US President Donald Trump hopes to hold more talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in early 2019. Image: iStock
The fate of two years of North Korean-US engagement could end on 31 December. Image: iStock

Chinese officials and state media have recently called for the United States and North Korea to “meet each other halfway” to solve their disagreements over Pyongyang’s nuclear issue.

At a press conference on May 25 – a day after Donald Trump abruptly canceled his planned summit with Kim Jong-un due to Pyongyang’s  “tremendous anger and open hostility” and the same day the North responded diplomatically  to the US president’s decision, expressing its willingness to “sit with the US side to solve [the] problem regardless of ways at any time” – Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang was asked to comment on the developments.

He responded: “We hope [NorthKorea] and the US will … send out goodwill to each other and meet each other halfway, continue to commit themselves to resolving each other’s concerns through dialogue and negotiation, and advance the denuclearization of the [Korean] Peninsula.”

When asked whether Pyongyang’s “change of attitude” that led to Trump’s summit cancelation “has something to do with China,” Kang reiterated: “China has always played a positive and constructive role on the Korean Peninsula issue without any ulterior motive at all,” stressing that his country has long been – and still remains – “committed to resolving the issue through dialogue and negotiation.”

On May 28, the Global Times, a sister publication of the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, restated that view, arguing: “China’s stance on the issue has never changed. Beijing has spared no effort in […] encouraging North Korea and the US to meet each other halfway.”

While, like Kang’s remarks, the paper didn’t expand on what it meant when it called for the US and North Korea to “meet each other halfway,” it’s plainly clear that Washington and Pyongyang are worlds apart on the denuclearization issue and they need to make huge compromises to reach a deal on the issue.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted Seoul’s unification minister, Cho Myoung-gyon, as saying in a speech on Wednesday that the differences between the two sides remained “quite significant” and it would not be “easy to narrow the gap.”

Against this backdrop, Beijing’s proposal seems very neutral, logical and desirable.

But for China, its communist neighbor has already made – or is willing to accept – such concessions while the US and its South Korean ally have not made – or are reluctant to make – them. More crucially, its suggestion is not as neutral as it sounds. In fact, Beijing has strong security and geopolitical incentives to advise Pyongyang and especially Washington “to meet each other halfway.”

In an editorial on May 16, the Global Times claimed: “Over the past months, Pyongyang has unilaterally adopted a series of actions to reduce tensions on the peninsula,” whereas “Seoul and Washington have not taken any practical actions to reduce military hostilities or ease sanctions against Pyongyang.”

On the same day, Pyongyang issued two angry statements, with one condemning the latest US-South Korea air drills and hinting they could jeopardize the Trump-Kim summit.

On May 22, it released three other strongly worded commentaries slamming Seoul and Washington for the military drills.

Prior to May 16, the Hermit Kingdom had made symbolic gestures and considerable accommodations vis-à-vis the US and the South. According to a senior South Korean official, Kim “understands that the routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue,” while President Moon Jae-in said the North’s ruler had dropped his long-held demand for the removal of US forces from the South as a condition for denuclearization.

Trump publicly blamed China for Pyongyang’s belligerent stance

Trump publicly blamed China for Pyongyang’s belligerent stance. When asked about China during a press conference with Moon at the White House on May 22, he said he was “a little disappointed” because he thought after Kim’s second meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Chinese port of Dalian on May 8 that “there was a little change in attitude from Kim.” He stressed: “I think things changed after that meeting, so I can’t say that I’m happy about it.”

When announcing his cancelation of the summit with Kim, the US president told reporters: “The dialogue [with Pyongyang] was good until recently, I think I understand why that happened.” However, he chose not to elaborate at the time, saying, “Someday I’ll give it to you; you can write about it in a book.”

A report by the American network NBC quoted senior officials in his administration and outside experts as saying Trump referred to China, claiming Beijing was behind Kim’s suddenly hardened posture.

Whether Seoul genuinely understood the reclusive and impulsive regime’s views on the presence of US troops in the South and US-ROK military exercises, or whether China was behind its neighbor’s renewed bout of acrimony as suggested by Trump and other foreign policy experts, are debatable matters. What’s clear is that China wants not only Pyongyang’s denuclearization but also the withdrawal of US military forces from South Korea.

Beijing has long advocated what it calls the “dual-track” approach, which calls for “parallel progress in denuclearization and the establishment of a peace mechanism on the Peninsula in a synchronized and reciprocal manner.”

In the fact, the “dual track” has now become the catchphrase of its Foreign Ministry spokespersons whenever they refer to or are asked about the Korean Peninsula issue in their regular press conferences, such as the one held on April 29.

In Kim’s talks with Xi during his first trip to Beijing in March, the North’s third-generation ruler was quoted by Xinhua, China’s official news agency, as saying he was “committed to denuclearization on the peninsula.”

More significantly, he stressed: “The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if south [sic] Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace.”

Beijing has long advocated what it calls the “dual-track” approach, which calls for “parallel progress in denuclearization and the establishment of a peace mechanism on the peninsula in a synchronized and reciprocal manner”

It’s worth noting that, in Xinhua’s report, the North’s leader referred to its neighbor as “south Korea” (with a small s) rather than as the Republic of Korea or ROK, the abbreviation of the South’s official name.

Anyway, the term “denuclearization” in his comments quoted by Xinhua doesn’t refer to the North’s unilateral nuclear disarmament but the denuclearization of the whole peninsula and this can only happen if both Washington and Seoul take “progressive and synchronous measures.”

Though what exact form such measures should take was not made clear, they probably include the withdrawal of some or all 28,000 US troops based in the South and the suspension or termination of the US-ROK annual military exercises.

As such, Kim’s extracted comments summed up what Beijing has fervently championed.

Like many other countries, as it stringently opposes its communist neighbor’s nuclear program, China calls for its denuclearization. For security and geopolitical reasons, including its quest for regional dominance, Beijing doesn’t want its unpredictable neighbor to become a nuclear power.

For the same reasons, the Asian giant also hates having a strong American military presence on its doorstep.

Besides calling for “the denuclearization of the peninsula” and urging the “relevant parties” to follow its “dual-track” approach, Beijing also advocates  a “package solution in stages” – a phased approach favored by Pyongyang.

Admittedly, China now wants the US and its allies to ease tough sanctions on its neighbor because if such measures are maintained or extended, they will destabilize the Kim regime and the impoverished state, causing huge instability on Chinese borders.

Until now, the US has not been willing to make such concessions.

The Trump administration is still seeking a “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” (CVID) from Pyongyang. What it’s currently trying to do is convince Kim that his dynastic regime’s security will be guaranteed and that his country will have a better, richer, safer future should he follow that route.

Speaking alongside his South Korean counterpart on May 22, Trump envisaged: “if something works out,” the 30-something leader “will be extremely happy” and in 25 or 50 years, “he will be able to look back and be very proud of what he did for North Korea and, actually, for the world.”

However, in the same conference, he apparently opened the door to a phased approach. “It would certainly be better if it were all in one,” he said, adding: “Does it have to be [a phased approach]? I don’t think I want to totally commit myself.”

With regards to the diminution or cessation of the US’s decades-long military presence in South Korea as a prerequisite for North Korea to relinquish nuclear weapons, neither Pyongyang nor Washington has publicly and explicitly raised it. But it’s very unlikely, if not still unthinkable, that the Trump administration, which now regards China as a top security threat, will make such a far-reaching concession.

That said, given Trump’s apparent willingness to achieve a grand, legacy-making deal with Kim, nothing is completely ruled out.

Should Kim and, especially, Trump “meet each other halfway” and reach such a nuclear deal, the happiest man on earth will be China’s Xi Jinping because it will satisfy all that Beijing is diplomatically championing and geopolitically craving.

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.