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DPRK-China Summit: Its Meaning and Strategic Implications
2018.03.29  Thursday
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Jae hung Chung

DPRK-China Summit: Its Meaning and Strategic Implications


No. 2018-20 (March 29, 2018)

Chung Jae Hung (Research Fellow, the Sejong Institute)



From March 25 to 29, Chairperson Kim Jong-un’s undisclosed visit to China and the DPRK-China summit has trembled the political climate surrounding the Korean Peninsula once again. Kim’s visit to Beijing is construed as a groundwork and insurance of staunch ally through bolstering strategic communications with China prior to the inter-Korean and DPRK-China summit. As Washington newly appointed hawkish figures as state secretary and national secretary advisor - Mike Pompeo (former CIA director) and John Bolton respectively – it seems that Pyongyang adopted a strategy of having the most credible supporter, namely China, on its back ahead of summit talks with South Korea and the U.S. Should its summit with the U.S. collapse, North Korea could respond to the sanctions and pressure with close coordination with China and should the summit proceed smoothly, then it could discuss economic cooperation and large-scale assistance in earnest. China also ensured its influence on North Korea through the surprise warming of bilateral relations and laid the strategic foundation to take the initiative in the Korean Peninsula issues, dispelling the concerns of so-called ‘China passing’ – leaving China out in the discussions.


China fully established one-man rule under Xi Jinping through the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) last year and this year’s ‘national lianghui’ – National People’s Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. As the rubber-stamp parliament passed to remove term limits on the presidency, Xi Jinping became the supreme leader since Mao in the modern day China and he could even exceed Mao’s status depending on his will. Particularly, with the strengthened one-man leadership of Xi, China has proclaimed to extricate from the existing U.S.-led order and to establish a new Sinocentric order, elucidating a strategic vision to achieve a strong socialist power by 2050. That is, it officially confirmed the transition for a great power (daiguo) to a strong power (qiangguo) and manifests its ambitions and determination to establish a new Sinocentric order by 2050 through a more assertive foreign policy. In actualizing ‘Chinese dream (zhongguomeng)’ under Xi Jinping’s one-man leadership, China will secure its national interests in a bold manner and pursue a shift in regional order including the Korean Peninsula based on visions and goals of Chinese style. This is likely to intensify strategic competition and tensions vis-à-vis the U.S. over the issues surrounding the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, and the South China Sea. Already, both countries have engaged in a power struggle over matters of trade, Taiwan, and the South China Sea.


Since Xi consolidated one-man rule, Beijing has perceived the North Korean nuclear issue under the frame of U.S.-China competition with the likes of a trade dispute, the South China Sea, and the Taiwan issue. Hence, Washington and Beijing will possibly have a serious confrontation on the resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue. In this line of thought, Kim Jong-un’s trip and the rapid thaw in DPRK-China ties coincide with Xi Jinping’s mid-to-long term outward strategy toward the ‘Chinese dream’ after consolidating his power by the one-man rule. Among those present at the DPRK-China summit were Vice President Wang Qishan, the leading figure in handling the U.S., and Wang Huning, the chief strategist – unprecedented for both officials to attend the summit with North Korea. This implies that Beijing will approach the North Korean nuclear issue not as a mere regional issue, but as a part of the rivalry with the U.S. With regards to the most significant agenda, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, President Xi asserted that the Korean Peninsula has undergone notable changes this year and North Korea made significant efforts and China stands by these efforts and emphasized that China supports the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, and the peaceful resolution of the Korean Peninsula issues during the summit meeting that lasted three hours. Kim Jong-un elucidated, “[t]he issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace.” In the end, in agreeing to deepen close strategic bilateral communications in the DPRK-China summit, Beijing and Pyongyang are aligned to approach the North Korean nuclear issue progressively and in a quid pro quo manner. In the regular press conference after the summit, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang said “we stand ready to work with the DPRK and other parties to, in combination with China's dual-track approach and other parties' useful advice, strive for the denuclearization, peace and stability of the Peninsula and the long-term peace and stability of this region and the world at large.” He circuitously urged the relevant parties to implement a phased approach, a principle of ‘action-for-action,’ and the ‘dual-track’ approach.


This is in line with the clauses included in the September 19 Joint Communique – having North Korea’s measures of denuclearization compensated by economic concessions simultaneously as a phase-to-phase approach and a principle of action-for-action – and matches with China’s consistent assertion of dual-track approach – having parallel negotiations on denuclearization process on the Korean Peninsula and the peace accord between North Korea and the U.S. Therefore, if the U.S. underlines the ‘complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID)’ from the start, the summit might not even take place. The U.S. should inevitably alter its stance. However, the newly-appointed National Secretary Advisor John Bolton recently expressed that if North Korea has no intention to adhere to the ‘Libyan model’ of denuclearization (denuclearization first followed by compensations) and the U.S. should suspend negotiations on the North Korean nuclear problem and consider the use of the military option. This foreshadows a serious friction between the two sides. Accordingly, in every step toward resolving the North Korean nuclear issue in the future from freeze and verification to dismantlement, South Korea and the U.S. will likely to wrestle over corresponding measures – lifting sanctions, reducing/suspending ROK-U.S. joint military drills, providing economic assistance, etc.


As stated earlier, China and North Korea will pursue the resolution to the issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula emphasizing the dual-track approach based on a progressive approach and the ‘action-for-action’ principle. On the contrary, South Korea has a ‘Gordian knot’ style solution – an original solution to disentangle the complex problems at once – in mind and the U.S. intends to go straight to the CVID. Hence, it is necessary to coordinate the strategic balance between the U.S. on one side and North Korea and China on the other side. Moreover, both Beijing and Pyongyang articulated that it will resolve the issue through progressive steps and confidence-building with time and not the CVID-style solution. Consequently, the South Korean government, having presented the two-stage solution of beginning the negotiations with the nuclear freeze and ultimately ending with denuclearization, is required to devise a more delicate logical structure along with fastidious implementation strategy so as to seek a common ground with the relevant parties’ approaches. To this end, Seoul should earnestly consider pursuing ROK-DPRK-China trilateral talks or ROK-DPRK-U.S.-China quadrilateral talks, using the ‘China variable.’ Additionally, it should seek a mid-to-long term roadmap on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula taking account of possible DPRK-Japan and DPRK-Russia summits in the future.