Peace and denuclearisation will be on the agenda when North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in meet face-to-face this Friday.
- As China fought with North Korea in the war no peace treaty can be signed without Beijing
- Experts say that China welcomes a nuke-free North but not if it opens them to US pressure
- North Korea will want to maintain “strategic independence” from China, experts say
While South Korea and the United States appear to be doing much of the diplomatic leg-work bringing the summit to fruition, the region’s future would-be leader, China, has not been watching on idly.
So what does the most powerful country in Asia want out of such a historic meeting, and how would a peaceful, nuke-free Korean Peninsula work in China’s favour?
No peace without China
Any hopes for a formal peace treaty ending the Korean War — which has been subject to a ceasefire agreement since 1953 — will have to involve China.
China fought alongside North Korea in the conflict and signed the armistice in 1953, so its signature will be required for a peace treaty to proceed.
The US, North Korea and China signed the armistice, but South Korea refused. (Wikimedia Commons)
A peace agreement would reduce the risk of conflict and instability on China’s border, and a subsequent flow of refugees into China. But the devil is in the detail.
“China won’t accept just any peace, and I don’t think China will accept just any denuclearisation,” said Professor Bates Gill, a Chinese foreign policy expert at Macquarie University.
“For it to really work for China, those two hoped for outcomes need to unfold in a way that’s as beneficial to Beijing as possible.”
The key points of contention are whether peace would lead to a reunified Korea, whether a reunified Korea would be neutral towards Beijing, and whether the US military presence on the peninsula would be reduced.
“[China’s] long-term hope would be a Korean peninsula free of US military presence, and even possibly including the abrogation of the US-South Korea alliance,” Professor Gill said.
China won’t want increased US pressure
China, like the rest of the international community, has welcomed North Korea’s statement ahead of the summit that it will stop its nuclear and missile tests.
But Professor Gill said even China’s support for denuclearisation may be somewhat qualified.
“Yes, less nukes is good for China, but not if it’s going to unfold in a way that ultimately leaves the North Koreans vulnerable to American pressure, or if it left North Korea open to attack even or forcible reunification by a regime change,” he said.
“China understands that nuclear weapons in the hands of the North, while undesirable, has a benefit in being a kind of trump card.”
He said nuclear weapons are North Korea’s last real negotiating tool for terms favourable to the Kim regime’s survival, something that is also favourable to China.
“Peace yes, denuclearisation yes, but it really matters how that unfolds and what those outcomes will really mean for China,” Professor Gill said.
Kim Jong-un’s trip to Beijing a ‘master stroke’ by Xi
Was the “unofficial” summit between Mr Kim and Mr Xi a diplomatic master stroke? (KCNA via Reuters )
Euan Graham, the director of Lowy Institute’s International Security Program, said the surprise meeting between Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping in Beijing last month was a telling moment.
“I think bottom line, what China wants is to be at the centre of any settlement on the Korean Peninsula,” he said.
“That was the motivation for inviting Kim Jong-un to Beijing … I think there’s a bit of wariness on China’s side that so much of the current diplomacy revolves around two other capitals [Seoul and Washington].
“China has also talked about President Xi visiting Pyeongyang in the near future, and that again I think speaks volumes for China’s sense of entitlement on one hand, but also unease.”
But whether the Beijing summit was enough for China to put it’s stamp on North Korea’s upcoming diplomatic outings remains open to question.
“The China watchers in my circle tend to take the view that Xi’s decision to invite Kim was a master stroke,” Dr Graham said.
“[Mr Xi] forced Kim Jong-un to come in a manner that demonstrated that he was the junior partner, while Xi Jinping was literally holding court to the young Kim and his wife.
“But I think for my money, the jury’s still out on that. If we’re looking at North Korean diplomacy, it doesn’t seem to be demonstrating any sign of uncertainty or weakness.”
‘Kim Jong-un is running on his own terms’
In the last week, North Korea has flagged that it is willing to discuss denuclearisation at the summit without the United States first pulling out its military forces from South Korea.
This flies in the face of the so-called “freeze-for-freeze” process China has long championed, which would have seen North Korea halt its weapons tests with the US and South Korea simultaneously stopping their joint military exercises.
It is also very far from China’s ideal nuke-free, US military-free Korean Peninsula, and Dr Graham said this may have been part of the point.
“Kim Jong-un wants to make it clear that he is making the running here on his own terms,” he said.
“One obvious way to do that is to separate his position from that of Beijing on the freeze-for-freeze formula.”
Dr Graham said North Korea has form in this area: Mr Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, reportedly made similar comments at an earlier inter-Korean summit in 2000.
According to his South Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-il said US troops must remain for the sake of “stability and peace in East Asia.”
“The obvious logic arising from that is that North Korea also seeks some sort of balance against China. That’s what I think the Chinese are most frustrated about,” Dr Graham said.
North will want ‘strategic independence’ from China
North Korea and China have been close since the days of Kim Il-sung and Mao Zedong. (Getty Images: VCG)
While North Korea’s alliance with China protects it against foreign military intervention, Dr Graham said the North has never been shy about maintaining “strategic independence” from China.
The Kim regime relies on China for trade and security, but is not afraid of disobeying its benefactor’s wishes.
“One of the reasons the US would be very reluctant to use force is the prospect that China could then enter any conflict. But it also uses that despite and against China’s own interests, and that’s the awkward ally that it is,” Dr Graham said.
“This is the game that Kim Jong-un inherited from his father and grandfather … But I think he’s played it to higher stakes and at a faster pace than either of them did.”
Regardless of the up-and-down relationship between North Korea and its lone ally, Professor Gill said any moves towards peace would need China’s involvement.
“No deal is going to work on the peninsula if China doesn’t have some hand in crafting it, and some role in acquiescing or supporting it,” he said.
“It’s just too big, it’s too important, it’s too proximate to the situation there to imagine that a deal could be cut in some way that doesn’t include the interests of Beijing in one way or another.”