Xi steals a march over Trump in North Korea
Chinese president's visit to Pyongyang highlights Beijing's determination to keep the Kim regime firmly in its grasp.
The North Korean nuclear deal US President Donald Trump signed amidst great fanfare in Singapore in June may be unraveling - with North Korea carrying on weapons work, China and Russia slackening sanctions and Chinese President Xi Jinping set to visit Pyongyang in September for a new show of solidarity.
By skillfully diverting denuclearisation with the emotional return of remains, said to be US soldiers missing in action during the Korean War, Kim managed to buy time and construct a reasonable image for himself without offering much more in return. A bonus for South Korea is the resumption of on-again-off-again reunions of separated families helping to create more goodwill for Pyongyang.
While the ceremony with flag-draped coffins provided encouragement to Trump's base, the International Atomic Energy Agency report on North Korea highlights unresolved threats from the Pyongyang regime and underscores the hollowness of Trump's post-summit claim that "North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat."
Meanwhile, the US president has abruptly called off Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's trip to North Korea, citing a lack of progress in nuclear disarmament talks and acknowledging that the diplomatic overture to the North Korean leader had run into trouble. Kim Jong-un stoically refuses to make any meaningful move towards denuclearisation as he had pledged to undertake. South Korean news reports say Kim was making no commitment even to receive Pompeo, as the regime is too busy preparing its welcome for Xi for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the communist state that falls on September 9. Xi will be the first Chinese head of state to visit Pyongyang in 13 years, a development signifying Beijing's new determination to keep the Kim regime firmly in its grasp, especially as Sino-US tensions worsen over trade and geopolitical power play.
China, another combatant in the Korean War, has its own regional strategic interest and expresses willingness to join such a peace arrangement. However, China's participation, even as it whittles away at ongoing UN sanctions, could further complicate the ongoing denuclearisation process. Reports from Seoul say Beijing has begun allowing extensive underground trade by Chinese merchants in Dandong, the border city on the Yalu River.
North Korean restaurants in China have also reopened, with officials reissuing visas for North Korean workers. China also is reported to overlook smuggling and transshipments of oil and coal.
Astonishingly, South Korea under President Moon Jae-in appears to join this trend of weakening the US sanctions regime. In one recent embarrassing case, the conservative opposition party demanded a parliamentary probe into reports of a local company in Seoul surreptitiously importing 35,000 tonnes of North Korean coal, secretly transshipped from a Russian port. In another more serious case, US officials have reportedly warned officials in Seoul not to provide electric power, building equipment and other material for setting up a new North-South liaison office in the North Korean city of Kaesong, as agreed by Moon and Kim at their talks at Panmunjom in May.
While the government and business community in Seoul anxiously watch if the guilty party may be hit by a penalty from Washington, Moon appears to be losing patience with Washington's hard line. At his two summit-level talks with Kim in April and May, Moon agreed to accept a "peace declaration" by the year's end. He is also pushing for reopening of economic projects, including tourism and railway connections with the North to link with China, Mongolia and Russia in a scheme he calls the East Asian Peace initiative.
Moon argued on August 15 that the development of inter-Korean relations should not be linked to the progress of US-North Korean relations. In short, he is steadily removing himself from the Trump administration's denuclearisation-at-all-cost policy.
Under pressure to choose between détente with Kim and US-imposed sanctions, Moon is backing down from unconditionally supporting Trump's demand for quick-paced denuclearisation. He evidently assumes that the North's nuclear arsenal and capability have advanced far enough already that pushing for a short deadline is unrealistic.
Privately, some intelligence analysts in Seoul consider the US plan for removing atomic bombs in storage, numbering as many as 20 to 60, and closing down related nuclear facilities in a time-frame of one year as overly ambitious.
It's uncertain if Moon can help break this impasse during his next meeting with Kim in mid-September. Meanwhile speculation runs high about Trump meeting Kim again for a second summit in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting. Such a summit would further burnish Kim's image on the international diplomatic stage. After all, the general consensus is that Kim overshadowed Trump with his maiden appearance at the Singapore summit, boosting his image as a skillful negotiator on the international stage. Kim would likely relish meeting with Trump for a second round. If so, analysts wonder what would his card be this time? Kim could decide on another showy but empty gesture like returning soldier remains - or something more substantive that Trump could crow about before the US midterm elections in November.
Shim Jae Hoon is a journalist based in Seoul
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