever accepted an invitation from Pyongyang before.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with Trump in Washington last week to brief him on a visit by South Korean officials to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK – North Korea) and to convey Kim Jong-un’s eagerness to meet the US president.
Trump wanted to change up his cabinet team before launching high-stakes negotiations with North Korea, a senior US official said Tuesday, after the president announced Mike Pompeo would succeed Rex Tillerson as his top diplomat.
“The President wanted to make sure to have his new team in place in advance of the upcoming talks with North Korea,” the official said.
Trump described the meeting as a “tremendous success,” hinting that he would meet the DPRK leader by May in order to try to achieve the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
Trump said the talks with the North Korean leader could be the “greatest deal” in the world. “Let us see what happens,” he said, adding that he would like to see the talks start as soon as possible.
The question now is whether Trump’s unorthodox approach can yield results. China also has a vested interest in peace and security on the Korean Peninsula.
No fewer than 300,000 North Koreans live in China, and while most of them are illegal, China largely turns a blind eye.
If they are caught by the Chinese authorities, they are systematically deported to North Korea, even though the vast majority would rather go to the South.
However, the South Korean authorities are often suspicious of such new arrivals, and North Koreans arriving in the South are subjected to stringent interrogation.
They are also subjected to surveillance once they arrive in South Korea, which sometimes lasts for as long as three months.
Thus far, no US president has ever taken such a bold decision on the Korean issue.
But other factors also need to be taken into account. Seoul’s chief envoy to the North, national security adviser Chung Eui-yong, met with President Xi in Beijing for 35 minutes on Monday, as a parallel delegation headed to Tokyo to brief Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on attempts to open talks with Pyongyang on its nuclear and missile programme.
The exact venue of the proposed meeting between Trump and Kim is still unknown.
Beijing could provide the perfect setting as China was instrumental in breaking the stalemate between the North and the South. While many are taking the proposed meeting with a pinch of salt, at a political rally in Pennsylvania Trump told supporters he believed North Korea wanted to make peace.
However, he said he might leave the talks quickly if it did not look as if progress on nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula could be made.
He also tackled other issues in his speech apart from the prospective peace on the Korean Peninsula, warning of possible US tariffs on European cars and launching his re-election campaign for the 2020 elections in the United States.
“Hey, who knows what’s going to happen,” Trump said on Saturday at a rally for a Republican Party congressional candidate. “I may leave fast, or we may sit down and make the greatest deal for the world,” he said, referring to the proposed North Korean meeting.
“The two leaders welcomed the prospect of dialogue between the United States and North Korea, and committed to maintain pressure and sanctions until North Korea takes tangible steps towards complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation,” an official White House statement said.
In the meantime, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha is scheduled to meet with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to discuss cooperation in the talks between South Korea and the DPRK and between the United States and the DPRK.
In a statement made in Seoul on Monday it was revealed that Kang Kyung-wha will visit Washington from Thursday to Saturday and meet with Tillerson during the three-day stay.
This is not the first time that a US president has been invited to meet a North Korean leader. Former US president Bill Clinton was invited in 2000 to conclude a missile deal with the DPRK late in his presidency.
However, he declined to visit the country, dispatching then US secretary of state Madeleine Albright instead.
Albright visited North Korea on a reconnaissance mission and met its then leader Kim Jong-il.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly