Written by Staff Writer
World leaders met in South Korea last week, where the aim was to reduce tensions and ease tensions between two global superpowers: the US and China.
Despite last-minute hiccups in talks — which could see the latest proposed deal be scuppered — President Moon Jae-in was confident there would be a successful conclusion, declaring that “our efforts in the six years together have made us powerful. The axis of international conflict is converging.”
Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump hailed the trip as a “great success.” “North Korea may someday become a great economic and financial power,” he said in a statement. “This will happen. Part of that process is trading with China.”
Unsurprisingly, that may not have sat well with Chinese officials.
The aim of the meeting, designed to work towards building a joint effort to resolve a range of national and regional challenges, was for both sides to have serious deliberations, agreeing on a road map to solve disputes between them and the extent of economic cooperation.
In what is notable in itself, the US and North Korea did not sign any documents — instead, Trump and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Un, talked about starting the process of “a much more substantial peace process” to end the Korean War
CNN has learned the South Korean president’s office decided to brief its US counterpart on this detailed discussion.
Lessons from Hong Kong
But what may be even more significant is the timing.
The talks, scheduled for five days and climaxing with an extraordinary joint press conference by Moon and Trump, have been closely watched on the mainland. The issue of international denuclearization also features prominently on China’s top foreign policy priority list: Trump has vowed to press China to rein in North Korea more aggressively, threatening trade sanctions.
It’s not clear if the two sides will be able to reach a formal agreement, but Beijing seems to be hoping this one-off summit between a US president and North Korean leader will be a step in the right direction.
This isn’t to say that China’s patience is running out entirely.
Although there have been multiple mass defections from North Korea in recent years, and the very small number of defectors leaving isn’t what it used to be, China has not backtracked on its policy to repatriate North Koreans who reach its shores. The closest they came was in 2017, when the country executed high-profile defector Park Sang Hak.
According to a report from Seoul’s Jeung Eun-young, via the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, a new policy has been drawn up which would backtrack on North Korea’s repatriation of refugees to the North, and focus on a separate policy to repatriate any North Koreans seeking refuge in South Korea.
It is unclear at the moment, whether China’s moves are purely political — to discourage the Kim regime from achieving nuclear dominance — or whether China thinks the regime is looking for a deal and wants a quiet second term in office for Kim Jong Un.
“It would be a double blow to China if the North achieved nuclear mastery with the help of the US, and then it was revealed that Kim Jong Un had gone back on his promise to move away from nuclear weapons,” said Kevin Lam, an analyst at the European Leadership Network.
China likely feels it has no choice but to continue the policy of military repression against its own protesters. The one thing we do know is that in this case it is working to shape the outcome of a negotiation that is not even complete.
Both the US and China may have reasons to negotiate with Kim. Beijing may be betting it can keep the North Korean regime locked in place. But such an outcome is far from certain and more than anything else, the China’s influence over Kim is bound to hinge on how the negotiations develop.
The world from Hong Kong
Chapman has been a CNN iReporter since 2014. His latest posts on live US-China trade policy, and the Hong Kong protests can be found here