North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had departed for Hanoi for the second U.S.-North Korea summit by a special train that has raced through central China from Sunday to Monday. The Chinese authorities supported Kim’s journey by suspending the operation of its high-speed rail routes. This reveals Beijing’s intention to show off its close relationship with Pyongyang and send a clear message toward Washington that it stands behind North Korea.
China’s state-run media outlets have argued that Kim’s train trip has a significant meaning. The Global Times, a state-run Chinese tabloid, quoted an analyst as saying that Kim’s traveling by train via China “illustrates Kim’s full trust in China in securing his personal safety” and “intention to learn from China’s experience of reform and opening-up.” “China serves as an important bridge, or a ‘guarantor,’ to bring the two sides together at the negotiating table.”
These remarks are interpreted as the Chinese government’s signal that it wants its stance to be involved in the upcoming talks. A think tank in China has bluntly urged Washington to accept North Korea’s demands, such as lifting of sanctions on oil exports and removing obstacles to improving inter-Korean relations.
What brought the North to the negotiating table was the international community’s coordinated efforts to sanction the regime. China is an old ally of North Korea, sharing a border and Communist ideology, but often showed its disapproval of the regime’s developing of nuclear weapons. In 2017, it joined the Trump administration’s drive to strengthen sanctions on Pyongyang, playing a pivotal role in leading the North to dialogue. President Trump also acknowledged the Chinese government’s contribution, saying that sanctions imposed on border areas (of North Korea) by China and Russia were of great help. Now that we are about to finally see the result of such efforts, China would not want to make them end in vain by providing the North with a way out of sanctions.
The Chinese government needs to keep in mind that complete denuclearization will be also in its national interest. If the two leaders end up agreeing on practically acknowledging North Korea as a nuclear state at the Hanoi summit, neighboring countries including Japan and even Taiwan are likely to see rising voices calling for nuclear armament. Signs of nuclear development and resulting instability in Northeast Asia are definitely not a scenario China wants.
“The last thing China wants are large scale nuclear weapons right next door,” Trump tweeted Sunday, cautioning the North against relying on Beijing while repeatedly urging China to keep pressure on the regime. Therefore, China should take into account the whole security landscape of the region and ponder on what would benefit its future in the long run.
Si-Uk Nam @donga.com