Kim Jong-un’s surprising journey to Beijing last week has got many American strategists in a tizzy. Having not even yet fully absorbed the implications of a face-to-face meeting between an American president and the leader of North Korea, it seemed that President Donald Trump’s bold maneuver had already been shunted aside by Beijing’s “secret diplomacy.” Indeed, the football analogy suggesting that China had scored a diplomatic touchdown with just three minutes left in the game, no American time outs, and a question of only which corner to toss the “hail-Mary pass,” seemed to characterize the prevailing mood less than two months prior to an epochal summit that could determine the future of global security in the twenty-first century and beyond.
Yet, this type of zero-sum thinking is muddled to say the least, and almost entirely obsolete. At worst, it could cause the Trump-Kim summit to go completely off the rails due to unrealistic expectations and paranoid tendencies. This edition of Dragon Eye will summarize briefly some of the first reporting emerging from Chinese sources regarding the Kim-Xi summit and then move on to the vital question of what implications that unexpected event could have for the Trump-Kim meeting in May.
Watching Chinese news programming can be fairly dull, as it seems to lack the spicy scandals of Western media, but the foreign-policy commentators are extremely well qualified and informed experts and their observations are well worth noting. In particular, Su Xiaohui, a middle-aged female commentator (and also deputy director of the influential China Institute for International Studies) is particularly impressive and she is given all the most challenging assignments, includingthe rather difficult task of explaining the meaning of the Kim-Xi summit to the Chinese people.
Appearing on the March 28 edition of “Focus Today” [今日关注] of CCTV-4, Su offered more than a few insights regarding the important surprise summit in Beijing. Delving immediately into the interesting atmospherics of the summit, she explained that Xi’s demeanor was “extremely mild” [非常温和], implying right away that this was a deliberate choice by the Chinese leader not to be confrontational. It was, moreover, suggested that a relationship of “mutual support” [相互支持] among the two parties and also the two leaders could amount to a “significant achievement for the development of socialism. [为了社会主义发展作出了重要贡献]” Su makes the fascinating observation that Kim had already been invited to Russia some time ago, but she suggests that it is highly significant that the North Korean’s first trip abroad was to Beijing. The Chinese “model of development” is touted as a route that North Korea should follow. Su explains that Pyongyang could only make really one choice, namely to follow Beijing’s advice, since China is a “big country,” as Su candidly relates. Implying that China has a major security role to play in the relaxation of tensions on the peninsula, she sees a process in which, on the one hand, North Korea undertakes “dunuclearization [无核化],” while on the other hand, its own aspirations for security are supported. Of course, that approach mirrors the “dual track [双轨制]” proposal that Beijing has long favored. Indeed, the Chinese programming did not gloss over the nuclear question, but rather Su declares that Kim offered “an extremely definitive and active [非常肯定和积极的]” commitment to denuclearization within a structure in which the DPRK’s security is guaranteed. Underlining the side of the relationship that really no other great power can hope to match, Su explains that the traditional aspects of PRC-DPRK friendship (i.e. the cultural-historical bonds) provide a strong basis for the bilateral relationship going forward. At the end of the interview, Su tempers expectations with the somewhat encouraging statement that the extremely complex North Korea nuclear question “cannot be resolved by just two countries.”
Another important foreign-policy talk show (also dated March 28), Global View [环球视线] of CCTV-13, likewise featured commentator Su Xiaohui, this time accompanied by CIIS colleague Su Ge (no relation), a senior administrator who apparently has himself been on a mission to Pyongyang recently. Su Xiaohui encouragingly emphasized that North Korea has seen how China has reaped the benefits of being a “responsible great power [负责人大国].” Su Xiaohui repeats more than once that the Xi-Kim summit amounts to [相向而行] coming from opposite directions in order to compromise.” However, maybe the most important revelation to emerge from the Xi-Kim meeting are the words of Kim printed on the screen of this broadcast, when the North Korean leader during the summit with Xi apparently explicitly invoked the teachings of both his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, as well as his father, Kim Jong-il to suggest that “realizing denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is our total and unalterable position . . . [致力于实现半岛无核化是我们始终不变的立场].” That is a powerful statement by any measure, especially in so far as it invokes the thinking of Kim’s predecessors to make the point. Thus, it is not surprising that the Chinese have put this statement quickly into writing, as they did in this broadcast, but the statement is confirmed by other sources. Finally, it is worth noting that Kim also stated, “We want to work with the Chinese side to strengthen strategic links . . . [我们希望同中方加强战略沟通].”
I cannot agree with the assessments of other China specialists who have written about the critical Xi-Kim summit. One appraisal, for example, suggests: “China is desperate to claw its way back into the center of crucial discussions that will soon take place.” Another appears to claim that China wants the crisis to continue so that that the United States will be distracted from competing with China for regional and global influence. To put it mildly, I find both appraisals to be excessively pessimistic, apparently rooted in a zero-sum mindset that is unfortunate. Regular readers of Dragon Eye will know that I am substantially more optimistic regarding Chinese intentions. Indeed, it is simply obvious that China finds North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons as abhorrent, not least because this threat has allowed the United States to consolidate its alliance structure in East Asia, as well as for Japan to build up its forces, etc.
But what can China actually do to facilitate North Korean denuclearization beyond just patting Kim on the back, modulating economic sanctions obviously, and urging the youthful leader to negotiate in good faith with the United States? Actually, China can and should be much more proactive. Here are four things that Beijing should put on the table as concrete offers to support the upcoming and highly complex Trump-Kim negotiations. First and foremost, China should offer up technical support for arms control verification. China has the requisite expertise obviously in both nuclear weaponry and delivery systems, as well as the related labs that support these efforts. By agreeing to serve as “verifier in chief,” China can help to ease the enormous concerns that North Korea’s leaders will no doubt have about allowing the country to be crawling with Western arms inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), etc. That system has not worked well in the Middle East, but China’s offer in this regard would save extraordinary amounts of bitter bile spilled in negotiations and subsequent wrangling. China has every incentive to perform this role in a fair, accurate, and thorough manner.
How about security assurances? It’s a fair bet that Kim wants more than just a few happy snaps with Trump and a piece of paper declaring that the United States does not have malign intentions. Giving security assurances teeth would mean reaffirming the 1961 Mutual Aid and Cooperation Treaty binding Pyongyang and Beijing. That treaty has been allowed to wither, but Beijing’s second logical step to support the Kim-Trump summit would be to once again commit China to the defense of North Korea if it is attacked and provided that it is taking steps toward denuclearization. However, since such reaffirmations are also “just words,” an even more concrete symbol of such assurances would be the insertion of some Chinese military forces into North Korea. This could vary from a small “tripwire” force of a few dozen soldiers that guards a cemetery of China’s fallen from the Korean War to something more ambitious. For example, the third step could involve the transfer or regular rotation of more elite, medium-sized Chinese forces of a couple of brigades of either airborne soldiers, armor, or air defense. That force should not be too large, of course, and should not unnerve either the hosts (North Korea) or South Korea either. Its purpose would be to “balance,” at least in some respects, the vast conventional superiority that the ROK-U.S. alliance has attained, but the main goal of the force would be to serve as symbolic of China’s security assurances. A fourth and final Chinese measure that could meaningfully influence Kim’s disposition to negotiate his nuclear arms away would be a commitment to modernize North Korean conventional forces (at “friendship” prices, of course). The North Korean air force, navy, and ground forces are all badly in need of new equipment and all the training that would have to accompany the flood of “new toys.” If Kim is to be enticed into giving up his nuclear “toys” (on which North Koreans labored so hard at great expense for many decades) then the conventional armaments given over to North Korea should be grand indeed. Pyongyang’s taking possession of some new Chinese frigates, tanks, and fighters would not appreciably impact the balance on the Peninsula, but it would sure make for a grand parade—and the Kims are known to like parades. Each of these measures elaborated above, moreover, would be strengthened if China invited Russia to take similar and parallel steps toward ensuring North Korean security on a fully denuclearized peninsula. Additionally, it goes almost without saying that Beijing should dangle a bursting bounty of economic carrots as well. That point is so obvious that it requires no elaboration.