In his first overseas trip since becoming North Korean leader in 2011, Kim Jong-un boarded an armoured train and crossed the Yalu River that separates North Korea and China to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping late last month.
This Chinese-North Korean Summit meeting was the first of its kind between the two leaders.
Relations between China and North Korea have been frosty of late, particularly after the American-Chinese Summit meeting in Florida in April 2017 where United States President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping agreed to cooperate on the North Korean issue.
In the wake of this summit meeting, China voted for several United Nations Security Council Resolutions imposing sanctions on North Korea, supporting an American strategy that has centred on applying maximum pressure on Pyongyang to stop its nuclear and ballistic programmes and testing.
Beijing has watched closely developments on the Korean Peninsula since then, and it has warned against escalation. In the meantime, it has made it clear to Washington that it opposes any military attack on the North, while also calling on the North Koreans to show restraint and agree to negotiate a peaceful solution to the crisis.
The breakthrough came in February in the context of the North Korean participation in the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea. The sister of the North Korean leader headed the delegation of North Korea to these games, and she was received by South Korean President Moon Jae-in in a highly publicised political opening between the North and the South.
A few weeks later, a high level South Korean delegation met with Kim Yong-un in Pyongyang, and he agreed to confer with the American president.
The South Korean delegation then flew to Washington and had a meeting with Trump last month.
After the meeting, Trump tweeted that he had accepted the proposal advanced by Kim Jong-un for an American-North Korean Summit meeting to be held next month in a venue that has yet to be agreed upon.
Such a summit could not take place without prior Chinese-North Korean coordination and agreement on the broad outlines of the talks between the American and North Korean leaders.
Both China and North Korea have large stakes in the possible outcomes of a summit meeting between Trump and Kim Yong-un. North Korea would need full Chinese support in negotiations with the United States, and China will need to have its say in defining solutions to the security challenges on the Korean Peninsula.
In remarks made during the unprecedented meeting between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un, the Chinese leader made clear that his country was sticking to the goal of the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and to the safeguarding of peace and stability thereon.
He stressed the importance of solving problems through dialogue and consultation, and he insisted that Beijing would continue to work with all the parties concerned towards a thaw in the overall situation on the Peninsula.
The Trump administration, and, in fact, all previous US administrations dating back to the presidency of former US president Bill Clinton, or four administrations in all, two Republican and two Democrat, have striven for the denuclearisation of North Korea, and that was also the objective behind the Six Power Talks that brought the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States to the negotiating table.
However, these talks foundered during the rule of Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il. The Americans, under the present administration, want to see a “verifiable and irreversible” denuclearisation of North Korea. However, the North Koreans want to see the denuclearisation of the whole of the Korean Peninsula.
In his reply to Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un promised that he would follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and his father, Kim Jong-il, and work for the denuclearisation of the Peninsula as a whole, adding that he wanted to see assurances from the United States and South Korea.
He further stressed that his country was committed to friendship with China, which he called a “strategic choice,” as well as to transforming inter-Korean ties into a relationship of reconciliation and cooperation. He is scheduled to hold a meeting with his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in on 27 April.
The gap is thus large, from a strategic point of view, as to the precise definition of the process of denuclearisation between Washington and Pyongyang. Denuclearising the Peninsula would mean finally ending the Korean War and transforming the Armistice Agreement of 1953 into a peace treaty, with whatever that would entail for the reunification of the two Koreas and the stationing of American troops in South Korea as well as the de-deployment of American nuclear weapons.
Needless to say, the strategic interests of China coincide with a definition of this sort. However, diplomacy and the need to remain engaged with the Trump administration demand that China adopt a long-term policy of strategic patience coupled with persistent pressure on the American administration and North Korea to negotiate a grand peace deal on the Korean Peninsula that goes beyond the narrow American definition of denuclearisation.
On 28 March, Trump tweeted that he had received a message from President Xi Jinping to the effect that the latter’s meeting with the leader of North Korea had gone “very well” and that Kim Jong-un “looks forward to the meeting with me”.
However, Trump stressed that “unfortunately maximum sanctions and pressures must be maintained at all costs.”
The Chinese will have to work behind closed doors to try to soften this American attitude before the expected meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un in case it proves to be the starting point for a long and arduous diplomatic negotiating process that will turn the 1953 Armistice Agreement into a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.
This will need to be a peace that will ensure the national interests of all the powers concerned, the same ones that had taken part in the earlier Six Power Talks.
It is to be hoped that the Trump administration will see things the same way, as if not the chances of a historic breakthrough on the Korean Peninsula may prove slim.
How the Chinese and North Koreans will interpret the joint military exercises between American and South Korean troops on 1 April that have brought together 12,000 American soldiers with 300,000 South Korean troops is difficult to gauge.
Ultimately, the two would prefer to see the American troops gone as a quid pro quo for complete denuclearisation.
The appointment of former US ambassador John Bolton as the new White House National Security adviser, effective 9 April, is also a complicating factor in the preparations leading to the American-North Korean Summit meeting and in the post-summit phase.
US Republican senator Lindsey Graham told the US network Fox News on 1 April that Bolton had told him a few days before that “his biggest fear is that they [the North Koreans] are buying time.” The North Koreans are just “nine months to a year away from having a missile with a nuclear weapon that can hit America,” Graham claimed.
According to Senator Graham, Bolton believes that the future negotiations are seen by Pyongyang as a way “of buying time. That’s what they have done in the past.” With such a mindset in Washington, Chinese weight is badly needed in supporting the North Koreans and in instilling a certain balance and realism in the American position.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly