By Jeongseok Lee

Amid the surprising diplomatic breakthrough on the Korean Peninsula, there have been dramatic changes in China’s relations with North and South Korea.

Around this time last year, China was imposing economic sanctions against both Koreas. Pressured and alarmed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat to unleash "fire and fury," China has taken tougher economic measures against North Korea despite Pyongyang’s blatant criticism that Beijing was "crossing the red line."

China’s relations with South Korea also hit a low point in 2017 due to the feud over Seoul’s decision to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system and China’s subsequent economic retaliation. Even after agreeing to reconcile with Seoul in October 2017, China kept pressuring South Korea for an explicit pledge to restrain the operation of THAAD’s long-range radar system.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched from the Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska during Flight Experiment THAAD (FET)-01 in Kodiak, Alaska, US, on July 30, 2017.

Yet since North and South Korea agreed to hold a summit and President Trump accepted Pyongyang’s proposal for direct talks in March 2018, China has rushed to improve its relations with the two Koreas. Chinese President Xi Jinping held a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for the first time since Kim came to power in 2011. In the meeting, Xi urged that the two countries’ friendship "should not and will not change."

China also tried to mend its ties with South Korea. Right after Kim left China, Beijing dispatched State Councillor Yang Jiechi to Seoul as a special envoy to share what had been discussed between Xi and Kim. In his meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Yang publicly praised Seoul’s diplomatic achievement and promised to lift all the remaining informal sanctions against South Korean companies.

These efforts well demonstrate China’s anxiety about being sidelined. Although Beijing has long encouraged inter-Korean talks and urged the necessity of direct negotiation between Washington and Pyongyang, now China is worried that it might be marginalized in the process. If Trump and Kim manage to hold a summit and reach a deal on denuclearization, there will be talks on a peace regime that will replace the 1953 Korean War Armistice Agreement.

China’s basic position is that it should be involved in such discussions as one of the original signatories of the armistice agreement. It does not want to be excluded from any talks that might discuss critical issues such as the establishment of the Korean peace regime and potential withdrawal or reduction of U.S. military assets (including THAAD) and forces in South Korea.

China’s reaction to the inter-Korean summit so far seems to suggest that it has decided to deal with this issue in a cautious way, instead of stirring the pot. Chinese leaders may have watched the summit with mixed feelings, but Beijing’s official response to the meeting was largely positive.

To China’s relief, not long after the inter-Korean summit, both Seoul and Pyongyang have signaled that they are taking Beijing seriously.

Some Chinese commentators raised serious concerns about the potential exclusion of China when the inter-Korean Panmunjom Declaration stated that "trilateral meetings involving the two Koreas and the United States, or quadrilateral meetings involving the two Koreas, the United States and China" will be pursued to establish a peace regime. But China’s Foreign Ministry avoided mentioning the issue, while applauding the "positive outcomes" produced by the inter-Korean agreement.

To China’s relief, not long after the inter-Korean summit, both Seoul and Pyongyang have signaled that they are taking Beijing seriously. In a phone conversation between Moon and Xi on May 4, China succeeded in securing Seoul’s pledge of close coordination with Beijing in bringing a formal end to the Korean War. Kim also pleased Xi by paying another surprising visit to China on May 7.

What policymakers need to pay attention to from now on is how North Korea will exploit China’s exclusion anxiety. Although Pyongyang is mending its ties with Beijing, it has not yet clarified its positions on China’s specific role in the peace process and the future of the U.S. forces in South Korea, the two most important issues Beijing wants to address.

It is possible that Kim is maintaining his strategic ambiguity to use China’s exclusion anxiety as his leverage over Beijing. Kim already used his two summits with Xi to confirm and demonstrate China’s support for a phased approach to denuclearization, which the United States dislikes.

In addition, he may attempt to exploit Beijing’s anxiety to ease the Chinese sanctions, which are a critical component of the U.S. "maximum pressure and engagement" strategy in the process of negotiating and implementing denuclearization and peace mechanisms. Kim fully understands that he is in the driver’s seat now.

Jeongseok Lee is a PhD candidate in Public Affairs at Princeton University and a student affiliate of the Princeton–Harvard China and the World Program. He is currently a visiting research associate at the Reischauer Center for East Asia Studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

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