Extraordinary Diplomacy

Is China Sabotaging the North Korea Denuclearization Talks?

Xi Jinping, who met Kim Jong Un in China, is up to no good.

Xinhua News Agency via Getty

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Tuesday, President Trump revealed that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on his way to North Korea. The trip had not been previously announced.

Just hours before, Beijing reported that Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, met with China’s Xi Jinping on Monday and Tuesday, in the Chinese port of Dalian. Trump spoke with Xi by phone Tuesday to discuss Xi’s surprise meeting with Kim.

The Chinese appear to be up to no good. There was, prior to the Xi-Kim meeting, fast progress in American efforts to “denuclearize” North Korea, so the involvement of Beijing, which has periodically supported the North’s weaponization efforts, is unlikely to be beneficial from the Trump administration’s point of view.

Kim’s trip to Dalian was extraordinary. Kim went to Beijing at the end of March. Protocol—the Chinese are great sticklers for it when it works to their advantage—demanded Xi return the visit before Kim returned to China. In fact, in April sources reported the Chinese leader was planning to go to Pyongyang in May or June.

Instead of Xi going to Pyongyang, Kim made another visit to Chinese soil. At least since the end of the fighting in the Korean War, never have there been two China-North Korea summits so close together in time. “It is without modern precedent for a leader to come to China on back-to-back visits as Mr. Kim has done,” said Cheng Xiaohe of Beijing’s Renmin University to The New York Times.

So why did the Dalian meeting occur? “The second meeting demonstrated that North Korea wanted China to play a larger role in the denuclearization process,” Cheng said. “When Kim enters the meeting with Trump, he will feel more confident, simply his positions on a variety of issues were consulted and sanctioned by the Chinese leader.”

Cheng’s line sounds like what the Chinese want the world to believe. It is far more likely that Beijing summoned Kim, who flew to the Chinese city on an Air Koryo jet instead of taking his armored train, to demonstrate that every North Korea solution runs through Beijing.

When Trump on March 8 accepted Kim’s offer of direct talks, he cut China out of the discussions regarding North Korea’s nuclear program. Since then, the Chinese have been scrambling to get themselves back in.

Xinhua News Agency, the official Chinese news outlet, showed Xi and Kim strolling on the beach, and this was surely meant to demonstrate the solidarity of the two leaders and their countries.

The image of solidarity is important to the Chinese, and they have been willing to pay for it. Over the last several months, Beijing has markedly increased economic support for Kim’s regime by violating U.N. sanctions with the importation of new North Korean laborers, with investments in the North’s Rajin-Sonbong special economic zone, and with purchases of sanctioned metals from the North.

And the Chinese have announced their violations. Beijing allowed North Korean media to show gifts, estimated to be worth $394,000, that Xi presented Kim and his wife during the late March summit. The giving of such luxury items was a clear contravention of U.N. sanctions—and an obvious show of support for Pyongyang.

The violation of sanctions can be seen as either Xi’s attempt to deny Trump a win by strengthening the North’s bargaining position in advance of talks or an attempt to create a bargaining chip in Trump’s mind. In either case, the Chinese ruler is making mischief.

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China is making mischief at a crucial time, when both sides are establishing their initial positions. Kim hoped to “eventually achieve denuclearization and lasting peace on the peninsula,” Beijing’s statement said. To do that, the North Korean was contemplating “phased and synchronous measures in a responsible manner.”

Kim’s position is, at least at this moment, completely unacceptable to the Trump administration. “We will not relieve sanctions until such time as we have achieved our objectives,” Pompeo told reporters on his plane Tuesday while en route to North Korea. “We’re not going to do this in small increments, where the world is coerced into relieving economic pressures.”

Accordingly, Pompeo may have decided to get on his plane to undo Xi’s efforts on Monday and Tuesday with Kim. It’s noteworthy that Pompeo is going to North Korea just as positive momentum in U.S.-North Korea ties is fading. The unwelcome propaganda blast directed at the Trump administration from the Korean Central News Agency occurred over the weekend, just hours before Kim met Xi.

The flurry of unexpected North Korea-related developments occurred as President Trump announced the United States would withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal.

Many have said that Trump’s withdrawal would make the U.S. look untrustworthy in Kim’s eyes and undermine his willingness to come to terms with Washington. That, of course, is possible, but the withdrawal could also have the opposite effect. Trump’s harsh words for Tehran—about not letting a regime hostile to the U.S. possess the world’s most destructive weapons—might also have been intended to intimidate Pyongyang.

And maybe even scare its backers in China.