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US experts see limited denuclearization progress from China-North Korea summit

Chinese leader Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet. (Xinhua/Ju Peng/Sipa USA/TNS)
June 23, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Chinese President Xi Jinping held talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un Friday, the final day of a two-day visit to North Korea, ahead of an expected bilateral meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump next week at the G20 Summit in Japan.

North Korea’s state-run Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) said the two leaders agreed on deepening bilateral relations for peace on the Korean Peninsula and security in East Asia.

As both Xi and Kim are embroiled in separate disputes with the U.S. president, Xi on trade and Kim on denuclearization, China will attempt to assist the North with its efforts to reach a peaceful solution, according to Xinhua, China’s official news agency.

Meanwhile CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, said that Xi promised to talk with Trump about denuclearization, while the KCNA made no mention of the issue.

Expectations were raised about Xi’s first visit to North Korea since he became China’s top leader in 2012 when Xi wrote an essay in the North’s ruling party’s official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, offering a “grand plan” to  “realize permanent peace” on the Korean Peninsula.

With relatively little concrete information on the Pyongyang summit released by the two secretive communist neighbors, U.S. experts had mixed views of the progress on a nuclear issue that has vexed Northeast Asia for nearly three decades.

One U.S.-based expert suggested that the discussion between Xi and Kim likely centered on which nuclear and missile-related programs Kim would be willing to give up in order to get a deal done.

“I suppose there’s a good possibility that North Korea would have put something additional on the table. Whether it would have been additional parts of the nuclear program, or whether it would have been parts of the ICBM program, I don’t know,” said Ken Gause, a Research Program Director for the Virginia-based non-profit research organization CNA, in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service.

“But I think that Xi would have said if you want to restart negotiations with the U.S., you’re going to have to give me more to work with than just Yongbyon,” he added, referring to North Korea’s major nuclear facility.

“[They] likely discussed what concessions North Korea is willing to make on the nuclear program and what they expect in return. Xi can carry this message to Trump and try to persuade him to restart negotiations,” said Gause.

But another expert sounded less optimistic that the meeting between the two Asian leaders would lead to a different outcome in negotiations with the U.S., which remain deadlocked after two Trump-Kim summits in 2018 and this year.

“I do not expect that Xi’s visit will make any significant difference in the denuclearization of North Korea. As we witnessed from the Singapore and Hanoi summits, Kim Jong Un remains as committed as ever to retaining his nuclear program,” said Evans Revere, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

“China understands this well, and so I suspect Xi will use the visit to encourage Kim not to test nuclear weapons or long-range missiles, avoid provocations, and stay engaged in the diplomatic process in order to hold out some vague hope that denuclearization will be possible,” he said.

Revere saw the visit as a tradeoff: Kim gets added prestige for meeting with a major world leader, while Xi gets North Korea to shy away from provocations prior to his meeting with Trump next week.

“In addition to the prestige that comes from receiving Xi, the North Koreans probably also hope to get the Chinese to provide additional aid and other support for North Korea’s troubled economy,” said Revere.

Pyongyang’s push to achieve economic development has been stymied by the nuclear issue, as it struggles under U.S. and U.N. sanctions meant to deprive North Korea of resources that could be funneled into its nuclear program.

Kim’s most recent summit with Trump, in Hanoi, hit an impasse when neither side could agree on a deal for sanctions relief in exchange for denuclearization. The White House claimed that North Korea wanted sanctions lifted in their entirety in exchange for only Yongbyon. North Korea’s foreign minister disputed the claim, saying that the North only wanted partial sanctions relief.

But Gause said that the Trump administration might be more receptive in future negotiations with North Korea.

“[U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen] Biegun’s recent statement that both Washington and Pyongyang need to show flexibility for negotiations to move forward might be an indication that the Trump administration is adjusting its strategy. We will have to see,” Gause said.

Biegun made the remark during his lecture at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, on Wednesday.

While cooperation from China has been critical in maintaining the effectiveness of the sanctions, Revere said sanctions relief may have had a part in Friday’s discussion.

“Kim Jong Un may also try to convince Xi to ease China’s enforcement of international sanctions.  It is far from clear that China will accede to these North Korean requests. To do so would raise serious questions about the viability of international sanctions and it would undermine international solidarity in pressuring the DPRK regime,” he said.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said that the U.S. and China share the denuclearization goal in their negotiations with North Korea.

“The United States along with our partners and allies, and other permanent members of the UN Security Council, including China, are committed to the shared goal of achieving the final, fully verifiable, denuclearization of North Korea,” the spokesperson said.

“The United States and the international community have a shared understanding of what final, fully verified denuclearization entails and what meaningful progress toward that goal looks like. We will continue to closely coordinate with allies and partners, and other permanent members of the UN Security Council, including China,” said the spokesperson.

Additional Reporting by Hee Jung Yang and Soyoung Kim for RFA’s Korean Service.