U.S. President Donald Trump disapproved China’s move to ease sanctions against North Korea Monday (local time) on Twitter. “The word is that recently the Border [between North Korea and China] has become much more porous and more has been filtering in,” he said. “I want this to happen, and North Korea to be VERY successful, but only after signing!” He warns that China’s border control should be tighter at least until North Korea agrees to denuclearize. Trump mentioned Kim Jong Un’s second visit to China and suspected Chinese President Xi Jinping was behind North Korea’s threat to reconsider the summit with the United States.
China has been long misunderstood as a “hole” in North Korea sanctions and thus an obstacle of North Korea’s denuclearization. As a result of China participating in the “maximum pressure and sanctions” against North Korea of the Trump administration, however, China should take the credit for bringing North Korea to the negotiation table. China has recently been assuaging Pyongyang by increasing North Korea-China exchanges. This would also be related to the suspension of the U.S.-China working level discussions this year, which have been reviewing progresses made in the United Nation’s sanctions against North Korea. Pyongyang suddenly took a hardline stance as its relations with China thawed, and threatened to cancel the summit with the United States. China would have cajoled the North to engage in brinkmanship or at least is doing nothing about Pyongyang’s brinkmanship tactic.
Another possibility is that China would have advised Kim to strain relations with the South by cancelling the South-North high-level summit, refusing to admit South Korean journalists at the closing of its nuclear test site, and raising an issue of the South Korea-U.S. joint military drills. China is even more sensitive than North Korea about U.S. Forces in Korea or forward deployment of U.S. forces such as unfolding strategic military assets because it looks at issues on the Korean Peninsula from the framework of the hegemony race with the United States in Northeast Asia. Thus, China could be trying to put pressure and conciliate North Korea to recover its influence during the process of complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump met this morning in Washington D.C. to discuss measures to prevent North Korea from discontinuing denuclearization. North Korea’s sudden change in posture has raised not only U.S.-Sino distrust regarding North Korean sanctions but also doubt regarding South Korea-U.S. cooperative efforts. North Korea could wrongly assume that alienating measures were fruitful. But as U.S. Vice President Mike Spence warned, if Kim believes he can play Trump, it is a miscalculation. Unless Kim delivers on his promise of “complete denuclearization,” China will not be able to compensate North Korea in any form or shape. China must refrain from encouraging North Korea from taking an alternative path or taking any action that can raise suspicions.