China is the Key to Peace Between the US and North Korea

Hopes for peace between the US and North Korea have been revived after the latter’s leader, Kim Jong Un, said he will ‘seriously contemplate the interesting content’ of an ‘excellent’ letter sent to him by Donald Trump. Korean Central News Agency reported that the North Korean leader praised the US President’s ‘extraordinary courage’ and ‘political judgement.’ This is a remarkable change in circumstances, as nuclear talks between both nations collapsed following the failed February summit between Mr. Kim and President Trump in Vietnam.

The unlikely ‘bromance’ between both leaders provides the best chance their respective nations have ever had in drafting a substantial deal that will eliminate Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. When the talks commenced in September 2018, the US President told an enthusiastic crowd at a campaign rally in West Virginia that Mr. Kim ‘wrote me beautiful letters and they’re great letters. We fell in love.’ The fact that the North Korean leader was impressed with President Trump’s recent correspondence proves the feelings are mutual. Yet the problem lies not with the chemistry between both rulers, but their difference in approach to disarming the communist regime.

Washington wants North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons entirely before international sanctions are lifted. Yet Pyongyang suggested a step-by-step approach instead, which would see a gradual denuclearisation which is matched by US concessions. In the context of the two nations negotiating, the latter approach makes sense. North Korea is one of the few surviving Leninist states in the world. They know the US intends to obliterate the regime in the longer term. It would make no sense for them to be left completely vulnerable without a guarantee of sanctions being lifted in return. Of course, their other motives for retaining nuclear missiles are questionable, which is why it is in the world’s best interests that Pyongyang eradicates them altogether.

Until another summit between the North Korean and US leaders happens, it is unclear whether one side will be forced to compromise. This is why it would be worthwhile including other influential nations in the process. Nothing substantial emerged from Mr Kim’s April visit to Russia. President Putin conducted this move to irritate the US, and he has since failed to specify what role Moscow can play in these negotiations. The only country that can influence a peaceful outcome between America and North Korea is China.

Almost two years ago, Singapore’s ambassador at large, Bliahari Kausikan, told the South China Morning Post what his views are in terms of how Beijing can influence a peaceful outcome between North Korea and the US. He said China has economic leverage over Pyongyang that could pressure the regime to collapse. This is an excellent point, but there are two problems here. The US President cannot invite them into the nuclear talks until his own trade war with President Xi Jinping ends. Also, Mr. Kausikan states that if China triggers the collapse of one Leninist state, it could fuel internal tensions and lead to Chinese citizens questioning their own communist regime’s purpose. Either way, Beijing is key to a successful conclusion between Pyongyang and Washington. The nuclear talks cannot succeed without them. The question is- is it in China’s best interests to defeat Mr. Kim? Probably not, given there is the additional problem of North Korean refugees then flooding Chinese borders.

Until China can be persuaded as to what it could gain from these talks, Beijing will never fully cooperate with both parties in eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The best chance for peace lies in a compromise between Mr. Kim and President Trump, but given the US leader has already walked out of these negotiations once, this bromance could be temporary. Therefore, President Jinping must be involved to ensure these talks succeed, but first, he must be provided with a reason to do so.