Commentary: Decades of annoyance, alarm and unease, behind China's role in Trump-Kim summit

Commentary: Decades of annoyance, alarm and unease, behind China's role in Trump-Kim summit

From the Korean War to the 1990s’ six-party talks and the more recent Trump-Kim summit, famed political scientist Lowell Dittmer examines China’s interests and reactions to developments on the Korean Peninsula.

BERKELEY: Post-mortem critiques of the Trump-Kim agreement suggest that the net winner was China while Donald Trump was bamboozled into unreciprocated concessions by the crafty Kim Jong Un.

To understand the wider implications of the summit, we should understand China’s essential geostrategic interest in Korea.


Obviously North Korea shares a 1,420km border with China. China played an indispensable role in the birth of a separate Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and successfully fought to defend it when its existence was threatened by US General Douglas MacArthur’s 1950 outflanking counterattack.

China’s relations with North Korea remained warm through the early part of the Cold War and cooled after commencement of the Sino-Soviet dispute in 1956, creating opportunity for Pyongyang to play the two against each other over the next decade.

While China withdrew its last troops from the North in 1958, it has maintained and renewed its only mutual defence alliance with North Korea.

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From China’s perspective, its intervention in the Korean War was a necessary holding action. The 1953 truce left in place a reasonably stable alliance structure, with South Korea allied to the US and North Korea allied to the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union.

Yet the regime in the south posed continuing existential threat to the North, not just due to ideology but also the “divided nation” syndrome drawing them ambivalently together.

The economic “Miracle on the Han”, taking off under Park Chung-hee in the early 1970s, destabilised the peninsular power balance with the South’s GDP growing up to 30 times larger than the North’s, followed by military modernisation leaving Pyongyang behind.

China under Deng Xiaoping soon adopted its own East Asian miracle model and urged North Korea to follow suit, but the ideologically orthodox Kims renounced “revisionism.”

Reformist leader Deng Xiaoping, who began the process of opening up China to the world, warned
Reformist leader Deng Xiaoping, who began the process of opening up China to the world, warned against building the country on the rule of just one or two people (Photo: AFP/XINHUA)

At the end of the 1980s, South Korea under Roh Tae-woo brought this growing asymmetry to a strategic head with Nordpolitik, combining outreach to the North with diplomatic overtures to North Korea’s core supporters, China and the USSR.

While Pyongyang spurned the South’s demarche, Moscow and Beijing proved more receptive. In the early 1990s, both recognised South Korea.

Kim Il Sung was furious, threatening to recognise Taiwan to punish Beijing. Without diplomatically realistic options in a cratering economy, he focused attention on covert nuclear weapons development.


Hitherto content to allow North Korea to reap the consequences of its ill-conceived priorities, the West was rudely awakened by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 1992 discovery of a nuclear developmental programme and equally astounded by its swift progress.

Not every country was equally concerned. Most alarmed was the United States, as architect and custodian of the Northeast Asian status quo.

South Korea was only indirectly affected by a nuclear North Korea’s potential impunity, as nuclearisation did not basically affect the bilateral balance of power – the North already posed a credible threat to Seoul via conventional artillery and rocketry deployed just north of Seoul.

Korea DMZ
North Korean soldiers stand guard before the military demarcation line on the north side of the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas on Apr 26, 2018. (Photo: Korea Summit Press Pool/AFP)

China was also not directly affected by the North Korean nuclear threat: The North was unlikely to target its only ally, and China maintained an uneasy relationship with the regime though dwarfed by commerce with the South.

China became annoyed by the North’s nuclear potential only indirectly as this provoked the United States into bolstering its northeast Asian deterrence network in ways not easily distinguishable from anti-Chinese containment efforts.

The diplomatic work resulted in the Agreed Framework, bringing the first nuclear crisis to a tentative close in 1994. It was a unilateral American effort.

Beijing blocked a 1994 UN Security Council resolution on North Korea.


The Agreed Framework lost credibility as each side failed to live up to respective promises and collapsed in 2003. The North resumed uranium enrichment, introducing the second phase of the nuclear crisis.

Again Washington considered a preemptive strike, a threat made more credible by the 2002 “axis of evil” rhetoric of then-President George W Bush and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Alarmed by the threat of a US preemptive strike, Beijing intervened by convening the six-party talks in August 2003. Altogether six “rounds” of talks were held between 2003 and 2009, at which point Pyongyang withdrew and expelled nuclear inspectors from the country.

But work on nuclear weapons had continued throughout the talks, culminating in nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Kim Il-Sung Square in a mass celebration for scientists
Tens of thousands of people gathered in Kim Il Sung Square in 2017 in a mass celebration for scientists involved in North Korea's nuclear tests. (Photo: AFP)

China’s basic position as host was to maintain peninsular peace and stability. US nuclear weapons were removed in a 1992 accord, the North was expected to follow suit. 

China, the only country maintaining cordial relations with the North as the forum polarised, enjoyed heightened international diplomatic status. Beijing voted for and ostensibly complied with the sanctions invoked by the UN Security Council in response to North Korean nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, 2013, 2016 and 2017, while at the same time monopolising trade with the North.

Yet Beijing was increasingly annoyed with the North and Kim Jong Un in particular, as he flagrantly ignored moderating counsel in his single-minded pursuit of a credible nuclear deterrent that betrayed his distrust of the North Korea-Chinese alliance.


The North’s development of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching all of North America and successful test of a thermonuclear weapon in 2017 raised the threat to an acute level for Trump.

In April 2017, Trump met with Xi Jinping to discuss the trade imbalance and North Korea’s nuclear programme, linking the two issues by promising trade concessions if China would rigorously enforce sanctions.

According to American monitoring of Chinese-North Korean trade volume, China complied.

Threatening North Korean rhetoric escalated, vociferously reciprocated by Trump. At the end of 2017, the Trump administration openly considered a range of so-called “bloody nose” options – attacks that would not destroy the North but fatally undermine its legitimacy, leaving it with few retaliatory options.

Hoping to forestall a pre-emptive strike that would flood China with refugees, Beijing further tightened sanctions enforcement.


In January 2018, Kim suggested North Korean participation in the Korean Olympics, a proposal welcomed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The Pyongchang Games led to inter-Korean summitry and a proposal for a meeting with Trump, which the latter accepted.

The American notion at this point was rapid denuclearisation along Libyan lines, as National Security Advisor John Bolton infelicitously put it.

This sudden turn of events surprised Beijing. Beijing’s stance on denuclearisation since the mid-2000s had been “freeze for freeze,” a suspension of both nuclear and missile tests and South Korean-American war games, leaving denuclearisation to be worked out in the longer term.

This reflected China’s dual interest in both keeping the nuclear issue alive as a source of Chinese leverage and crisis rent-seeker while eliminating DPRK provocations Washington used as a pretext for anti-Chinese containment.

China supported denuclearisation in principle, but expected it to transpire slowly.

Meanwhile Trump announced forthcoming tariffs on Chinese imports in March, thereby sacrificing his trade concession leverage. Beijing had been helpful with denuclearisation, but the trade talks had gone nowhere while the bilateral deficit actually increased.

Containers are transferred at the port in Qingdao: China is hitting out at US flip-flops over trade
Containers are transferred at the port in Qingdao. (Photo: AFP)

At this point Beijing’s priorities abruptly shifted from forestalling war to preventing North Korea’s seduction by the West. Having previously shunned personal contact with Kim, Beijing arranged two meetings in March and May.

In these, Xi Jinping conveyed to the young Korean leader the advantages of a more gradual and contingent pace of denuclearisation.  Meanwhile the Americans observed that Chinese trade with the North had significantly increased.  

Henceforward the game has become a competition between the US and China for North Korea’s economic future, with denuclearisation as quid pro quo.  The US “maximum pressure” campaign lost leverage as the trade dispute with China escalated and Trump shifted to soft power.

China has already proposed easing of sanctions on the North, and its “freeze for freeze” preference has prevailed in the short term.

But the headline winner is the two Koreas, reflected in glowing coverage of the accord; China, left out of the summit, devoted little publicity to this.

While it’s true that accords in 1994, 2005, 2007 and others were far more specific about timelines and verification procedures, those agreements all failed.

A vague agreement in principle may offer advantages in finding a flexible yet efficacious way forward. As Trump is fond of saying, “we’ll see.”

Lowell Dittmer is editor of the journal Asian Survey, and his latest book is China’s Asia. This commentary first appeared in Yale Global Online. Read it here.

Source: CNA/sl