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Stuck in Stalemate

Negotiations on an equal footing are the only way to solve the Korean nuclear issue, says foreign affairs expert Wang Fan

By NewsChina Updated Sept.1

Following the collapse of the second summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump in February in Hanoi, Vietnam, negotiations between the US and North Korea over the nuclear issue appeared to have become deadlocked. Pyongyang’s launch of a series of short-range missiles in the following months also further complicated the prospect of a resumption in talks.  

But before, during and after the G20 Summit in June in Osaka, Japan, there was unexpected momentum. First on June 20, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a State visit to Pyongyang and met with Kim. The first Chinese leader to visit North Korea in 14 years, Xi reportedly told Kim that he hopes that North Korea will continue to engage with the US.  

Then on June 29 during the G20, to much surprise, Trump tweeted an offer to meet with Kim at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides North and South Korea during his post-summit trip to Seoul. Hasty arrangements were made and the two leaders eventually met for the third time on June 30 at the DMZ, making Trump the first sitting US president to set foot in North Korea as he stepped over the dividing line at the Panmunjom Joint Security Area. NewsChina interviewed international affairs expert, Professor Wang Fan, vice-president of the Beijing-based China Foreign Affairs University about the recent developments.   

NewsChina: Xi made his first visit to Pyongyang on June 20, which came as a surprise for many. Did his visit surprise you? Wang Fan: Given the complexity of the bilateral relationship between China and North Korea, it’s the norm that any interaction between the top leaders of both countries would only be made public immediately ahead of or after the relevant events. So, I wasn’t really surprised by Xi’s visit to Pyongyang. Considering that Kim visited China four times within one year, Xi’s reciprocal visit can be seen as the normal development of the bilateral relationship.   

NC: For some observers, Xi’s visit to Pyongyang is seen as a maneuver in response to the intensified trade war between China and the US. Do you think Xi’s visit has anything to do with the US-China relationship? 

WF: I noticed that some in the US were commenting that by visiting Pyongyang, Xi intended to send a message or warning to the US. The fact that Xi and Trump talked over the phone immediately after the visit was announced also adds some weight to such an argument. But I think it is mostly speculation derived from a mentality of great power politics held by many American observers.  

Under China’s political culture, it usually takes more than six months to plan and prepare a high-level visit like Xi’s trip to Pyongyang. It is very rare for top Chinese leaders to make State visits at short notice. From the reception Xi received in Pyongyang, with hundreds of thousands of ordinary people welcoming him on the streets, we can deduce the trip was well-planned.   NC: Xi’s visit to Pyongyang was a state visit, the highest-ranking type of official exchange, while previous visits made by Chinese leaders to North Korea were designated as an official visit. Does it suggest that China will step up cooperation with North Korea, especially economic cooperation? 

WF: There’s no doubt that Xi’s visit suggests that China will improve its relationship with North Korea. In the past, bilateral ties were primarily maintained through the two ruling parties. Following a State visit, future cooperation between the two countries will mainly be conducted at the government level. But there’s a long way to go before China and North Korea develop comprehensive cooperation. In order to achieve that, for example, North Korea needs to establish a set of systems of international standards in the fields of finance, trade and transportation.  

Regarding economic cooperation between the two countries, it will be complicated given that UN sanctions are still in place. I think North Korea will try to learn from China’s experience in developing its economy. But its efforts in promoting economic development are closely related to its political and security concerns, as well as international sanctions and the denuclearization process.   

NC: Only 10 days after Xi’s visit to Pyongyang, Trump met Kim for the third time. Do you see a major change in the stance of the US regarding its negotiation with Pyongyang in the foreseeable future? WF: I don’t think there will be a major change in the US’s policy toward North Korea in the near future. The Trump administration has always insisted that North Korea needs to complete the process of denuclearization before the US can ease the punitive sanctions regime, which is a continuation of Washington’s traditional policy toward Pyongyang. While the summits between Trump and Kim provided some sensations for the media, it has not led to a policy overhaul from either side so far.  

In the past months, the two sides have maintained a policy of “dual suspension.” Following the summits, North Korea suspended its nuclear activities, while the US refrained from holding military exercises in the Korean Peninsula. But it is still a stalemate, with no prospect of any major breakthrough.   

NC: Is it possible that Trump, with his unconventional personal style, could adopt a different policy toward North Korea? 

WF: I think that’s unlikely. Currently, the hawks still have the upper hand within the Trump administration, and mainstream sentiment in the US remains that the US should not negotiate with North Korea on equal terms, which has made it extremely difficult for the bilateral talks to achieve anything meaningful.  

It is true that the summits between Trump and Kim were made possible by Trump’s unconventional personal style, but while the two leaders appeared to be on equal terms during their meetings, their demands during the negotiations remained unequal. Trump may have showed Kim some respect on a personal level, but from the perspective of negotiations, Trump has not changed the preconditions Washington has set up for any deals with Pyongyang, which is that North Korea needs to follow the US’s demand to complete the denuclearization process before any reciprocal action from the US is possible.  

Moreover, Trump’s unconventional personal style also means that he could say a lot of good things about Kim during their meetings, then make a U-turn the next day, which has become his personal hallmark. One could take this approach as a negotiating strategy, but in any case, the fact that the US does not negotiate with North Korea on equal terms has not changed. As long as the US does not change its current approach with Pyongyang, a breakthrough is unlikely.   
NC: With Xi’s visit to Pyongyang, some observers believe that China could become more active in the negotiation process in the future. Do you agree? 

WF: China has been playing its rightful role in the Korean issue in the past, that is one of a facilitator. But the real problem lies between Washington and Pyongyang, and China cannot do anything on behalf of either North Korea or the US. Therefore, it is irrelevant to talk about China’s active role.  

NC: When Kim met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok, Russia, in April, Putin made a proposal to restart the stalled Six-Party Talks. Do you think this is feasible? 

WF: Historically speaking, the Six-Party Talks proved an effective mechanism to ease tensions in the Korean Peninsula. But the mechanism failed to achieve denuclearization on the Peninsula. In essence, the Six-Party Talks are a multilateral mechanism, which offers much inclusivity. With the current new dynamics, the mechanism needs to be reformed to become more flexible. I think that under the six-party mechanism, it should include three-party, four-party, five-party, and bilateral talks such as those between the US and North Korea, with a key focus on promoting the eventual solving of the nuclear issue.