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Korean Issue: Role Of China – Part I – Analysis


The contour of conducting diplomacy assumed a new dimension when bilateral dialogues took the centre stage over global or regional initiative to address issues that had been plaguing the world for considerable time. For example, while the global institution such as the United Nations looked rudderless and regional organisations looked bystanders, the inter-Korean summit by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un by their own initiative wrote a new chapter in conducting diplomacy in the modern times. From a period of belligerence and sabre-rattling few months ago that raised the spectre of a major conflagration to a situation when the leaders of South and North Korea sitting face-to-face seeking peace that looked elusive and demonstrating the kind of bonhomie was indeed a dramatic turnaround in the nature of conducting diplomacy.

In the same token and not far from the venue of inter-Korean summit, Asia saw another important summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping when the leaders of two major economies of Asia sat face-to-face at Wuhan demonstrating the spirit of camaraderie seeking new grounds as both identified guiding principles for bilateral ties, drew up a blueprint for cooperation and mapped out concrete measures to implement the consensus reached.

Coming after the Dokalam standoff in 2017, this unprecedented two-day ‘heart-to-heart’ summit aimed to solidify India-China relationship, indeed has opened a new chapter in the bilateral relations. Both these summits are dramatic turnaround, resetting regional geopolitics, the significance of which shall begin to unfold slowly but steadily in the coming months.

This article shall deal with the first of the two issues mentioned above. This two-part essay shall examine the inter-Korean summit and the factors that made this happen. The first part sets the background of the summit and what exactly transpired and what can one expect in the coming months and years, focussing mainly on China’ role. The second part shall briefly examine the reactions of the stakeholders on the Korean issue on which much has already been written. What is missing or has been underreported is the role of Japan as an important stakeholder as any development in the Korean peninsula and policy adopted by other stakeholders shall have almost immediate bearing on Japan’s national security and other related issues.

Within less than four months of his New Year address wherein Kim Jong-un expressed his desire to meet Moon Jae-in, when the summit finally took place on April 27, the South Korean leader had successfully used the opportunity to welcome athletes and cheerleaders from the North to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics that it was hosting in February and a joint team marching together under a common unification flag at the opening ceremony, thereby demonstrating the breath-taking rapidity in which the summit culminated successfully. Kim thus became the first North Korean leader to set foot in South Korea at the Panmunjom Summit, in setting the stage for President Donald Trump’s meeting with Kim on June 12 in Singapore.

What is going to be the significance of the forthcoming Kim-Trump summit and its implications for China and the United States? Though Kim announced to give up its nuclear weapons program on the condition that the United States promises not to invade North Korea, it seems that Kim is committed to maintain its nuclear weapons program as its announcement following his summit with Moon were rather vague, open to interpretations. It would be naïve to miss the point in North Korea’s statements on denuclearisation as the North has been strategic in its recent diplomatic outreaches, wherein it quickly repaired its relations with China and South Korea.

After reaching out to South Korea, Kim undertook a secret trip to China for an audience with Chinese President Xi Jinping in late March ahead of his summit with Moon. This was Kim’s first trip outside of the North since coming to power in December 2012. This was followed in quick succession by another secret trip to Beijing in May for a discussion with Xi ahead of his summit meeting with Trump.

Then, by announcing a halt in its nuclear and long range missile tests, North significantly lowered the chance that China and Russia will agree to further sanctions in the United Nations. It is possible that Kim’s return to diplomacy following the complication of its nuclear weapons programs was a greater incentive than sanctions which had a secondary effect. Following the Kim-Moon summit, China expressed happiness that the chance of military conflict considerably declined. At the same time, as the inter-Korean summit was without any outside mediation, it would have been hard for China to take credit, though Trump did acknowledge Beijing’s contribution to push Kim for the dialogue.

There is a darker side of it too. When Trump took credit that Kim opted for peace overtures because of pressure put by him, Pyongyang quickly reacted by saying that the US is trying to spoil the momentum already built for the peace process.

There is a deeper dimension to this story, however. Beijing did feel side-lined and felt concerned that it may continue to remain so in future negotiations as well. The US views China as a strategic competitor and Beijing fears that Washington may use North Korea to balance against China in the region. Going by this argument, the forthcoming Trump-Kim summit may have similar outcomes as that was with the Moon-Kim summit. What one may expect from the Trump-Kim summit is more symbolic gestures rather than concrete outcomes. Beijing will be watching closely to see what might transpire with regard to finding a resolution to the Korean War, an area where Beijing will want a say in the agreed outcomes. By welcoming Kim a second time, China was sending the message to Trump that it would remain as the key player in any peace process in the Korean Peninsula.

Earlier, Xi dispatched his foreign minister Wang Yi to Pyongyang ahead of Kim’s summit with Trump to underline the fact that not only Beijing is committed to maintain warm ties with Pyongyang but also wants to remain a key player in the Korean peninsula peace process. While in Pyongyang, Wang not only backed Pyongyang’s shift of focus on economic growth but also its resolve to take steps to denuclearise. Beijing shall be happy to see a political solution on the Korean issue.

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Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a think tank under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Former ICCR India Chair Professor, Reitaku University, Japan, and former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi E-mail: [email protected]

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