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Commenting about Kim Jong-un’s “surprise” trip to Beijing in March, a scholar of international relations remarked, “Next time the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs says the real issue is between the US and North Korea, and that China is just a mediator or just wants stability, we will know they are lying.”
Indeed, a look at China’s recent statements and actions with regard to North Korea and the Korean Peninsula issue reveals that Beijing is now saying and doing the opposite of what it previously publicly stated.
At a United Nations Security Council meeting on North Korea in April 2017, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi blatantly asserted that his country “is not a focal point in the Peninsula issue” and, thus, the key to solving the problem “does not lie in [its] hands.”
Beijing’s official position that it had nothing to do with the North Korean nuclear crisis was constantly maintained by its Foreign Ministry officials in their regular press conferences before and, especially, after Wang’s intervention.
For instance, on September 12, 2016, Hua Chunying said: “The cause and crux of the Korean nuclear issue rest with the US rather than China. The core of the issue is the conflict between the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] and the US.”
In September 2017, during which Pyongyang carried out its sixth and most powerful nuclear test and launched a missile over Japan, the same spokeswoman reiterated: “The essence of the issue is the security issue and its core is the contradiction between the DPRK and the United States.… China is not the focal point of the contradiction. [It] does not hold the key to resolving the issue, either.” On January 2, 2018, another spokesman restated Beijing’s long-held posture.
In those statements, and many others, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials never regarded their country as “a party concerned.” Instead, they saw the US, the DPRK and, to some extent, South Korea as “parties directly concerned” or “major parties concerned” to the Korean Peninsula issue and urged them to resolve it themselves.
Beijing also forcefully rejected the views held by US President Donald Trump and other world leaders that it had huge leverage over its smaller neighbor and that it could resolve Pyongyang’s nuclear issue.
On numerous occasions last year – when tensions escalated to a frightening new level as the DPRK provokingly conducted a series of intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear tests that sparked widespread international condemnation and Beijing was urged to rein in Pyongyang – the state-run Global Times claimed that “contrary to Western overestimation, China’s leverage over North Korea is limited, and is most probably one-off rather than sustainable,” that Beijing “has very limited influence on the entire situation” or that the “US, not China, has the key to solving the North Korean nuke issue.”
In one editorial, the vocal and influential publication People’s Daily, China’s top newspaper, warned: “If Washington and Seoul cannot solve the crisis and instead place China at the forefront of this situation, they will only mess up the peninsula issue.”
Even as recently as February 24, Xinhua, China’s official news agency, still held that position, maintaining: “To America’s disappointment, the truth on the Korean nuclear issue is that China has no magic wand to singlehandedly right what’s wrong on the peninsula. Its influence over the DPRK, a sovereign country, has been exaggerated.”
Xinhua made such a bold statement probably because, by then, despite significant developments on the peninsula initiated by both Pyongyang and Seoul since early this year, Beijing didn’t think a rapid and radical resolution to the nuclear problem would be in the offing.
But with things unfolding drastically and dramatically, China has radically shifted its posture. Its decisive turning point was probably March 8, when it was stunningly announced that Trump would meet with Kim to discuss Pyongyang’s denuclearization.
Faced with possible marginalization in historic talks between the DPRK and his two bitter enemies, namely South Korea and especially the US, whose outcomes could fundamentally reshape not only the Korean Peninsula but also East Asian geopolitics, Beijing has sought to assert its role.
Out of the blue, Chinese President Xi Jinping invited the North Korean leader to Beijing for an “unofficial visit” from March 25 to 28. During that “secret” trip – his first foreign outing as the hermit state’s leader since succeeding his father in 2011 – Kim was treated lavishly and showered with luxury gifts by Xi, despite years of frosty ties between the two communist allies.
Less than a week after Kim’s historic meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27, during which the two leaders announced an ambitious agenda of peace and denuclearization on the peninsula, China dispatched its top diplomat to Pyongyang. Wang Yi’s North Korea trip was the first such by a Chinese foreign minister since 2007.
Kim had another “surprise” encounter with Xi in the Chinese port city of Dalian near the North Korean border on May 7-8.
All of these visits indicated, completely contrary to what its officials previously had repeatedly stated, that China has considerable leverage over its sole treaty ally.
Or at least, by hosting Kim – or arranging for the North Korean ruler to come to China – twice in a very short space of time, Xi has now sought to position his country – or, perhaps, himself – as a central player in resolving the Korea issue.
In fact, unlike until recently, when they regarded China as an outsider, or merely a mediator, of the conflict, Chinese officials and state media have now portrayed their country as an indispensable party to any Korean discussions and resolutions.
On April 19, when asked to comment on the reports that South Korea “will consult with the DPRK to release a declaration to end the state of war and establish a permanent peace regime,” Hua Chunying said, “China supports an early end to the state of war and the establishment of a peace regime on the Peninsula with the concerted efforts of all relevant parties.” Remarkably, she also added, “As a party concerned to the Peninsula issue, China is willing to play a positive role to this end.”
An op-ed in People’s Daily on April 12 said China “has played a unique and indispensable role in solving the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue.”
On May 2, the Global Times editorialized that China was “indispensable to peninsula denuclearization,” claiming: “Without China’s participation, it would be impossible to reach an agreement on denuclearization and permanent peace on the peninsula.” It also insisted that China “is a political mainstay for North Korea.”
Again, this past Monday, a headline in the same nationalistic tabloid reiterated: “China’s role indispensable in resolving North Korea nuclear crisis.”
Such a reversal by Chinese officials and state media epitomizes Beijing’s complete turnabout in its posture vis-à-vis North Korea and the peninsula issue in general.
On this reading, it is also clear that when the North Korea nuclear crisis alarmingly escalated, China vehemently stated that it was not part of the problem, seeking to pass the buck to the US and other “related parties.” But now, with the situation drastically improving, the Asian giant is portraying itself as indispensable to denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.