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NK-China meeting could complicate NK-US talks

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week could spell complications for the upcoming US-North Korea summit, experts say.

In his meeting with Xi, Kim reaffirmed his commitment to denuclearization, but also hinted that unconditional denuclearization -- demanded by Seoul and Washington -- would be unlikely, ahead of his summit with US President Donald Trump by the end of May. 

Kim pledged that he was “committed to denuclearization” on the Korean Peninsula, according to China’s Xinhua News Agency, but demanded South Korea and the US take “progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace.”

Seoul and Washington remain hopeful about the implications of Kim’s meeting with Chinese President Xi.

South Korea on Thursday welcomed the North Korea-China summit, calling it a significant development that will help denuclearize the North and bring peace to the Korean Peninsula.

“We believe China’s participation in dialogue for peace on the Korean Peninsula, realized by the recent summit, will help stabilize conditions on the Korean Peninsula,” Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesman for Cheong Wa Dae, said in a statement.

US President Trump tweeted Wednesday that he had heard from Xi about Kim’s visit, saying that there is now “a good chance that Kim Jong-un will do what is right for his people and for humanity” and he looks forward to meeting Kim. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left), North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Yonhap)
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left), North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Yonhap)

Experts, however, are divided on what impact Kim’s meeting with Xi could have on the upcoming summit between North Korea and the US.

“Prospects of the US-North Korea summit became grimmer,” said Park Won-gon, a professor at Handong Global University. “North Korea made it clear that it wants a security guarantee before it begins any denuclearization process.”

Measures to guarantee the isolated country’s security could mean the easing of multilayered international sanctions against the country, the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea, the freezing of joint South Korea-US military drills, the signing of a peace treaty and normalization of relations between the US and North Korea.

But the US remains adamant that it will not take any of those measures unless the reclusive regime dismantles its nuclear weapons programs in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner. Trump defines the past negotiations with North Korea as “mistakes” that only gave the North time to perfect its nuclear and missile technologies.

Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, is known to advocate the use of military force against North Korea. Trump’s new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has floated a possibility of the US pursuing North Korea’s regime change.

Another expert said that mending strained ties with China, the North’s traditional ally and biggest trading partner, would have been the North’s primary goal in the first place.

“If North Korea gained what it wanted from China through the trip, it could have felt that it doesn’t have to hold a summit with the US,” said Shin Beom-chul, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, citing a possible easing of sanctions by China. 

Their relations have frayed in recent years, as China enforced international sanctions against North Korea over the reclusive regime’s pursuit of nuclear and missile programs.

“Amid such uncertainties, it seems that there is now a lower possibility of the US and North Korea reaching a certain agreement during their upcoming summit even if it takes place.”

Despite growing worries over the North’s denuclearization possibly being used by the US and China in competing for power in Asia, another analyst said that China’s involvement could help the North Korea-US summit to succeed, as denuclearizing the North is in China’s interest, too.

“For China’s Xi Jinping, he needs a stable external environment to solidify his power. China would prefer to have a state that acts normally rather than creates a ruckus on its border, so it would back North Korea’s denuclearization,” said Kim Dong-yub, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies.

China’s main priority has been keeping North Korea’s economy afloat to keep it as a buffer state between itself and South Korea, home to 28,500 US troops. It also fears the collapse of the Kim regime, which could bring refugees to its door.

Kim also pointed out that the upcoming North Korea-US summit could yield unexpectedly meaningful results especially because of Trump’s unorthodox, impulsive leadership style.

“Given Trump’s characteristics, it is likely that he agrees to a broader term of denuclearization with North Korea’s Kim, putting details aside,” he said. “Such an agreement could not have been possible under former US administrations.”