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China appears to have crossed Trump on North Korea

From left, China's President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017 during a meeting outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. (Artyom Ivanov/Tass/Abaca Press/TNS)
November 16, 2017

  • Donald Trump on Wednesday said China backed him on North Korea.
  • But the next day China contradicted him.
  • Even South Korea has expressed doubts about Trump’s goal in dealing with North Korea.

After a 12-day trip to Asia in which President Donald Trump stressed his friendship and mutual understanding with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing appears to have crossed Trump on a key issue: North Korea.

At every turn during his trip, Trump insisted that the US’s goal was North Korea’s denuclearization. He stressed the “grave threat” he said the rogue nuclear nation posed to millions in the region and around the world.

But China seems to have rejected the idea of denuclearization and instead wants the US to settle for a freeze in North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for a freeze in the US’s military drills with South Korea.

On Wednesday, Trump said he and Xi “agreed that we would not accept a so-called freeze-for-freeze agreement like those that have consistently failed in the past.”

On Thursday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, said a dual suspension, the Chinese’s preferred term for the “freeze-for-freeze” deal, was the “most feasible, fair, and sensible plan in the present situation.”

The difference of opinion has gone on for years, with China repeatedly suggesting the dual freeze and the US routinely rejecting it.

Back in March, when China made the same suggestion, Mark Toner, then the acting spokesman for the State Department, explained the US’s objection.

Toner said comparing the US’s transparent, planned, defensive, 40-year-old military drills with North Korea’s illegal pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles was a case of “apples to oranges.”

The return to the old stalemate between China and the US undercuts the progress Trump hailed after returning from his Asia trip.

But even beyond the stalemate, South Korea, the US’s staunch ally, also expressed doubts about the practicality of denuclearization.

“If talks begin to resolve the North Korea nuclear issue, I feel it will be realistically difficult for North Korea to completely destroy its nuclear capabilities when their nuclear and missile arsenal are at a developed stage,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in said in a briefing Tuesday.

“If so, North Korea’s nuclear program should be suspended, and negotiations could go on to pursue complete denuclearization,” Moon said.

Both China and South Korea appear more willing to meet North Korea in the middle, as Pyongyang, using the abbreviation for the country’s official name, has sworn it will “never put the issue related to the supreme interests of the DPRK [nuclear weapons] and security of its people on the bargaining table.”

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