It's like waking up from a nightmare for Koreans. At the historic summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in last week, the heavily militarized border between the two hostile neighbor states seemed like an open garden door for the first time. The oft-criticized, unpredictable dictator from the North suddenly seemed human, laughing, appearing charming at the side of his sister and joking that he would no longer disturb his South Korean counterparts' sleep with unannounced nuclear tests.
In South Korea, the summit was followed like a football match. The fear of nuclear attack that was omnipresent during the Cold War in Europe is still omnipresent there. But it seems as if people on the Korean peninsula can now at least breathe a sigh of relief. A new "era of peace" has been hailed. Kim wants to close nuclear testing sites this month. The goal is to transform the 1953 ceasefire agreement that brought an end to fighting in the Korean War into a formal peace treaty by the end of the year.
Is Trump a power broker in Korea?
US President Donald Trump, who had provoked an escalation of the conflict in recent months with sanctions and verbal jousting, is now staging himself as a power broker behind the scenes.
He tweeted that Americans should be "very proud" of "what is now taking place in Korea." He was patronizing to China, however, and later added: "Please do not forget the great help that my good friend, President Xi [Jinping] of China, has given to the United States, particularly at the Border of North Korea. Without him it would have been a much longer, tougher, process!" Acting just like a leader who gives out words of empty praise or wipes dandruff from his French counterpart's suit.
For Trump, the roles are clear. He's a doer and Xi helped him, but at the negotiating table the Chinese president is definitely second violin. When Kim and Trump meet at the end of May or June in another historic summit, Washington will try to fixate China in a secondary role.
From the outside, it seems as if Beijing lost the reins in this unexpectedly fast rapprochement. The Panmunjom Declaration for Peace announced "trilateral talks with the US or quadrilateral talks that also involved China." The country that lost over 150,000 soldiers in the Korean proxy war 65 years ago is now in second place. Apparently, Kim only wants to invite experts and journalists from South Korea and the US to document the closure of nuclear plants in Punggye-ri, in the northeast of North Korea, where all six atomic tests have taken place so far.
Kim must have kept China in the loop
But this impression is deceptive. For one, the information about Kim's plans has largely come from South Korean President Moon, who has been allowed to make declarations on behalf of the North. And after making his surprise peace overtures to the South, North Korea's "supreme leader" will surely be nurturing his relationship with Chinese President Xi. His surprise journey to Beijing at the end of March was his first foreign trip since taking over from his father seven years ago. Only he and Xi know what was said at this "strategic communication," as both sides called it, but he will almost certainly have given his big brother the precise details of whatever peace plans he had in store.
Kim needs China as an economic partner and as a political partner to work out his own position with regard to the US. South Korea also needs China more than the US at the moment. China is South Korea's most important economic partner and the military protection that the US provides might not be so valuable if North Korea poses less of a threat. The military in Washington understood this from the outset. Trump hasn't yet apparently. This is also a question of money. South Korea pays for half of the 30,000 US soldiers based on its territory. But for how much longer?
Is Deng a model for Kim?
Not only geographically but also ideologically, Pyongyang is closer to Beijing than to Washington, regardless of a possible US nonaggression pact. Kim wants to pave the way that Deng Xiaoping chose for China at the end of the 1970s: economic opening first and political opening later — much later. There should be no illusions about this, despite the Swiss-educated leader's recent charm offensive. There should also be no illusions that China will give more leeway to the US in the region. China wants to push back Washington's influence all over Asia, including in the Philippines, Vietnam and Pakistan.
Kim has a valuable trump card which will prevent him from falling under the wheels of power politics: Beijing intends to keep North Korea as a military buffer zone between US bases in South Korea and the Chinese border. So the Chinese government needs a strong Kim.
Beijing's economic interests in North Korea
China is also very interested in North Korea's resources, which include coal, gold, silver and rare earths that are almost untapped. Beijing would be reluctant to let these treasures go to others.
This is also a reason why Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi went to North Korea for talks. He will advise Kim on foreign policy and make sure that the process goes smoothly despite Trump's unpredictable nature. There is even speculation that Xi himself might make a state visit to Pyongyang in June. Kim invited him in person when they met.
Kim would do well to not make any hasty moves. The diplomatic wrangle over North Korea between the US and China is far from over.
Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years
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